Howl: the film

I saw the Howl film last Wednesday (written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, with James Franco as Ginsberg). It wasn’t what I was expecting, but in quite a good way. I thought it would be a straightforward biopic of young Ginsberg and his fellow Beats against the background of the Howl obscenity trial. Instead it was a film about the poem itself: everything else was secondary to it, even Ginsberg.

I even knew that there would be a complete recital of the poem in the film, but assumed that it would be just Ginsberg standing in front of a crowd. Instead, as well as some scenes of Ginsberg’s first reading at the Six Gallery in 1955, there was an animated Howl going on in spurts, interspersed with scenes from the trial (based on transcriptions), scenes from Ginsberg’s life, and Ginsberg being interviewed about the poem – also based on real-life material. I think the very close focus on the poem might be a bit off-putting for some who would rather have a wide-angle view on the Beats, but once I got used to it I liked it. I’ve never seen a film that’s just about a poem before. One reviewer thought that the atmosphere of the film wasn’t crazy, wild, Beat-ish enough: that it tamed the reality for the filmgoing audience. I think it’s more that the film is not actually trying to capture the crazy revolutionary spirit of the Beats: it’s trying to examine, in quite a sober, thorough way, the importance of one particular poem that came about within this movement.

Franco does well. He really captures Ginsberg’s intelligence, and his kindness, his need for love. In the Guardian review of Howl you are reminded that Ginsberg introduced himself to Carl Solomon as Prince Myshkin (from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) and it’s particularly apt: both are people whose kind and loving natures make them seem more naive than they actually are.

The actual reading of Howl is all right, although Franco’s vowel sounds go a bit weird at times: he sounds almost Dutch in places, and not really angry enough. Is he always being Ginsberg-reading-Howl rather than Franco-reading-Howl? It seems like he’s attempting the former, and overcomplicating matters for himself as a result. The animation that accompanies the reading verges on the crudely-CGI in places, but the “Moloch” parts are fantastic, and some of “Rockland” is very moving.

Last summer there was an exhibition of Harold Chapman photos in Chelsea, which was very interesting; I wanted to buy quite a lot of the prints. Many of the iconic images are revisited in the film, as here, with Ginsberg and Orlovsky: it’s fun trying to spot them.

In other words, Howl repays viewing by Beat nerds, especially as a lot of biographical stuff is left unsaid: if you don’t know about it already, you won’t learn that much about the other Beats from this film. But it’s well worth seeing anyway, if only for the novelty of watching a film about a poem: it’s not often that you get something so closely focused. They manage to capture the extraordinary power and excitement of Howl, and the humble, intelligent kindness of the man behind it.

By the way, if you want to, you can read Howl online. But you should really buy the lovely facsimile edition from City Lights.

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