Howl (Atlantic Film Festival)

Last night I ate the lamb stew of the imagination or digested the crab at the muddy bottom of the rivers of the Bowery.

That is to say, I spent an hour and a half in company with the new movie (part biopic, part legal drama, part animated hallucinterpretation of the poem) based on Allen Ginsberg's Howl.

I am starting at the end of my first experience with the Atlantic Film Festival, which has been unfolding languorously around Halifax for a little over a week now.  And a giddy week it has been for me: I missed the festival entirely last year, and - determined not to let it slip by again - I found myself on a frenzy of ticket buying.  Seven films in as many days, and all of them more or less gratifying.  Two of them Cannes award-winners.  Several by directors whose work I already admired.  None of them Canadian (through no fault of the programmers, since they included a panoply of intriguing Canadian and Maritime films at times I couldn't make them, including the rather bleak national entry for this year's Academy Award).  And I still have regrets: I didn't manage to make it to the new Woody Allen film, although I wanted to.  I comfort myself with the knowledge that it is almost certainly fairly awful.

More backstory on Howl, which stars a surprisingly good James Franco.  Last week I was talking to a friend from my department about the film, and she said "You know he is getting his doctorate in English, right?".  "Ha!" I scoffed, "Where?".  "At your program," she said, surprised to be delivering this news, "At Yale."  I thought she was lying.   I knew I had arrived at Yale a decade and a half too late to overlap with David Duchovny; it just seemed like the taunting of fate that I then left a year too early to coincide with another movie star.  (Once I saw Duchovny on "Inside the Actors Studio" while I was in the throes of my dissertation.  James Lipton asked him about his Yale years, which seemed fine at first, but then he said something like, "You left... before completing your dissertation.  What was the title of that work?".  And David Duchovny, possessor of fame and wealth beyond most people's wildest imaginings, just sort of, well, crumbled away, collapsing in on himself as he travelled mentally back to the masochistic, excruciated mindset of someone in the advanced stages of pursuing their doctorate.  He curled forward and shook his head slowly, and I thought, "Yes.  Yes: you never lose that terrible anxiety of underachievement, no matter what else you accomplish in life.  David Duchovny, I know exactly how you feel.")

As it turns out, my friend was only telling me true. James Franco has just begun his Ph.D. in literature and film.  So all I could think throughout this film was how very different my seminar years of graduate school would have been if this Ginsberg-tinted Franco had been a part of them.

But, the film:

It is a sort of a quilt of a project, a stitching together of "interviews" with a youngish Ginsberg (played by Franco) at the moment when his book Howl and Other Poems has landed its publisher in court under obscenity charges.  His reflections on poetry, inspiration, and his biographical influences (most notably a series of men he loved and situated as muses and often priapic heroes in the poem) are interlarded with animated illustrations of the poem, which unfurl like whisps of highly sexualized smoke, and with scenes from the trial itself.  The casting of the film is phenomenal: in the trial scenes, for instance, the uncomprehending prosecutor is played with convincing bluster by the suddenly gray David Strathairn, while the coolly eloquent defense is portrayed by who else but Jon Hamm, who delivers a defense of literary freedom like he is pitching ad copy to a skeptical corporation.  It is all brilliantly rousing, even before you see a line of famous character actors playing professors and critics of literature, called in as "expert witnesses" on the necessity of words like "snatch" to the artistic integrity of Howl.  And, more impressively, it is rarely clear.  The court scenes don't succumb to the Hollywood conventions of juridical process any more than they have to: most of the time the witnesses and lawyers are merely muddling through some very murky ethical and aesthetic territory as they attempt to establish a concrete legal conception of literary value.

The least compelling aspect of the film is the animation, sad to say.  This isn't because it is an objectionable choice: it is in fact a compelling formal experiment, and if ever a poem were made for this sort of experiment, it is Howl.  But the aesthetics of the CGI don't match the polish or complexity of the rest of the film: they seem clumsy where everything else is elaborately casual, and the human forms seem wooden exactly at the moments when they should be as organic and sinuous as a vine.

As the credits began to roll, I turned to the colleague sitting next to me in the theatre.  "So," I said, "will you be showing your freshmen this film in 'Introduction to Literature?'".  "Well, I had high hopes for it," she replied with a laugh, "but ... no, I don't think so."  I thought back to the students sitting next to us, texting persistently through the first twenty minutes of the film, who got up and left in the middle of the umpteenth cartoon copulation to grace the screen.  As they stepped in front of me, two of several departures that didn't seem related to the film's quality, I had to wonder whether they weren't (oddly) unready to be "dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts."

Leave a Reply