Poetry on trial in 1950s San Francisco

Nov. 1, 2010
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Young Allen Ginsberg (played by James Franco) looks just a little nervous as he adjusts his plastic-framed glasses and steels himself to recite, for the first time, a remarkable poem called “Howl.” Shifting from that epochal 1955 reading to the 1957 obscenity trial against Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and to a long interview from that same year, Howl the movie dramatizes the critical importance of one of the last century’s most important poems.

A crowd gathered for Ginsberg’s reading in San Francisco’s Six Gallery. The smoky room was filled with fellow poets and hipsters fueled by the imaginative flights of bebop, ready to entertain the specter of the hysterically naked, “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” But it was one thing to read “Howl” to an underground crowd and another to publish it in a country with rules against circulating literature deemed “obscene.”

Although known as documentarians, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman chose to lift their true story above the level of mere reportage. Some archival footage is used to keep the setting linked to its time, but Franco so resembles Ginsberg that it’s easy to imagine that we are there in the crowded Six Gallery. Ginsberg’s tape-recorded conversation with himself is Talmudic in its lengthy exegesis of the relatively short “Howl” and endows the film with perspective on the poem and its wide reverberations.

Ginsberg’s aesthetic was based on the insight that literature too often omits what’s most interesting and vital in life. As he puts it in Howl, most writers speak to their friends in language that is entirely different from what they speak to their muse. He wanted to erase that distinction by writing frankly on any subject, including the socially unmentionable sexuality of gay men.

Of course, if “Howl” had been only a gay poem, even a great one, it would have been a footnote instead of a milestone. “Howl” became epochal for touching on a vast spectrum of sensations and ideas. Working the heavy black typewriter keys on white typing paper, Ginsberg triggers darkly colorful animated images in the film. The montage illustrates the poem’s inflammatory text—a purgatory of sex, drugs and nightmares in the shadow of mainstream America, inhabited by restless seekers of vision in a society alienated from “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night.” The America of “Howl,” a wasteland of threatening ugliness, worships “Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks.”

“Howl” was a rhythmic incantation that seized—or at least infiltrated—the imagination of generations to come. The obscenity trial only served to give the poem greater attention with its parade of expert witnesses arguing for and against it from one aesthetic theory or another. David Strathairn is excellent as the literal-minded prosecutor who demands that poetry be prosaic, while Jon Hamm (Don Draper in “Mad Men”) plays the erudite counsel for the defense.

Alas, Ferlinghetti is only a mute spectator at his own trial, and the real hero of the proceedings, Judge Clayton Horn (Bob Balaban), is given scarcely more than a cameo. A conservative jurist who taught Sunday school on off-days, Horn was a careful assessor of the case’s legal and metaphysical implications. “We are all made from the same mold, but in different patterns,” he ruled, noting that the expression of experience inevitably differs widely among people—that it is wrong for an outside authority to choose an author’s words, that it is detrimental to the principles of the American Constitution. Ferlinghetti was acquitted and the mechanisms of censorship began to be dismantled.

Whether this has resulted in a tsunami of creativity or a rising tide of mediocrity is another question with no clear answer. Howl the movie reminds us that “Howl” the poem came from an era whose creative dynamism was expressed in the arts more than in technology or financial schemes. Words could change the world in the ’50s. Now they are just more words.

Howl opens Nov. 5 at the Times Cinema.


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