"Howl": Or, How to Make the Beats Cool Again

When screener after screener starts to pile up in the viewing list of two movie lovers, arguments about which film to watch first reach an intensity only a few steps removed from domestic violence (this debate becomes more heated knowing that you only have time to watch one movie in the week).

This weekend, there was a bumper crop to choose from, which we did manage to pare down to two: The Town and Howl. Howl only won due to the fact that I already harbored serious misgivings about it, which meant that if we didn't watch it then, we never would, and it would sink into the deep morass of 'Is that the weird-looking James Franco movie? I kinda remember wanting to see it, but completely forgot about it.'

A good place to start might be my initial misgivings. First, when I first saw the preview, it looked like there was way too much going on.  Second, I have an innate disinterest in the subject matter; the beats are a bit like marmalade, either you love them or you don't. Firmly in the latter camp, I was convinced the whole movement was pretentious nonsense designed to give artistic justification to drug use and unemployment, whether that opinion was valid or not.

On the first point, I'm definitely not convinced Howl works as a movie. Seventy-six minutes (when's the last time you saw a movie so short) just isn't enough time to give due attention to the three parallel threads running through the film. For another, these three threads never really come together (you could say the censorship trial ties the film together, but I think the link is tenuous at best. Near the beginning of the film, Ginsberg directly says the trial has nothing to do with him).

Wonderful actors are brought in for minutes at best, and then discarded. For instance, Jon Hamm, in a top-billed role, has only two duties:the gesticular equivalent of the famous Don Draper 'what?', and a closing argument in the style of Don's Kodak slide-reel speech. Not that I'm suggesting that Jon Hamm is typecast. Oh, wait...

However, the filmmaker succeeds marvellously in creating a love letter to Allen Ginsberg's famous poem. There's something magical about the energy in Franco's voice as he performs the poem to a dim NY nightclub, which is filmed more as old documentary footage than as a biopic 'history in action' scene.

Which brings us to my second misgiving, which the film addressed and defeated. Hearing the poem read in Franco's voice, which sounds nothing like the arrogant voice I'd always imagined, made the work seem more heartfelt and personal, and less nihilistic and cod-philosophy-ish. The structure of the movie works well to aid understanding of the work as well, like the ideal Cliffs notes which not only describes plot, but presents context and clarifies allusions.

Basically, the film juxtaposes four scenes with each section of the poem: Ginsberg being interviewed about a particular period, the narrative context being brought to life, gorgeous animation illustrating the readings of the poetry, and then the obscenity trial scene relevant to the part of the poem that had just been read. In a loop, this structure continues until the whole poem is read, at which point we see the aforementioned night club scene. The trial scenes didn't really work for me, but the package of the other three scenes provides a deeper understanding of the poem. Some critics have taken issue with the animation scenes, as they obviously ascribe to one particular interpretation of the poem, but they were so beautifully done that I feel there is still room for more abstract readings.

After 76 minutes with the poem, I understand why "Howl" was important, and why so many people are deeply moved by it. While it was by no means perfect, a movie can do worse than cultivating love of a previously dismissed work of literature.

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