Set in the mid 1950s about Alan Ginsberg the poet and the ‘obscenity’ trial at which his publisher Ferlinghetti was present but Ginsberg was absent. We see Ginsberg trying to write and then read from his poem Howl to an audience of enthusiasts, some of whom may not have escaped being called ‘beatniks’. We see Ginsberg’s relationships with Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. We learn that Ginsberg did not want his father to learn that he was gay. We see him interviewed by an unseen and unheard interviewer as he expands his notions of what poetry is, and what the artist’s relation to it should be. We see animations expressing the poems. We see the courtroom drama where Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) defends artistic freedom and Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) attacks it. We see artistic freedom vindicated after Ehrlich and McIntosh question several academics about art. Jeff Davids plays one of the academics. James Franco plays Ginsberg.
An intoxicating look at Ginsberg’s big poetic breakthrough. This film strips away with surgical vigour the mythical accretions of the past century. It does not go for the easy archetypal routine: there is no mention of Elvis or James Dean. The film is as limpidly as light through gin and the pictures of that time get burned and etched through the passion of the poetry. It conveys what excitement there must have been when so called ‘beat’ writers inspired their listeners The film avoids easy point scoring at the expense of the ’50s. Much has been said about that decade’s retentive conservatism, but we can forget the misery and chaos of depression and world war that preceded it and how at least in the early ’50s that conservatism put a lid on what had gone before. David Strathairn as the prosecuting lawyer in the ‘obscenity’ trial is too easily set up as a philistine figure of fun, and we are certainly not meant to see any sense in his arguments but he comes across, for me, more as a sad dinosaur. He admits he doesn’t understand Howl though of course that doesn’t excuse his philistinism. He gives the Jon Hamm lawyer the chance to mount an eloquent defence of artistic freedom against those Eisenhower era pedants who persecuted Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. At one stage the defence is reduced to saying that poetry cannot be rendered into prose. Naturally, we are witnessing the change in attitude which would inaugurate the so-called ‘pop revolution’ of the ’60s An interesting aspect of the difficulty of art for the general public is that it reflects the alienation of art from industrial society which had been a prominent feature of the 19th century and it continued into the 20th. Poor Strathairn was making a misguided plea for the accessibility of art. As for the poetry itself, it is read out in coffee bars and it is illustrated by pastel-like sketches reminiscent of William Blake. How do you convey poetry in film? Not really in these sketches which is like trying to express a music composer’s work by playing it on a xylophone. Snatches from Howl seem Kabbalistic and Whitmanish. Ginsberg reads it in a sing song tone, James Franco does a good job of this
It’s amazing how the beats actually started out as aspirational middle class. Throughout the film, Franco as Ginsberg is dressed soberly, his only wildman concession at the end is a neatly trimmed beard. Indeed, Ginsberg denied the charge of being ‘beat’, he says it was a group of guys who wanted to get published. Ginsberg in the interviews is much concerned with the relationship of the writer’s life to the work, in that he shares our mania for often irrelevant biographical details. Franco always makes him likeable and makes you realize that there was an urgent organic need to question the America of Revolutionary Road and Stepford Wives. Howl commendably shuns the temptation to mythologize its hero and this puts the career of Ginsbergs’ most famous admirer, Dylan, into an interesting perspective. Ginsberg remained accessible and he was close to his audience who must have felt like they were in a feisty verbal brawl. There was none of the distance that fame and money inflicted on Dylan’s fans. I could appreciate the tangible details in Ginsberg’s poems though when he preaches, his poetry sounds like a precocious but naive fifth former trying to impress. He is fascinating for me on the street imagery in The machinery of night. He was also quite bravely gay in an era when it could destroy lives. Dylan on the other hand lends himself too easily to the bogus mythologizing of I’m not There, the recent biopic which use different oddball personae. It’s interesting that Howl uses Dylan’s Wheels on Fire for the end credits, you would think something from his earlier work would be closer to the beat spirit, but of course it isn’t. The 1962-66 period of ‘beat’ Dylan is derivative folksy ballads leading to ’64-66’s whiney voice winding through capriciously collaged snapshots of imagery.
Franco reads Ginsberg’s work like he’s an urgent shaman of the coffee bars.