James Franco may have been a large part of the draw for students attending a special screening of “Howl,” directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s take on beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s revolutionary poem. But the Whitney Humanities Center screening Wednesday evening left the audience with much more.
English professors Amy Hungerford, Michael Warner and Langdon Hammer opened the event with their wise words, providing an intriguing framework for the rest of the night.
“Ginsberg is performing the role of preacher, or possibly professor, of literature,” Hammer said. “There is a complicated loop between poetry and performance and teaching both inside and outside the academy.”
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Warner, a Walt Whitman scholar, reflected on Ginsberg’s relation to the 19th-century poet, who introduced blank verse to American poetry. Warner, who once sat on the same panel as Ginsberg, said Ginsberg “saw all American literature in some very deep sense as queer.”
“Howl” explores many questions that all readers and writers have: What makes literature literature? How do you know if you have created something new? Isn’t everything that is written based on something that has been read or written before?
Hungerford, who has been teaching about the Beat Generation for several years, explored this idea further by reading aloud letters between novelist Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg.
But why all the fuss over a poem? Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” personified an entire generation.
People “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcycles, and screamed with joy.”
People “who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love.”
People “who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts.”
The movie itself is mixed media, a pastiche of black-and-white home video renditions of Ginsberg’s early life stitched together with color footage of an interview with Ginsberg after the publication of “Howl.” During these latter segments, the audience becomes the interviewer because the interviewer himself is never shown. These scenes are set against the background of a court case attempting to asses the literay value of the controversial poem.
Though the movie does not use any actual footage from Ginsberg’s life, the combination of genres — home video, court drama, interview, poetry reading and animation — makes the film seem like a biopic with a split personality. For example, a scene that begins as a home video, with Franco sitting down to type “Howl,” transitions into colorful animation, taking the audience on a ride through the night sky of the dark city, along train rides, following people as they jump off buildings, and passing by saxophone players as they belt out throbbing jazz.
Another portion of the film takes place in the courtroom, where lawyers and witnesses battle over whether the poem is obscene, inappropriate or even literature at all. This is also where we meet some of the most memorable figures of the movie — the literary critics, professors and lawyers.
“The way it’s structured is incredibly important,” Franco said in a question-and-answer session following the screening. “All of those things allow us to get into the poem in a certain way.”
The film begins with the young Ginsberg (James Franco) looking uncomfortable, unsure of himself. He is a 29-year-old unpublished poet about to read a poem in four parts, as the white text on the screen before the scene opens explains. Franco reads “Howl” with a deep rhythm that moves you, and lingers on unexpected words. The setting changes after only a short time to New York City in 1957, where a bearded Ginsberg looks out at the audience-as-interviewer.
“I assumed I could write anything I wanted to because it wouldn’t be published,” Ginsberg says.
The film’s sections of interview allow the audience to understand how Ginsberg wrote — how he valued the unexpected by choosing “screamed with joy” instead of “screamed with pain.” Or how words jumped out at him because of the way they sounded. Good poetry for him was the “ability to commit to writing the same way that you are.”
It’s about being real.
The film’s directors captured Ginsberg’s sentiments by staying true to his life.
“Everything that was said in the movie is based on real transcripts. I read the court trials and I was like, ‘That’s our script!’” Franco said. “The interviews I’m giving are all the interviews he gave.”
But the perspective of those surrounding Ginsberg is conspicuously missing. Surprisingly, we don’t hear from Ginsberg’s so called muses: his parents, lovers and friends.
If the movie is a compilation of interviews and court transcripts, failing to capture the verbal exchanges Ginsberg had with those closest to him — for example, in scenes with Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit), Ginsberg’s lover never speaks — leaves a large vacuum that the movie fails to fill.
When we do gain insight into the poet’s relationships, they are some of the most powerful moments of the movie. When Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott) breaks Ginsberg’s heart, or when he is committed to a psychiatric institution, the movie doesn’t pause for us to commiserate. Ginsberg, normally so expressive, sounds flat and inhibited.
But maybe the movie isn’t supposed to capture every facet of Ginsberg’s life.
“It’s not a documentary. It’s a piece of art,” Franco said.
The filmmakers had been approached to make a documentary but soon realized that the best way to portray the artist would not be through a traditional route.
“How can we get young Ginsberg here? How can we make it feel more immediate?” Franco said.
The movie does succeed in creating a sense of immediacy. Franco/Ginsberg’s hipster glasses — and the word hipster in the poem itself — are reminders that words had different connotations in a post-World War II America.
“‘Howl’ and [Kerouac’s] ‘On the Road’ give very clear and strong models of how one’s life can be turned into pieces of literature,” Franco said.
“Howl,” if anything, reminds us of the joy of creating.