Is it possible to make a film about a poem? After viewing Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010), my answer is a definitive yes. The film is based on Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Howl, and the subsequent 1957 “obscenity” trial that resulted from the poem’s initial publication in 1956. Laced in between the realistic portrayal of the trial and re-enacted interviews with Ginsberg played by James Franco, the film pays homage to Ginsberg’s unsettling, angry, funny and mournful poem through haunting animation sequences inspired by Illuminated Poems by Ginsberg and Eric Drooker. The result is a film that is both serenely aware of realism and unproblematically despairing of it.
Howl plays out like an exercise in analysing literature. One of the biggest questions I’ve encountered in the past few years is where a poem or a novel’s “meaning” resides. Is it in the author, in the reader, in the historical context, or somewhere in between all those things? I’ve always thought that you can find any meaning you want in a piece of literature or art, but that it’s also best to come to such a meaning from an informed position. Howl provides such a position for its audience: we view Ginsberg’s personal biography, political and historical context and how subsequent readers have interpreted his work. The film is like a careful collage of thoughtful analysis and you walk away from it feeling like you have gained a new level of understanding.
That was my purely intellectual response to the film. My more immediate response had little to do with how the poem can be analysed, and more to do with the sense of holy humanity at the heart of the film. “Holy” is a word that is repeated often in Ginsberg’s Howl and in the film. It’s a type of savage cry. What this savage cry symbolises has been the subject of ongoing critical debate. I would say for me, it’s primarily a howl for empathy, for an awareness of the perfect chaos of the machinery of human life and a need to accept this chaos. In the final scenes of Howl, when Ginsberg describes an aspect of his poem as a desire to make homosexuality more acceptable, something clicked in my head. I realised that the “obscenity” trial we view taking place in the 1950s is also a comment on the present; that perhaps we need something obscenely holy to be howled right now.
Don’t you wish someone would write something like Howl for this generation? This is not some naive or romantic idea I’m suggesting here, it’s a desire for something suitably angry, mournful, funny and “obscene” to comment upon those aspects of our present world that are often ignored behind a barrage of banal and inane pointlessness. Every time I see another stupid video clip with lyrics that comprise of about five words (usually, “baby”,) and a bunch of half-naked women paraded like expensive toys, it’s not just the feminist in me that goes, ugh, but also the human being who asks: really, is that all we have to say? I know there are little glimpses of insightful brilliance, it’s definitely not all crap. But still, I can’t help wishing for a modern Howl: something all-encompassing, passionately angry, unflinchingly uncompromising and relevant enough to be remembered generations later.
P.S. The hardcover version of The Elements of In-Between is now available here. Thanks again to everyone who has bought a copy so far, Amy and I really appreciate it. There’s still time to redeem the 20% discount code from Lulu – the code is 'SPRINGREAD' (case sensitive, all capital letters) and it ends on the 31st of March, 2011.