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Rambling about “Howl”

A narrative film pulled from the transcripts of interviews and court documents about the obscenity trail surrounding the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s 4-part poem “Howl” was something I was dying to see, anticipation building since I read of the production and the premiere at Sundance, and in a small red envelope it arrives and my hopes are high.  The wife is at work tonight, her first night shift in three years, Bean goes down early with exhausted eyes after a day of crawling through the DVDs that surround my TV like carpet crumbs and I start the Howl.

Like the poem itself the film starts like a white hot spark, blaring jazz music accompanying the rhythmic lyrics about madness destroying the minds of a generation as they drag themselves naked through negro streets, Franco now synonymous with versatility pounds on the keys of an old typewriter, recites the “obscene” words in a smoke-filled joint packed with post-war hipsters, a new lost generation seen through the thick rimmed Ginsberg glasses and Conflagration! each steel arm of the typewriter scorches the paper with eternal ink and animation depicts the flames that ignited in the inspired beat generation that consumed the conservative opposition – the flames pour out of an animated jazzman saxophone while burning spirits singe the night sky over New York.  The film was not disappointing, not a first.

A trial.  A trial with no real stakes established is intercut with Ginsberg reciting the poem, giving an interview about the poem to an unseen reporter, snapshots of his life as he fell in and out of love with straight men that pioneered the beat generation they spent the rest of their lives trying to distance themselves from and the pace of the film slows.  Moments of spontaneous outburst keep this dying document of drifting Dada-men and coldwater flat poets alive but the hybrid approach to a nonfiction/fiction film starts to fizzle quickly as we are left with soldering embers that glow intensely only when Franco recites the poem with the delivery of a comic, a revolutionary, a lost post-war soul and a melancholic, broken-hearted romantic searching for love among the madness.

This film would have been brilliant if it were Franco, Ginsberg’s words and the animation mixed with the smokey hipster joint.  It could’ve been a short.  While the trial was interesting at times, it was a speed bump, worse than a speed bump, it was ignoring the severe tire damage signs and crippling the momentum of an electric poem and performance.  But perhaps the filmmakers were attempting a little jazz with some literary merit. What was it the literary expert said on the stand? “Great literature always creates its own form…” I suppose there is some merit to that, these documentarians mixing forms to create something new, something of value and hopefully inspire mimicry – but it’s not a new form.  Recreation, reenactment, it’s all been done.

And then!  I hear a term that excites me… “Fear-trap.” Ginsberg, through Franco, says that while he was working a suit and tie and desk and secretary job in San Francisco he was stuck in the fear-trap.  It’s the fear that so many people propagate, the fear that if you don’t have your stable job, your suit and tie, your two cars, four bedroom house, 2 kids and slowly growing IRA then you are failing somehow at life – your ambitions are meaningless if they are not to bank your retirement and secure the financial future for your entire family through the monotony of daily routine.  I’m not saying you can’t find happiness there, Sisyphus can why can’t you, but it is not for everyone so people shouldn’t say it is.  It is in avoiding this culture of fear, this Fear-Trap, that pushes people out to the fringe where they delight in the struggle of late night crew calls in the dank streets of Crenshaw or abandoned lofts of the warehouse district as they work for meal/copy/credit and the hope that the bond formed with fellow fringe-dwellers on these indie sets will lead to inspired work on creative projects and hopefully find a way that insatiable creativity can earn them a living.

I should conclude by saying, see the film only if you’re a big fan of Ginsberg and are familiar with ‘Howl’, which you can read here – HOWL.

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