Friday, November 5, 2010

Why the new "Howl" movie is worth seeing, even if you know the poem and the story

Watched "Howl" last night, the movie that weaves the story of Allen Ginsberg's writing of the poem, the poem itself, and the obscenity trial that ensured its immortality in American culture.  As biopics go, it artfully approached the art itself, by creating graphic-novelistic interpretations of the three-sectioned poem, interwoven in the interview and the trial scenes.  No movie that I can think of--with the exception of "The Mystery of Picasso"--ever gives justice to the processes of art-making, since so much of it is not properly visual or representable.  But this one, in avoiding that problem, captures well the heat that burns itself into art-making, and the afterburns that that art sometimes can make.  I hope that it gives Ginsberg another life with the younger generation, to whom this movie is addressed.

I was most moved by the inclusion of Ginsberg's singing of "Father Death Blues" at the end of the movie, since it telescopes our view of the young Ginsberg (ah, the romanticizable Ginsberg!) to the Ginsberg that I knew--the elder statesman, still childlike, weirdly wise, post-stroke yet thoughtful and present as ever.


Anonymous said...

Nice, Phil. I love Allen! Can't wait to see this. Students are digging Allen in my Beat class at BGSU--some as young as 18!


Lyle Daggett said...

I haven't seen the "Howl" film yet -- I've been leery of possible movie industry butchering of the story, they way it happens so often. I'm encouraged by your review though.

I never knew or met Ginsberg. I did hear him read once, in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theatre (large space venue, packed house), sometime in the winter of 1970-71. For sure one of the great poetry readings I've been to in my life, just riveting at times. Many of the poems he read turned up later in his book The Fall of America.

I also saw the "The Mystery of Picasso" once years ago, really liked it. Quite unique in the single-minded concentration on what goes on in making art, as you said.

Sometime late 1980's I saw a 1987 documentary film, "The Beat Generation," directed by Janet Forman, by far the best film treatment I've seen of the poets of that crowd and the larger context of the world and time in which they've lived and worked. Not really a film about the making of the poetry, as such, but just excellent in portraying the people and lives the poetry came from, uncluttered by the conventional tabloid hype that so often has interfered with telling any truth.

The documentary includes a mix of contemporary interviews with various of the poets (Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Diane DiPrima, Amiri Baraka, Anne Waldman, Robert Creeley, among I forget who else), and archival film of many of the writers (Neal Cassady, Kerouac, etc.), and old newsreel footage to help give context (news footage of 1950's suburban tract housing with voice-over of Ginsberg reading the opening lines of "Howl," etc.).

Your comment about hoping that the "Howl" film gives Ginsberg another life with the younger generation got me thinking. I first became aware of Ginsberg when I was in probably my sophomore year in high school (1969-70), and at that time he would have been something like 43 or 44. He was born in June 1926 -- he was about ten months younger than my father.