I seriously doubt this could happen today, that a poem could spark such outcry as to demand it be banned in the courts as obscene. Fifty years ago though, that is exactly what happened to American poet, Allen Geinsberg, with his poem, “Howl”. The poem depicted the darker underbelly of America, a side of the country that the majority didn’t want to acknowledge. It spoke of the impoverished, the bohemians, the homosexuals and anyone else that really that didn’t fit into the status quo because of who they were or what they did with their days and nights. And so the debate is on – does different mean obscene simply because you cannot understand it?
Friday, October 08, 2010
Written and Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Starring James Franco, Jon Hamm and David Strathairn
Mark Schorer: Sir, you cannot translate poetry to prose. That is why it’s poetry.
The trial, the poet and the poem itself are portrayed separately and cut together to form what is the first narrative film by the Academy Award winning documentary filmmaking team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (THE CELLULOID CLOSET, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HARVEY MILK). Named after the poem, HOWL can only loosely be described as a narrative though. Albeit a somewhat safe choice for their first fiction foray, the filmmakers based their screenplay on court transcripts, archival footage and interviews, giving HOWL a very documentary feel. Ginsberg himself, played calmly and coolly by James Franco, is only ever shown in interview or in flashback, never driving any plot forward. The lack of formal focus makes for a free flowing experience but also never allows the film to truly find a firm foundation.
Like the point being proved in court by the “Howl” defense attorney (Jon Hamm) though, form needn’t be formal for the themes to be meaningful or have literary merit. Each component of the film, including a dark and rich animated interpretation of “Howl” from Monk Studios, functions fine individually and creates a whole unique unto itself. In that sense, HOWL honours its inspiration as best it can and proves the timelessness of the poem by allowing its relevance resonate even still today.