How Do You Film a Poem?

by Jesse Hicks

5 November 2010

Each element of Howl captures an aspect of Allen Ginsberg’s landmark 1956 poem, producing a filmic refraction that sometimes matches the poem’s explosive intensity, but quite often seems inert.
cover art


Cast: James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels

(Sony Classics)
US theatrical: 24 Sep 2010 (Limited release)

Fitting its subject, Howl is a shaggy collage of a movie, an admixture of poetry reading, animated interpretation, courtroom drama and reenacted interview. Each captures an aspect of Allen Ginsberg’s landmark 1956 poem, producing a filmic refraction that sometimes matches the poem’s explosive intensity, but quite often seems inert, more like stained glass than kaleidoscope. Despite its subject matter and its own structural experimentation, Howl is surprisingly restrained.

Howl begins as a voice, as the poem began as a performance piece for Ginsberg. James Franco’s Ginsberg stands at the front of a San Francisco coffee shop in 1955, black and white, clean shaven, in a white button down shirt. All eyes are on him as he begins to read. The now familiar lines, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” still have generative power, and the film quickly cuts away from him, fractured from the beginning. When Ginsberg returns after the credits, he appears in color, though in a muted green palette. He’s gesticulating, a cigarette in his hand, talking about “Howl” as an accomplishment now past. Things have changed.

Franco fully inhabits these scenes, portraying Ginsberg as a careful and also organic sort of thinker. He speaks with casual eloquence, open to following the movement of his mind as he talks. “I realized that if I actually admitted the secret tenderness of my soul in my writing,” he says, without any apparent artifice, his listener “would understand nakedly who I was.” Franco delivers the absolute sincerity and honesty Ginsberg idealized in his work. As the central performance (essentially a monologue), he makes the movie.

“What happens when you make a distinction between what you tell your friends and what you tell your muse?” he asks. “And what happens when you break down that distinction?” When he broke it down, the result was obscenity charges against his publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers). That question of obscenity is long settled, and the courtroom scenes add little drama despite the presence of Jon Hamm and David Strathairn as defense and prosecution attorneys. (Hamm performs an eloquent from-the-record closing, though in character very close to his Don Draper persona.)

The courtroom scenes soon become tight-laced farce. The dueling lawyers call their respective experts, literary scholars forced to answer questions like, “What are ‘angelheaded hipsters’?” Says Gail Potter (Mary-Louise Parker), “Every great piece of literature has a moral greatness.” Professor David Kirk (Jeff Daniels) offers “three bases of objective criticism: form, theme, and opportunity.” These criteria quickly reveal themselves as self-serving, though the film offers little historical context explaining why “experts” might have held them in the first place. That makes it harder to recognize the “Howl” trial’s importance as a First Amendment victory.

One defense witness, Mark Schorer (Treat Williams), says, “You can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it is poetry.” One could say the same of translating poetry into film. Transmuting evocative words and rhythms into literal sounds and images necessarily involves reduction. In Howl, the line “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” becomes a group of contrailing, translucent bodies flying through the New York night. “Poverty and tatters” is accompanied by homeless figures cowering around a burn barrel. “Innocent flannels suits on Madison Avenue” conjures a crowded street of identically drab Men In Black. 

These literal, psychedelic-tinged images don’t strip the poem of its power—no adaptation can harm its original. But neither is that power translated into something specifically filmic. Instead, the animated sequences seem a Cliff’s Notes slideshow. Alternately recalling the apocalyptic nightmarescape of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and the meandering dreaminess of Waking Life, the imagery is at worst a distraction, at best a nondescript backdrop. The words’ power exists apart from the illustrations.

Howl ends where it began, in that smoky San Francisco coffee shop. Ginsberg concludes his reading, “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” His voice has softened; as he finishes his eyes search the room, his mouth turns down. This return closes the circle: inside the poem are the author’s ideas about poetry, the courtroom case they sparked, and the myriad interpretations of his lines. The poem even encompasses Ginsberg, who at its conclusion appears lost and not a little lonely, having revealed nakedly who he was. Yet this revelation, the film suggests, has been transformed. In the beginning was the poem, and at the end the poem will return. Everything else is mere details.



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