Directed by Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Cornerhouse, 27 February 2011
It is probably best described as an assemblage of documentary materials, Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film.
Primarily, there is Allen Ginsberg’s poem and we get the poet (played by James Franco) reading it from a manuscript in what seems to have been set up to look like a San Francisco bar or a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. The poem is also given an animated treatment, the sequence of images inventive and frenetic, if sometimes a little too literal. Of course, Howl is an important poem and has some striking lines and rhapsodic moments, but Ginsberg was perhaps too enamoured of anaphora. All that rhetorical repetition, all those redundant words: Whitman (and Churchill also) has a lot to answer for.
Another strand to the film is the reconstruction of the obscenity trial surrounding the poem, which dealt frankly with homosexual desire. Queer desire was touched on briefly in Howl, but it got a fuller treatment in the erotic and powerful ‘Please Master’, a poem which clearly appeals to the reader’s prurient desire; and very likely appealed to the poet’s even as he was writing it.
A third strand sees Ginsberg talking about his life and poetry, responding to an unseen interviewer’s questions. James Franco, again playing the poet, this time a couple of years after publication, depicts him as personable, happy and engaged.
After watching an animated rendering of the poem and learning the poet’s and others’ thoughts on it (pro and con), it would seem apt to actually seek it out and read it in full. And that’s how one feels following a viewing of this fine film.