If you can concentrate on the dialogue and block out everything else, Howl, the biopic of poet Allen Ginsberg, does present some compelling ideas about writing and literary censorship. I particularly liked Ginsberg’s explanation of the concept of a prophecy; it’s not predicting future events like a nuclear bomb in 1942, but capturing, even in an impressionistic form, an emotion that people will still feel ten years in the future. And the film’s reenactment of the Howl obscenity case brings home the ridiculity of literary censorship. *
But I suspect that these points of interest are derived directly from archival sources, rather than arising out of the virtually non-existent filmic interpretation. The movie consists of various dramatically inert scenarios clumsily strung together – interviews with the bland-faced Ginsberg, a droning court case, airbrushed-looking romantic canoodlings between Ginsberg and his equally good-looking lovers. There is no overarching conceptual vision or emotional sensibility. It’s really a documentary re-enactment rather than a film, and it’s difficult to imagine how that genre could ever be good, except as satire. **
And there are things about Howl that are very bothersome. For example, James Franco, the actor who plays Allen Ginsberg is completely wrong for the part; his smooth, bland, face shows no trace of suffering. His beard looks as if it has been pasted on.
Comfortingly, an image of Ginsberg’s real face appears at the end – craggy, and brimming with warmth and intelligence, as you’d expect it to be.
Ginsberg’s poems are at times accompanied by animation, which is even worse than you might think. The animation is reminiscent of kareoke visuals, or perhaps paintings done by utterly artistically ungifted primary school kids in a free-association exercise and then animated by the Education Department using taxpayer money. Ginsberg’s infamous demon Moluck (“whose eyes are a thousand blind windows”) is represented by a transformer-like figure and some skyscrapers. Sex is represented by the fusion of two articulated stick-figures.
Don’t let Howl ruin Ginsberg for you. If you haven’t read much of his work, you can actually download podcasts of him reading his poems here. My personal favourites are America, A Supermarket In California, Sunflower Sutra, and Howl, but happily, my perusal of his oeuvre is still incomplete.
*There’ll be a Senate Inquiry about this. Censorship is no substitute for good parenting, I reckon.
**Waltz with Bashir is a noteworthy exception, but that’s a beautiful, poetically animated documentary.