During the 1957 obscenity trial brought against the publishers of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”, literary critic Mark Schorer refused to offer a literal interpretation of individual lines, claiming “you cannot translate poetry into prose”.
But can you translate it into film?
The answer provided by new film Howl, which premiered at Sundance and has just been shown in competition at the Berlinale, is ‘yes’, with only a slight qualification. Made by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (who previously collaborated on The Celluloid Closet, among other films) it deftly interweaves various strands without becoming confusing or off-putting. The constituent parts include a reconstruction of that 1957 trial, biographical episodes, recreations of Ginsberg’s first public reading of the poem in 1955 as well as an interview with the poet plus a cartoon rendering of the poem itself.
This last element is the only one which falls flat, and sadly I suspect that some filmgoers’ opinion of the film will stand or fall on their reaction to the overly-literal animation. While well executed in itself, it struck me as an unnecessary intrusion, like an over-ambitious short which had gatecrashed the feature.
The trial forms the dramatic core of the film, with only the occasional verbal clunk arising from the film’s fidelity to its original sources. Yes, we know the outcome and we know that history always eventually sides against the censor, but knowing these things allows us to slow down and concentrate on the context. Personally I found myself wondering how this case even got to trial. While “Howl” includes vocabulary you generally won’t hear on television before 9pm, the absurd thesis that it was of prurient interest – that is, that someone could have used this angry, sad, hallucinatory, ecstatic, visionary, impressionistic text as an aid to masturbation – struck me as a legal non-starter.
Even the prosecutor is at times unsure of what he’s attacking, which prompts the film’s best line (I won’t spoil it, but it’s delivered by the judge played with deadpan brilliance by Bob Balaban, a fixture of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries). Jon Hamm makes a winning defence attorney, taking a break from the uptight Mad Men era to go back to a slightly earlier, slightly more uptight era.
Absent from the trial, James Franco’s Ginsberg makes an indelible impact in the rest of the movie (technically he’s too good-looking to play Ginsberg, but that’s just his cross to bear). Franco captures Ginsberg’s cadences and charisma and convinces us that we are hearing the poet’s own thoughts. The bio-pic recreations nimbly navigate the criss-crossing bonds of emotion and influence between the various Beat writers, showing how Ginsberg’s work found initial inspiration in his infatuations with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady (unrequited and semi-requited respectively).
The first public reading, rendered in black & white, preserves the exhilaration of artistic breakthrough. However for me the most successful parts of the movie depict Ginsberg in interview, offering an eloquent description of his working methods, of how one must approach the muse as one would a close friend. Layers of self-consciousness must be stripped away before the authentic voice can be heard; as the recently departed J.D. Salinger said of his own writing process, “just taking off my own disguises takes an hour or more”.
“Howl” name-checked most of the important Beat writers while simultaneously propelling the movement into wider consciousness. The ensuing furore also represented the last time a single poem occupied the cultural space normally reserved for films, novels, albums or artworks. Howl the movie is an inspiring account of that moment.