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Howl: Absorbing Poetry Through Film

The Dresser finds Howl, a film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, a deliciously odd tribute to Allen Ginsberg, poetry, and freedom of speech as outlined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. James Franco sensitively plays the 29-year-old Ginsberg who delivers the long poem Howl at Six Gallery on October 7, 1955. The film cuts between Franko as Ginsberg reading the poem with animated imagery suggested by the poem, a quasi-documentary interview of Franko-cum-Ginsberg and the reenacted obscenity trial against Ginsberg's publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.


What the 90-minute art film does well is give time to absorb the dense lines of poetry that are packed heavily with Ginsberg's personal life and the people in it, the socio-political artifacts and ideas of the post-World War II 1950s, and the jazz rhythms of his poetic format that was influenced by Walt Whitman. Interestingly, the presentation of the poetic lines is not linear. Stanzas skipped in one scene might be spoken later. The Dresser couldn't say what the filmmakers' logic for this was, but it certainly did not interfere with the integrity of the poem.


While the filmmakers use actual words spoken at the obscenity trial in which the State of California brought suit against Howl's publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the discussion is not dramatic but engrossingly strange. howl04CourtroomSM.jpgOn the one hand, the prosecuting attorney Ralph McIntosh (played by David Strathairn) and the defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (played by Jon Hamm) question the so-called literary experts who discuss the faults and merits of Ginsberg's poem in the absence of the offending author. The discussion comes off like a classroom exercise with a super imposed courtroom. To the Dresser's mind this is not a drawback because the literary discussion is absurdly funny. Also it should be noted that the real Ralph McIntosh was known for the many obscenity cases he prosecuted (including a case against the Howard Hughes film The Outlaw for scenes of Jane Russell who revealed too much cleavage) and the real Jake Ehrlich with his clientele of celebrity clients (Billy Holiday, Errol Flynn, Howard Hughes, etc.) became a model for the TV lawyer Perry Mason.

What kicks the courtroom scene into another plane of weirdness is the Rorschach effect of the actors cast in the various roles. howl12PotterSM.jpgFor example, Mary-Louise Parker, best known these days for her starring role as the outrageous mom and dope-dealer Nancy Botwin in the Showtime cable network series Weeds, plays Gail Potter, the frumpy radio personality English teacher, who was one of the prosecution's main witnesses against Howl. Potter testifies that her expert credentials include that she took three years to rewrite Faust. Need the Dresser mentioned that David Strathairn-cum-Howl's prosecuting attorney is best known for his portrayal of newscaster Edward R. Murrow in the film Good Night, and Good Luck? This film pits Murrow against the anti-communist U. S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953. And for good measure Jeff Daniels who plays David Kirk, English professor at the University of San Diego who pans Howl as a poem written in the long dead tradition of Dadaism, also appears in Good Night, and Good Luck as the television news pioneer Sig Mickelson who warns Murrow against a controversial story brought on by McCarthy's tactics that will upset CBS advertisers. Bob Balaban as Judge Clayton Horn has appeared in over fifty movies including such films as Midnight Cowboy, Catch 22, Close Encounters of a Third Kind, Altered States, and Capote.

howlo3AGReadsSMFlip.jpgWhile the Dresser thinks she would not have noticed the star power cast in Howl had the courtroom scene been more dramatically tight, she also believes that Allen Ginsberg would have reveled in this dual viewing of the people cast for this film--a kind of "eyeball kick" (where two opposites join to jolt to the eye) to put it in Ginsberg's own phraseology--including James Franko-cum-Ginsberg--Franko who had a prominent role in Milk (the film about the assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to office in California) and played James Dean in James Rydell's TV film about America's favorite rebel. howl01AGTypewriterSM.jpgAs the Dresser has reported, Ginsberg enjoyed photographing people and Ginsberg true to that side of himself is seen in Howl with his camera pressed up to his eye. Actual photographs of Allen Ginsberg, his family and friends are seen in the film.



Visual poetic leaps also populate Howl. The movie opens with a sober black and white scene of Franko-cum-Ginsberg reading the opening lines of Howl.

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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
..........connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
..........ery 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,

At the word "jazz," a jazz riff plays and the credits roll, along with a variety of windows with symbolic imagery that open and close in a dance across the screen. The first animation of Eric Drooker enters the movie as Ginsberg types the opening lines of the poem. As the viewer watches the manual typewriter strike various letters of the words, suddenly the letters transform to musical notes and the scene moves laconically to a cartoon figure playing a horn and then tall buildings cast in amber light appear while the faint tapping of the typewriter is heard as well as a much louder wailing of emergency vehicles. When an emaciated figure crawling on the street is uplifted skyward, Ginsberg's reading of Howl resumes.

Ginsberg COSMEP1980SM.jpg

The film closes with the real Allen Ginsberg singing "Father Death" and playing his harmonium, something the Dresser saw and heard Ginsberg play in 1980 when he and she were participants of a small press conference.
Ginsberg HarmoniumSM.jpg
In 2003, the Estate of Allen Ginsberg asked the team of Epstein and Freidman to make a film to commemorate Ginsberg and his work. Take the time to see Howl, the film is quite a trip.

Photos from Howl: Copyright © Oscilloscope Laboratories. All Rights Reserved.
Photo of older Allen Ginsberg and his harmonium by Karren Alenier


Comments (3)

Patti Absher:

Howl is on my short list, thanks to Karren's fascinating review!

Merrill Leffler:

A first-rate critical "piece." Why first-rate? Because you've given a strong characterization of the film and its shape (including the non-linear reading of "Howl"), a solid description of the actors and their roles, let alone the quality of the acting, and more. You make a case for including previous roles that David Straithorn, Jeff Bridges, et al. have had, e.g., in Goodbye and Goodluck. So thanks -- you've given a sharp perspective and made me want to see it.

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