Sunday, February 13, 2011

Howl: Alan Ginsberg's Poety Brought to Life

Unlike that big Hollywood sissy film called The Mechanic - which has played to wide audiences as a seeming action thriller - another movie about gay men that came out recently has gone largely unnoticed. I'm talking about Howl, a semi-animated, mostly autobiographical re-enactment of the Alan Ginsberg poem, starring the ever more incredible James Franco as Ginsberg.

We'll be seeing a lot of Franco at the upcoming academy awards, and his nomination for 127 Hours. And maybe his 127 Hours nomination is not just for that film alone, but also for his remarkable performance in this film, a much less Hollywood friendly fantasia about a gay poet. Franco practically disappears in his performance as a young Jewish poet coming out in 1950's New York, getting the gestures, intonations and mannerisms of a young Ginsberg so down pat that we feel like we're actually a part of the Fifties beat scene, watching an entire movement coming into being based merely on the lusts, dreams, and desires of a few rootless young men.

Howl sets up as his dramatic focus the trial of Lawrence Ferlenghetti - the publisher of Ginsberg's poem who was put on trial for obscenity in 1957. The movie gives us all the elements of a standard courtroom potboiler, with "Mad Men"'s John Hamm playing the defense attorney and stalwart character actor David Straithairn playing the prosecution (unfortunately, Straithairn is such a big liberal that his bad-guy prosecutor comes off as more confused and befuddled by the text than genuinely offended).

All that courtroom stuff is merely expository. What the movie really wants to do is re-create Ginsberg, which Franco does perfectly, while giving Ginsberg's life story: his infatuation with Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, his own process of coming out and coming to terms with Fifties conformity and youthful rebellion. It uses this autobiographical background as punctuation for Franco's narration of the poem, accompanied by animation inspired by the poems imagery, such as that fabled "Moloch":

Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the 
              loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy 
              judger of men! ...
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! 
              Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long 
              streets like endless Jehovahs!

The animated Moloch is what we might expect (it's based on work by illustrator Eric Drooker), but adds powerful visual imagery to the language recited and re-created by Franco. The movie also proceeds to tell us not only how lines like "a thousand blind windows" were inspired, but autobiographical background of Ginsberg's time in a mental facility, which inspired lines such as

Carl Solomon! I'm with you in Rockland 
     where you're madder than I am ...
I'm with you in Rockland 
     where you accuse your doctors of insanity and 
     plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the 
     fascist national Golgotha 

So what we really have here is an excuse to interpret what is, perhaps, the most popular American poem. Even in our less-literate generation, few people haven't heard the opening lines,

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by 
              madness, starving hysterical naked, 

For those who want to get beyond those few stanzas and get a full understanding of this cultural touchstone, Howl provides not only the historical and biographical background, but a unique imagining of how film can interact with literature.

1 comment:

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