Monday, October 25, 2010

I'm With You in Rockland.

Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010)
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Howl, based on Allen Ginsberg's momentous poem of the same name, by known documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman is an experimental film consisting of several sections: The 1957 obscenity trial held to determine the artistic merit of the poem, Ginsberg's historic Six Gallery debut reading of Howl, surreal animated sequences that accompany the words of the poem, and an interview with Ginsberg (James Franco) which explores important moments of his life and reflections on writing. Rather than delivering a standard biopic about Ginsberg, Epstein and Friedman have made a film that uses the poet's past as an expression of individual and personal discovery and celebration while using his poem to discuss writing, and in a broader sense art as a whole, as an extension of the writer or artist. Espstein and Friedman are generally known for documentary films such as The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and The Celluloid Closet (1995) but with Howl they step out of their comfort zone and take a chance on something different, a film about the complexity of art and the importance for expressive freedom which blurs cinematic lines as it combines their documentary style with a dramatic retelling of Ginsberg's reflections and surrealist visual imagery.

Franco's performance as Ginsberg is one of the many highlights of the film. During the interview segments Franco is direct and displays openness in his portrayal of the poet while never overblowing the performance. During the Six Gallery reading he delivers Ginsberg's words with conviction and exuberance. The focus of Ginsberg's life revolves around his realization about his homosexuality and the importance that it had on discovering who he was as an individual and a writer. Howl uses this revelation as encouragement in a broader sense, it isn't only about one man accepting his own sexual orientation but about people being proud of who they are in general and not allowing themselves to be ashamed if they don't fit into social norms.

The scenes during the obscenity trail work not because of the anticipation of an unknown outcome, since it's documented history we don't need to worry about that, but because of the content of the proceedings. The prosecution and defense call a series of expert literary critics as witnesses to discuss the apparent or absent artistic value of Ginsberg's work. There are naysayers and there are admirers of the poem. None of the admirers appear to claim they have complete understanding of everything Ginsberg wants to express but they try their best to interpret their feelings and thoughts on the poem. The naysayers can be summed up by those who are offended, unaware of it's value, above it, or combination of the three. One of the finest moments of the film is when one of the witnesses is asked what a few lines of the poem mean in a narrative sense and they reply by saying "Sir, you can't translate poetry into prose, that's why it is poetry." On the other side there's the testimony of Professor David Kirk (Jeff Daniels) who claims to discredit any of the poem's literary value with quantifiable standards based on his judgment of its form and content. I find this the worst kind of critic, one more concerned with their own expertise and opinion than the work they happen to be discussing. His efforts only proceed to confine artistic value, not define it.

The riskiest portions of the film are definitely the animated sequences. They are also the most elusive parts of the movie to express my appreciation. They are definitely going to be the hardest for audiences to digest considering they lack a definable narrative and are at times bizarre, unsettling, and even jarring. But at the same time they're graceful and much like Howl itself, liberating. I can't help but think of the sections of Disney's Fantasia (1940), especially the earlier segments, with its visuals that accompany famous music. With Howl however, Ginsberg's words are the musical notes that supply inspiration for the images dancing across the screen. Also, like Ginsberg's poem, the images and visual motifs provide just the same openness and frankness. The repeated images and sounds of a typewriter are seen and heard throughout the picture and compared to modern day computer typing, writing on a typewriter just gives the impression of such stronger purpose as well as a representation of the extension of an artist. To a writer it's a personalized instrument and this enforces the idea that an artist's work is an extension of their own voice and body, what they have to say is of value and importance because only they have the rights to those words, to that voice, to that life. To judge such a film as a common biopic would be as great a crime as to try and convert poetry to prose, to construct boundaries around jazz, to cage art by some arbitrary standards of criticism, to tell man he wasn't meant to fly, or to try and understand the open words of an artist with a closed mind and clenched teeth.