“Howl” (A Nickell-odeon Review)

November 10, 2010

How on earth could Howl —Allen Ginsberg's 1956 Beat primal-scream poem—be made into a movie?

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman discovered the way: mine available material—court records of the obscenity trial against publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg's own words from interviews, and other sources, including the poem itself. Then juxtapose sequences that include cartoonish surrealism and black-and-white docudrama, notably flashbacks of Ginsberg (James Franco), in a smoke-filled coffee-house setting, intoning, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. . . ."

The movie prompted my own flashbacks to 1965 when I met Ginsberg (courtesy of Beat poet John Wieners to whom I was a protégé) at a party in San Francisco, during that year's Berkeley Poetry Conference. Ginsberg showed up wearing a robe of sackcloth, prompting poet Robert Duncan to embrace him and exclaim, "Allen, you smelly old saint, you!"

I have just dug out my old copy of Howl and Other Poems (twelfth printing, 1963) with its introduction by William Carlos Williams who says of the poet, "Say what you will, he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith—and the art! to persist."

But Howl is not for the faint of heart. Those who cannot abide gay love, who are offended by artistic use of certain body parts and the words and imagery used to depict them and other of life's realities, should make popcorn at home and stay away from Howl . As Williams cautions, "Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell!"

The movie is centered on the courtroom exchanges—the prosecution's attempt to prove, aided by some pseudoscholarly pretenders, that Howl was obscene, countered effectively by the defense and its witnesses who turn the courtroom into a seminar on literature and the need for artistic freedom. It is a message that rationalists, who defend science and freedom of inquiry, can well appreciate.

Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four)

Three Nickels