February 3, 2011

History, Legacy, Obscenity

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Within the pantheon of the greats of 20th century American poetry, the Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg stands out as being one of its most passionate and uninhibited talents. His magnum opus and most famous work, Howl, exudes a raw, sincere, almost animal fervor that spawned a generation of imitators, but also sparked controversy for its explicit and allegedly obscene content. Howl the movie tries to capture that twin essence of poet and poem. The film is, in its essence, a documentary drama, detailing both Ginsberg’s life and times, his relationships and fears and ultimately how they found voice and shape in his poetry, as well as Howl itself: its reception, themes and literary legacy. The movie is a sincere tribute to the person of Allen Ginsberg, and James Franco’s earnest and disarming depiction of Ginsberg is a laudable performance that manages to humanize the great poet in a way rarely seen in similar biographical portraits. The film, however, suffers from a sense of disorganization and a feeling that too many disparate strands have been forced together in order to form as comprehensive a portrait of the man and his works as possible. The end result is something that moves the viewer with its honesty, but is held back by its lack of structural coherence.The film’s dual treatment of poet and poem manifests in three separate but interspersed threads. The first, and possibly the most effective, is a series of evocative black-and-white vignettes depicting Ginsberg’s life, lovers and work narrated by Ginsberg — not the real Ginsberg, but rather James Franco as his unconvincing doppelganger — who is also shown being interviewed by an unseen interviewer in his home at an unspecified time after the frenetic heyday of the Beat Generation.  Franco inhabits the role of Ginsberg with a sincerity and an earnestness that somewhat erases the doubt the viewer feels at the fact that the directors chose not to employ real footage of Ginsberg’s interviews in the film, instead relying on an actor to portray him. In this segment, Ginsberg talks with a disarming frankness about his homosexuality and his fraught relationships with the men in his life — such figures as Jack Kerouac, Neil Cassidy and Peter Orlovsky — and how these relationships, as well as other elements of his life, factored into his writing. He also speaks candidly about his creative process and the various lessons he drew from his contemporaries that gifted him with his unique poetic voice — of “writing the same way that you are.” The second primary thread deals with the poem and its legacy — in a dramatized re-enactment of the obscenity trial that accompanied the publishing of Howl and Other Poems. This one follows a rather more conventional docu-drama format, staying almost slavishly faithful to the actual transcripts from the case, in which several experts in the fields of literature were cross-examined for evidence of the work’s redeeming literary merit despite its use of crude language. The message of this thread deals with the legacy of Howl as a poem whose fate in the trial will either set the world free of small-minded censorship or render it beholden to the prejudices of pedantic prudes who arbitrarily dictate moral standards in art. The last thread, and probably the one that fits in the least well with the overarching narrative, depicts Ginsberg’s debut reading of Howl at the Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco of 1955 to a crowd of rapturous and worshipful Beatniks. Franco’s expressive recitation of the poem follows the flow of the film’s narrative without explicitly tying in with the themes that are expressed concurrently with the other two threads. The recitation is oft accompanied by surreal animated sequences that attempt to provide a visual interpretation of the stanzas of the poem. Various visual motifs abide; the poem’s speaker, an emaciated man with Ginsberg’s aspect wandering around the face of a blasted urban landscape, a saxophonist whose instrument spews fire and industrial civilization anthropomorphized into a colossal horned Moloch. Surely this was the most jarring and dubious aspect of the film, its initial novelty wearing off as the viewer realizes that such sequences ultimately detract from the appreciation of the recital with its bizarre and mono-faced renditions of what is poetic complexity.  With these three threads constituting the movie, and none of them interacting with each other thematically beyond a minimal level, the film feels disjointed and lacking in an overall thematic unity. Having Franco play Ginsberg being interviewed in the first strand is undoubtedly an interesting experiment, but the viewer can’t shake off the feeling that despite Franco’s candid depiction of Ginsberg, it is still exactly that — a depiction, a carefully structured and implemented lie. One watches Franco’s performance as Ginsberg with a caveat in mind; that what we are watching is a fabrication whose relationship with the true Ginsberg — with his true feelings, expressed by the man himself, and not a double — is necessarily uncertain. Ultimately, the viewer leaves the theatre with the question of who Ginsberg is still resounding in their mi­nd. The film gives one answer — but given its nature, we are still left with doubts.

Original Author: Colin Chan