Jan 16, 2011

[Movies] Howl (2010)

Howl (2010)Poetry has always been one of my bigger frustrations as a writer. It's a very intense and liberating field of creative writing but I suppose I let myself get overly restricted by my own limitations of logic. My cerebral nature tends to define a lot of my writing but I can't quite seem to make that connection in my head to allow me to channel that into poetry.

I can write haikus and limericks pretty easily - the strict format of these two forms of poetry tend to help me process things better. But my love of Walt Whitman pushes me to try free verse a lot more, but the fact that I am without boundaries tends to bother me on some fundamental level. At least that's how I've analyzed my challenges with poetry for now - perhaps I'm subjecting this creative process with my left-brain thinking again in a new way, thus further limiting myself and creating my own barriers against my writing.

And thus when I get to read books about other poets or watch movies that share part of their lives tend to inspire me and frustrate me at the same time. I feel that once I figure out the best way to capture the rhythm of what I want to say, perhaps that'll help my writing along. In the meantime, let's just enjoy a really good movie.

Howl is a 2010 movie that can best be described as a sort of biographical drama. It was written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Epstein is probably most famous for winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for The Times of Harvey Milk. The pair of documentary filmmakers also won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt.

The movie juxtaposes at least four different stories / sequences related to the life of American poet Allen Ginsberg as played by James Franco. The primary plot thread, as far as I'd judge things, is the 1957 obscenity trial triggered by his poem Howl. Another thread involves the famous Six Gallery Reading when six different beat poets including Ginsberg read their works. This was the first time he had presented Howl to a public audience. Another line involves an interview with Ginsberg that acts as a medium for talking about his earlier life as presented in black and white scenes. And periodically we get different poems of Ginsberg as read aloud by James Franco and set to some pretty creative animation sequences.

Thus the movie travels along different points of his life while at the same time treating us viewers to his creative work. In many ways, the directors clearly tried to organize the placements of these animated poems in a manner that relates them to key events in his life. With Ginsberg being openly bisexual and his particular brand of writing to be rather coarse in terms of language - or perhaps a better way of describing it is him being brutally honest and uncompromising. He talks about every day things and he uses these poetic stories to touch of more significant topics such as democracy and the culture of commercialism in the US.

The movie is a masterpiece in itself - a clear attempt to somehow elevate a documentary feature into an art form worthy of the life and works of a poet like Allen Ginsberg. The mix of live action scenes in both color and black and white together with richly animated sequences with a nice touch of voice overs here and there. The end result is somewhat confusing to the conventional eye (and ear I suppose), but then aren't some of the best poems like that as well?

Major, major credits need to go out to James Franco for a stellar performance. He embraces his challenge of bring Ginsberg to life without going into the realm of parody in his efforts to recreate a lot of Ginsberg's speech mannerisms. Plus he has a vocal quality that lends well to reading this kind of poetry, which is deeply intertwined with the ability to carry the rhythm and the implied "melody" of the poems, for lack of a better term.

Allen Ginsberg with partner Peter Orlovski, Fr...Image via WikipediaGinsberg in himself is a fascinating figure - a man who lived by his own rules and embraced a culture of being open and honest about pretty much everything. Thus the movie tries to keep in with that spirit as we are treated to different scenes from his life including a number of his homosexual relationships over the years culminating with him finding Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit), who would become his partner for most of his adult life. Given how Ginsberg became quite the advocate of LGBT rights, I'm glad that the people behind this movie didn't try to pussyfoot around this side of his life. Instead it was all quite in the open including a scene that depicts Franco about to go down on a guy, hehe.

We need to make special mention of The Monk Studio, which seems to be the group who handled the animations in the movie, as best as I can determine things. It's never easy trying to interpret poems, what more translate them into a visual medium like animation. The end results were quite impressive and added a distinct flavor to the movie. Not bad for an animation studio based in Thailand, eh?

Howl is a strong piece that tells a part of the life story of Allen Ginsberg while at the same time celebrating his work in a manner that only a movie can accomplish. It gets 4.5 differing literary opinions presented in terms of Howl's value as a poem out of 5. It hasn't got much of a theater release, especially locally, so you can alternately get a copy of the movie on DVD or on Blu-ray if that's your fancy.


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