Time to "Howl"!
Monday, October 25, 2010
There are many layers here. There’s “Howl” the poem at the heart of it all. And there’s “Howl” the event that made a generation of critics, readers, and self-annointed keepers of public morality howl with varying degrees of delight and outrage. And there was “Howl” the court case, which ruled on the question of whether or not publication of the poem should be prohibited on the grounds of obscenity. Finally, there was the poet, Allen Ginsberg, himself, whose howl of protest became one of the 20th century’s touchstones.
The movie manages to incorporate each of these. It cuts from James Franco as the young Ginsberg reading his poem to Ginsberg a few years later giving an interview to a courtroom in which the obscenity trial is taking place. In doing so, the film gives a sense of the immediate reaction to the poem and the context of its appearance in 1950s America.
The movie does one other thing, which I found extraordinary. It actually makes parts of the poem visible through illustrations that are as imaginative and captivating as they are uneven. They’re far from perfect, but they are an engaging attempt to add an additional dimension to the words. Do the words need an additional dimension? Most definitely not. But how likely would it be to have a film about a poem that relied on the spoken word alone? Actually, how likely would it be to have a film about a poem at all?
That’s what I found most exhilarating about “Howl” the movie. It actually starred “Howl” the poem. It has a lot going on, to be sure, but it gets out of the way of the words enough so you can tell what all the fuss continues to be about. “Howl” the poem is astounding.