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Manchester film reviews

Howl Film Poster

Howl - on general release

Reviewed by Denis Joe March 2011

Starring: James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels and Treat Williams. Director(s) and Writers: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Animation: Eric Drooker.

Mary Murphy;  “What are you rebelling against ?
Johnny:  “Waddiya got?”
    [The Wild One László Benedek 1954]

Art doesn’t change society it can only reflect it. If Whitman gave voice to the American Dream in Leaves of Grass, then Ginsberg’s Howl! announced the nightmare.


"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness" is the most famous opening line of any 20th Century poem. It was delivered by Allen Ginffsberg, during a now-legendary group reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 1955, to an audience of around fifty people.


The film is a mixed media affair; - presented in black and white and colour - using documentary, period drama and animation. And it is this that makes it a rather unique experience for some and a puzzling one for others.  Critical opinion is divided; I think it works great. There is no set anchor: the film has Franco reading out the poem; we then see him being interviewed and then there is the courtroom scene.


The opening credits help capture the background to the times: war in Korea; the post McCarthy era and the potential nuclear threat that found many Americans questioning their future (and if they had one). It should also be remembered that this was a period when the USA was leaving behind its Isolationist policy, that had dominated since the American Revolution, and in the post-World War II/Cold War period had taken on the role as ‘World Policeman’.


Whereas counter-cultures of the past held to some sort of optimistic vision, the post war American youth seemed steeped in nihilism. Ginsberg disowned the tag ‘Beat Generation’ by saying it was just “a bunch of guys trying to get published”.


Opening the film, we find ourselves in a claustrophobic setting: smoky and seedy. Ginsberg (Franco) shuffles a sheaf of papers nervously adjusting his spectacles (everyone seems to be wearing thick-rimmed spectacles in the room), then reads out the first four lines. The slightly-out-of-focus camerawork captures the smallness of setting, beautifully, and throughout the film we are taken back to this setting.


The film cuts to another closed environment of Ginsberg in a room speaking into a reel-to-reel (we hear the interviewer, now and again, but never see him). Franco parrots Ginsberg’s drawl perfectly - the script of the interview being a transcript of the original.


Eric Drooker’s animation has the feel of Japanese anime (in fact the idea for his first graphic novel, FLOOD!, seems to have been inspired by manga) and he uses the images of Ginsberg’s poem to inform his own work in this film. Some critics have questioned the wisdom of having animation.  To me, it added a greater depth to understanding the ethereal aspect of much of the imagery in Howl, particularly when Drooker calls on William Blake’s paintings as inspiration. Blake, after all, was one of Ginsberg’s heroes and himself a questioner of industrialisation in the same manner that the Beats questioned Modernism. And during the second part of Howl Drooker draws, directly from Fritz Lang’s own Moloch/capitalist image from Metropolis. But Drooker also uses colour to give vent to bursts of heartfelt humanity in the same way as the Ghibli animator,  Hayao Miyazaki, does in his films.


Howl - courtroom sceneThe courtroom scenes are handled brilliantly. There is none of the flamboyancy that we find in many courtroom dramas. Hamm (a rather unfortunate name) as the defending lawyer Jake Elrich and Strathairn as the prosecutor, Ralph McIntosh, play their roles with realistic restraint. The court was used as a way of questioning where America should go. We could almost have been watching an edition of the early Law & Order TV series, where crime is used as a way of questioning social values.


One was left with the impression, especially in the interview sections, that all Ginsberg wanted to do was to create a shock by his use of ‘gutter language’. In the courtroom scene, at the defence summing-up, Strathairn portrays Ralph McIntosh’s frustration at having to sit and listen to the world that he believed in falling around his ears. And it is hard not to feel sorry for his situation. Therein lies the beauty of this film: It would have been easy to portray McIntosh as some blustering fuddy-duddy, but instead we see a moment portraying the sadness of a passing time.


These four elements of the film are intertwined and instead of a straight forward narrative Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman use the four parts of Ginsberg’s poem to weave the timeline of the film. To me this keeps the audience on its toes and says much that the filmmakers feel confident enough to make us work for our appreciation.


I liked that everything is filmed in a confined space and only the animated figures are portrayed in an open world. The closeness of the scenes seem to impact on our viewing and the combined space of the cinema without once feeling voyeuristic, even when Ginsberg is talking about his parents, and is clearly emotional. A clever device!


This film is one that is long overdue; dealing, as it does, with issues that face us today. It is not only the youth of today that see everything as if the world revolves around them, but the adult world, of today, is devoid of any vision. Unlike the adult world of McIntosh, that could at least call on past values, today’s society is rudderless and seems to have nothing to offer young people to guide them into adulthood. It would be easy to sneer at the Beats and their Hippy offspring, but at least they grew up.


There was a point made by the prosecutor that really hit home. The case was not heard by a jury but by the sitting Judge Clayton Horn, something of a liberal. Ralph McIntosh pointed to the fact that all the witnesses were experts in their literary field and asked ‘what would the average reader think of Howl?’, and this showed the trial to be a hollow victory, especially when compared to the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial in Britain, a few years later.


More than any, the Beat generation became the template for many of the middle-class youth ‘movements’, including punk; Aware of the imperfection of the world; but powerless to do anything about it. But there was always an idealistic view that the world could be made a better place and much energy was expended in the post-war years in attempts to improve things.


The Beats also provided the following generations with the idea of art as a means of venting one’s anger (or as with Kerouac’s On The Road, that may well have inspired the road movie genre, suggest a voyage of discovery of the wider America, not as a means of educational discovery but a journey to find oneself). It is in this that Howl still impacts today.


In my schooldays my art teacher used to play records during class. For us this was brilliant. He never played pop music, it was always stuff like The Rolling Stones and The Small Faces.  One day he put on a record that simply blew me, and a few others, away. It was a band called The Last Poets and the music was called Rap. There was very little instrumentation on the tracks, but it didn’t need it. These raps were not about girl-meets-boy, they spat out anger. I later learned about the Second Harlem Renaissance, though I was aware of American Black Separatists from the news. A few years later I would come across the Ginsberg poem and realise that this is where it all began.


HowlAnd The Last Poets were equal to the task of matching Ginsberg’s imagery; and I came to realise that anger could be beautiful too. After a short spell of great rap in the 1980, it turned in on itself, and today, rap’s hollowness is like a sick joke; one that can only find meaning in shock.  But in a world without values, nothing can really outrage.


Today the technique of Ginsberg’s Howl can be heard in much of what is called Slam or Performance poetry. Deborah “They don’t speak with iambic pentameter in East London” Stevenson and the Liverpool poet, Amanda, use elements of rant/rap in their poetry to excellent effect and without any plastic histrionics.  But mostly performance is about having the opportunity to get stuff off your chest in an, apparently, meaningful way.


Take yourself along to any open-mic poetry night and you will hear some over-aged saddo ranting off about things that bother them (usually stuff they read about in The Guardian).  There seems to be an idea that if you can lump together a load of words that end in ‘ion’ and that you can shout loud enough, people will think you are an entertainer. If you lace your narrative with enough social comment, they might even see you as intelligent.


I was at an open-mic night organised by Liverpool’s Dead Good Poets Society, last year and was shocked to hear rants that slated off people who drank and ate ‘too much’, people who talked loudly, people who shopped at Primark, in other words, the working-class youngsters who tend to reside in the North of the city.  Perhaps what was more disheartening is that these people received the loudest applause. To me they came across as a bunch of weedy brats, who lived in constant terror of the ‘big lads’, and this was their moment to vent their frustration.


I’m not sure that this sort of misanthropic bile is what Ginsberg would have approved of, especially when we reach ‘Footnote to Howl’ and we realise that, however terrible the World seems, there is always humanity. This is where the comparison to Walt Whitman comes from.

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
     Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!

The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!
     The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand
     and asshole holy!

Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is
     holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an

The end of the film shows the Allen Ginsberg singing "Father Death Blues", which he wrote, and playing his harmonium.  For some reason I found this pathetic rather than simply sad and seemed to echo Ralph McIntosh’s own feeling of loss. For me I think that this was a weak and clichéd way to end the film.  Much better to have ended with the last lines of this poetic monument.


But that does not take anything away from the fact that this film takes risks, not in its subject matter, but in its manner of relating the story.  For me it is one of the best films I have seen about the period; far superior to George Clooney’s ‘Good Night and Good Luck’ or the 1991 film, ‘Guilty by Suspicion’.  Both great, but also both reliant on the overly dramatic portrayal of events. Howl has no tension-inducing tricks, it simply recaptures a period of history and allows the audience to make up their own minds.


It is one of the most intelligent and engaging films I have seen in a long while and one deserving a much wider audience that its limited release.  But then, unlike the makers of Howl, distributors have already prejudged cinema audiences and are not going to take a risk.

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