Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman‘s film Howl (2010), based on the well-known poem of the same name, remains boisterously alive, unconstrained by form, true in its rhythm, and is a moving translation of a piece of great literature into cinematic terms.
Less of an evocation and more of a translation, the film remains loyal to the poem it depicts. Through three narratives: a courtroom drama, a basement salon reading, and reenactment of personal interviews, “Howl” the film attempts to portray the multifaceted impact and reception of the poem in its time. This isn’t a documentary, and there is no attempt to explore the lasting impact of “Howl” in silver-haired retrospectives since its publication, of which there must be plenty. Instead, the film focuses on the there and then and now – the way “Howl” escaped from a young artist’s soul almost uncontrollably and spilled onto the social landscape of 1950s America; the way it did away with euphemisms and with fearless vocabulary saw, and shown, the lives of those who lived in silence and shame; the way it unapologetically, nakedly, cried of sexual desire, feelings, and human longings. The way it refused to forsake all those unfortunates and fortunates. The way it announced their existence.
In a way reading “Howl” must be an intensely personal experience. I know it was for me. The words dance across the page jaggedly, sentences descend into lines at whim and images form fold and copulate at will. I held my breath as I took it in. By the end I was breathless.
“Howl” pulled out all that was jagged in me and made my eyes sting. This is the stuff that you can’t make up. This is the stuff that forces you to feel.
How do you convey a piece of literature already so forcefully visual into a visual medium? The task seems Herculean, and it is not until one watches the film that one realizes the impossible bar it was asked to overcome.
And with valor, Epstein/Friedman touched it.
The soul of the film is the poem, and directors Epstein and Friedman wisely chose to wove the cinematic fabric around the poetry. The film begins in a basement salon, beautifully lighted in black and white. The first words we hear are those spoken by Allen Ginsberg, who in horned black-rimmed glasses, exudes an endearing fragility and charm. He starts to read , and the words roll out relentlessly:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…..
And he takes a breath, and forges on:
Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, who…
The film cuts to a courtroom, yet the words roll on. “Howl”s greatest appeal lies in its relentless savage. Ginsberg said that he wrote the poem by breath, that he has a long breath, and the words drip out as much as his breath will allow. Reading it, you feel it. The syllables tap into something instinctual and raw, and even if I never sat hollow-eyed and high up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, I damn want to.
James Franco is superb in Ginsberg’s skin, especially in the one-on-one interviews, in which he explains with reflection and semi-amusement the origin of “Howl,” the meaning of poetry, and his encounters with both. It is a natural performance that is free of traces of awkwardness and drama. They say an artist is marked not by what is seen, but unseen. Here, it wasn’t so much the handsome scruffiness or hipster mannerism that grabbed me, though they were there. It was that pause in his eye before the reveal; the hint of smile before he tells of love lost. Franco carries the air of Ginsberg with the ease of that checkered shirt, worn with nightly melancholy, soaked through with the helpless need to feel, to communicate….the air of a creative soul. That air doesn’t need to be faked. It is in Franco too – a literature major and lover of poetry. Indeed, it is hard to imagine who else could have worn Ginsberg as convincingly.
And then there are the great supporting performances of Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Daniels, who reenacted word for word a trial of obscenity that is revelatory of the social tides of its time. Hamm and Strathairn are well paired as opposing counsel, each passionately asserting his position because he believes in it. Balaban, as the conservative judge presiding over the trial, speaks little but conveys with weight the mighty consequence pending at his pen. Daniels is captivating as a ludicrious English professor who explains with gall “Howl”s lack of literature merit from an objective point of view. The trial is filled with expert witness testimonies from both sides which, though laughable in retrospectives, take on a deeper meaning when one realizes that the words spoken are verbatim from original trial transcripts. The film never attempts to villanize either side, and instead allows the words to speak for themselves, which they do, in multitudes.
The only blemish in this otherwise thoroughly touching depiction is the animation sequences that accompany the read-aloud narration of the poem by Franco. These animations are fluid, graphic, and utterly…literal. As well-intentioned as they are — and it does feel sincere — they lack the savage emotional tonality and surreal imagery that “Howl” the poem thrusts upon its reader. Perhaps such rawness can only be evoked in the depth of our soul and are best left to the void of our imagination. The court room drama and personal interviews and salon readings do just that – they spotlight from angles the words at hand and allow the interpretation to lie with those who receive them. Animation of poetry is risky business in itself. Animation of the poetry of “Howl,” literally, is painful.
But though I squirmed in my seat through parts of the animation, I forgave it. I closed my eyes and let Franco’s voice and Ginsberg’s words wash over me, and I was taken. From one soul to another, one howl to another, there was nothing left to say.
“You can’t translate poetry into prose,” Mark Schorer (Treat Williams) said when asked to explain the meaning of “Howl” at its trial, “that’s why it is poetry.” And so I willingly fail in such a quest here, except to say that “Howl” the poem and “Howl” the movie succeed with one thing in common: they both fearlessly, in honest breaths, announce the presence of all those who are howling to be heard.