Friday, 25 March 2011



























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.


If Jane said...

oh...i am super curious to see this film. (loved the beats like mad when i was in highschool...;))

Molly said...

First of all, my jaw was on the floor while looking at those movie stills. Howl looks beyond incredible, a true visual feast. I can't believe I've never heard of it before! I'm looking forward to watching it!

Second of all, I second the need for a modern-day Howl. I would love to see what our generation is capable of.

P R I M O E Z A said...

oh, this is so interesting hila. i will definitely see it now. and also, received your book - i LOVE it!

Niina said...

you got me intrigued! thanks, otherwise I might have not heard about this one.

fabriken said...

i really liked this movie too. and james franco is great, as always.

tschitschi said...

this film is on my watch-list too, after reading your comments I look forward to seeing it even more!

Caitlin Rose said...

I don't know Hila, you may have already created the next "Howl" in this review ; )

Emily Vanessa said...

Yes, it's so true, I wish someone could write a poem for our generation, the isolation, the huge companies taking over and the need for connections. I saw a trailer for this in February and have been dying to see it ever since so hope it comes to Berlin soon. Such an excellent review, I think you should have your own column in a newspaper.

aldrin said...

I read “Howl” for the first time in my freshman year, which seems like a long time ago now. I remember I kept picturing the inside of a watch. Does that make sense?

naomemandeflores said...

Where are the good writers this days? Do they really exist? If so, why don't we hear more about them? Really sad...

I have to see this movie, I'm so intrigued. Thanks hila, for the amazig tip!

Camila F.

skeletaldreams said...

This movie looks incredibly interesting. I'm definitely going to watch it. Love your film reviews so much!

s a m said...

I saw Howl when it premiered here at Portland LGTB film festival. I love going to the movies, but it was a whole different experience being with people that were so engaged. I love that collective feeling.

The Beatles song "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (oh, steamy!) hadn't even come out yet when Howl was published.

I find myself wishing for a Howl from our generation too - something contemporary yet progressive. A piece we can hold up and say "this is where we were, and hoped to go"

andrea said...

I haven't read the post in case it gave anything away, but can we just stop everything for a moment and marvel at how hot he is? yes? ok then

Tracey said...

I haven't seen 'Howl' yet, but it sounds like a most incredible film.

I completely agree with you about wishing for a modern day equivalent of 'Howl'. There is so much 'stupidity' (for want of a better word), that is given far too much attention in our world, at the expense of what is real and what is important.

Sometimes I worry about the state of the world, where we are heading, and what it all means. We are in most desperate need of a modern 'Howl' to wake the rest of the world up.

ispystyle said...

I haven't seen this, but after looking at these photos I simply must! The art direction looks incredible!

tywo said...

Never heard of this. Thanks for sharing. It is very interesting.


Tana said...

Hm,difficult to imagine how to make a film about a poem,but that sounds intriguing quand meme!
that is very interesting Hila,thank you for review :)

Siubhan said...

I've never read such an inspiring review of a film, I don't think. There are so many reasons why a modern 'Howl' could be written for this generation, it's just curious that nothing has stood out.

I'd forgotten about this film, actually, although I wanted to watch it when it first appeared - I'll try and seek it out I think. The stills you posted - the mix of live action & animation - reminded me a little of the film 'Gainsbourg' which is quite interesting, given the name.

hila said...

if jane: me too! and I still do :)

molly: yep, the film is visually stunning. Our generation has produced a lot of questionable things. I'm not saying there isn't plenty of good stuff too, but I often feel like the crap gets all the attention.

primoeza: yay! so glad you love the book :)

niina: glad I brought it to your attention then :)

fabriken: yes, he's pretty much good at anything he does though - I'm convinced he's one of those people put on this earth to make the rest of us look bad.

tschitschi: you'll love it!

catlin rose: ha, if only that was true, and if only I was good enough! Thanks for saying so though :)

emily vanessa: yes, and I would add the bizarre need to be famous for doing absolutely nothing. My own column in a newspaper huh? Somehow I don't think that will ever happen, I can probably only dream about it :)

aldrin: it does in a way, there's a type of frantic energy to the poem which reminds me of a ticking clock. Although the poem seems more chaotic to me.

Camila: my pleasure! I'm sure there are many fantastic writers out there, it's just that the world seems to be consumed with consuming banality.

skeletaldreams: thanks for saying so!

sam: yes, I keep waiting for something like that to be written too. I only seem to catch it in smaller glimpses.

andrea: ha, yes, we can stop and reflect on this - all day if we have to.

tracey: I couldn't agree more! I'm not generally pessimistic about things though, there's too much to keep us engaged for that.

ispystyle: the film is really like a piece of art - I wonder how much work went into those illustration sequences.

tywo: my pleasure!

tana: yes, it does seem like a difficult concept to film.

siubhan: oh thank you. I agree, nothing has really stood out for me either. I still haven't seen the film 'gainsbourg', I should watch it soon.