'Howl': How Do You Film a Poem?

Jesse Hicks

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.


Cast: James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels
Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Rated: NR
Studio: Sony Classics
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-09-24 (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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.