If you could make a movie feel so powerful, so historical, and so eloquently raw all at the same time, I think you’d find yourself watching the film, Howl. Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, Howl is a film that deeply moved me. It combines the recitation of Ginsberg’s most famous poem (Howl) with past and present day Ginsberg, as well as animated imagery. It also depicts the obscenity trials surrounding Howl’s publication by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books.
I was first introduced to Allen Ginsberg when my high school english teacher from junior year got out his giant hardcover copy of Poetry Speaks, a vast and I believe rare collection of the poets themselves reading their work, with biographies and other writer’s takes on what their writing meant to the generations. Howl is a poem in four parts, it is a love story to a generation, the naked truth about hypocrisy and material goods, a religious poem, a spiritual poem, a letter to one’s friends and role models, a historical and social reference mind f**k, and finally a jazz rhythm read. He uses what was considered at the time to be crude and vulgar language, and many would say it is still crude and vulgar today. But he spoke honestly and openly about life and became a main reference for a movement that swept a post-war generation, the Beats.
It would have been incredible to sit in the courtroom overhearing the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl. One side arguing that the poem has no literary merit because it is obscene, and the other defending freedom of speech and saying the obscenity comes from a known life of obscenities. Ginsberg spent several months in a mental institution and was released after promising his doctor he would not be gay anymore. The first part of the poem is an ode, a remembrance to a man he met in the institution, Carl Solomon, and it may be my favorite portion of the poem.
Do yourself a favor, see this film! It is well acted, well encrypted between court trials, interviews, typewriters, and animation. Ginsberg is someone who spoke out to other writers, who loved poetry and writing in the very pit of his stomach. He and his work, whether you like it or not, have paved the way for expressionist art. See this film!
When did you first encounter Allen Ginsberg? What do you think of his work, is it life or is it just obscene? If you haven’t heard Howl read by Ginsberg, here is a recording of part 1.