Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Howl the movie misses what made Allen Ginsberg great

I recalled how “Reading (Allen) Ginsberg’s Howl in the early 1960s was the single most important event in my literary education” in my June 11th post of last year. So I was always going to see James Franco play the Beat poet in Howl just as soon as I could – which was this afternoon.
The movie – directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman – takes as its core the 1957 obscenity trial of the poem’s publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Woven into the examination of witnesses is animation illustrating the wildness of the poem and its celebration of love and human weakness; passages read to an enthusiastic audience; an interview with a more mature Ginsberg; and flashbacks to the events in the poet’s life which led to Howl’s birth.
The movie’s ambition and respect for its subject matter cannot be faulted. It is a must-see film for any fan such as me. Franco does a first rate job as the young Ginsberg, who, still not 30, was yet to become the balding, bearded bard of popular image. He gets the poet’s intonation just right.
But for all its attention to detail, I cannot see that the film has achieved anything more than a sensitive documentary would have done.
The obscenity trial was not a big deal. Ginsberg was not in court but touring Europe with his life-long lover Peter Orlovsky during the proceedings. Ferlinghetti’s defence team (led by Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame in the movie) were always confident of the victory it secured.
There is no flavour of the anarchic, dangerous-to-know Ginsberg in the film. His mad mother and his censorious father get a mention but the man’s Jewishness is missing, as is his copious drug taking. By focusing on Howl we miss Ginsberg the political activist.
Indeed I would have set the movie in 1968 at the anti-Vietnam war Festival of Life in Chicago where the city’s infamous mayor Richard Daley sought to brutally smash the protest with thousands of police, National Guardsmen, and troops.
Ginsberg was defiant and incredibly brave – and chanted the Buddhist ‘Om’ for hours in an attempt to bring peace to the confrontation.
The film chooses to focus on the poet’s homosexuality to the extent that any movie goer not familiar with Ginsberg would come away with the impression that he was primarily the poet laureate of the Gay Rights movement.
I prefer Barry Miles’s description of the man in his biography Ginsberg: “He became the poet advocate of the underdog.”

1 comment:

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