Monday, October 04, 2010

Jack Foley on the movie, Howl.


When James Franco as Allen Ginsberg says, “With mother finally FUCKED,” he clearly relishes the word: what a blast of freedom to be able to say a word like that in public. The only problem is that Allen Ginsberg never said it. Asterisks were substituted for letters in many instances in “Howl,” but by the time, say, of Ginsberg’s Selected Poems 1947-1995, all of the letters had been put back in except for the case of that line, which appears in the poem as “with mother finally ******.” When I asked Allen Ginsberg why the word “fucked” didn’t appear there, he answered, “Because he didn’t fuck his mother.” The line is a sort of joke. The word “fucked” is clearly implied — as the film’s scriptwriters were all too happy to notice — but in this instance the asterisks don’t indicate censorship. Ginsberg would like to say “with mother finally fucked” — Carl Solomon undoubtedly wanted to do that — but he couldn’t say it because it wasn’t true.

James Franco says something else as well: “The Beat Generation? — That was just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” First of all, the quotation is inaccurate. The proper quotation — much stronger than what is said in the film — is “The Beat Generation? — That was just a bunch of guys trying to get laid.” Second, Allen Ginsberg didn’t say it: Jack Kerouac did.

That’s the sort of thing one deals with constantly in this film. The theme of Howl the movie is the right of the “individual” artist to portray the world as it seems to him, even if that means using language that might strike some people as coarse or vulgar. Since Allen Ginsberg is the film’s “individual,” nobody else in the film has much presence — and this despite the fact that we are dealing with highly charismatic people like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, people, especially the last two, whom Ginsberg constantly talked and wrote about. The real Allen Ginsberg was in the midst of a group of powerfully manifesting people, but the filmmakers didn’t want to give the movie Allen Ginsberg any competition — so James Franco is charming and interesting but nobody else is. As is almost always the case with such “biographical” films, the focus is on one person, the paradigm-changing “individual” who makes things happen. There was a wonderful moment during the actual trial — the transcript is available in City Lights’ Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression — when, in his eloquent closing statement, lawyer Jake Ehrlich quoted from Christopher Marlowe: “But I shall tell thee roundly, / Hark in thine ear, zounds I can fuck thee soundly.” But in this film, Allen Ginsberg is the only person allowed to curse. Ehrlich’s statement isn’t there. Nor, interestingly, is Kenneth Rexroth: I was curious as to how the film might represent him; he wasn’t represented at all.

Al Young mentioned to me that he thought Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” far better than James Franco did. Young was right. Worse: there are moments — I kid you not — when Franco actually sounds like Woody Allen! Franco is at his best not when he is reading the poem but when he is Allen Ginsberg being interviewed: he is fresh and young and entirely engaging at those moments. He is effective as a reader of poetry only once: when he reads the concluding section of “Howl” — which of course was not read at the Six Gallery.

Allen Ginsberg mesmerized a room of people when he read his wonderful, innovative, ecstatic, dirty poem to them. But Hollywood folk are fearful of presenting a poet reading a poem all the way through. “Howl” is broken up into interrupted segments — and, heaven help us, animated by the talented artist Eric Drooker, whose Illuminated Poems is a beautiful book but whose work for this film is far less interesting than his collaboration with Allen Ginsberg was. The animation and the interruptions are so we don’t have to listen to the poem — so we can skip the words.

Ginsberg himself appears at the end, singing “Father Death.” It’s a touching moment in a film that hasn’t enough touching moments. Sad to think of the many people who will have their only sense of a remarkable poet through this film. It isn’t a desecration, but it isn’t very good either. In this case, I definitely preferred the book to the movie.


  1. Anonymous4:39 PM

    Thanks for this. I've been wondering about the film and I appreciate the views of an experienced poet/critic.
    Charlie Rossiter

  2. I wondered about Rexroth--I can't believe they just took him out of this story. I know the man was controversial, but it's amazing to me how thoroughly some people exclude him.