Werc Werk Works is an ambitious, up-and-coming local movie production company that, since its creation in 2008, has generated a great deal of buzz in the indie-film world, both for its innovative profit-sharing business model and, at the Sundance Film Festival and in the pages of Time magazine, for the quality and intelligence of its first major feature, Life During Wartime . Werc Werk Works’ second film, Howl , a fictional, documentary-style examination of Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem and the obscenity trial that came with it, was shown for the first time in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center Thursday night, and opens for an extended run at the Lagoon on October 15.
Aside from Walt Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass," to which it is often compared, "Howl" is arguably the best-known, most-read American poem ever written. Its defiant, counter-cultural view of capitalism, homosexuality, drugs, mental illness, and all societal norms that constrain people from achieving their true human potential defined the so-called Beat Generation. "Howl"’s publication in 1956 was that era’s “I’m mad as hell” moment, and the obscenity trial that greeted it became one of this country’s true watershed moments in the ongoing battle between free artistic expression and the public’s tolerance for ever-more-creative forms of profanity.
Howl the movie uses actual transcripts from the obscenity trial and dialogue from Ginsberg’s many taped interviews to create a strange form of verisimilitude, one that mimics the historical record in some ways but abandons and distorts it in other, more subtly manipulative ways. Made up with a beard, thick black glasses, and large prosthetic ears, actor James Franco does an impressive imitation of Allen Ginsberg reflecting back on the creation and publication of "Howl." The gestures, the cadences, the matter-of-fact intelligence—it’s all there in Franco’s performance. Franco also plays Ginsberg’s younger self reading the poem for the first time to an appreciative crowd in a smoky San Francisco coffee shop. The action in the film shifts back and forth between the passionate first reading of the poem, the obscenity trial itself, Ginsberg’s own analysis of the important moments in his life that led to the creation of the poem, and flashbacks to his days hobnobbing with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.
Where the film playfully abandons its allegiance to historical fact is during sections when Ginsberg/Franco is reading "Howl," which are illustrated with phantasmagoric sequences of animation based on the work Ginsberg did with an illustrator in New York, Erik Drooker. These animated sequences are a double-edged artistic choice on the part of the directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. On one hand, they are astonishingly vivid eye candy that attempt to imagine the wild, hallucinatory abandon of Ginsberg’s language and give visual form to the poem’s dark and often disturbing imagery. On the other hand, they are done in the style of a slick, modern graphic novel, which makes the poem look like the narrative of a comic book and, rather than enhancing the poem, arguably trivializes it. The animated sequences are exquisitely done and highly entertaining, but—depending on how seriously you take the poem itself—they will either amuse or disconcert you, or (if you’re lucky) both.
Another aspect of the film that’s jarring in its own peculiar way is the obscenity trial itself, which revolves around Ginsberg’s use of various euphemisms for oral, anal, vaginal, and gay sex. In terms of acting, this is where the film trots out its heavy hitters: Mad Men’s Jon Hamm as Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s defense lawyer (Ferlinghetti published the original chapbook of Howl, and it was really he, not Ginsberg, who was on trial), Mary Louise-Parker (Weeds) as a prudish scholar who finds no redeeming social value in the poem, and Jeff Daniels as an arrogant English professor who concurs with that assessment.
The trial scenes elicited plenty of laughs from the audience at the Walker—and it is funny to see how worked up people in the 1950s got about words and ideas that barely raise an eyebrow nowadays. But even if you agree that free speech should be protected, and that parsing a poem for “literary value” in a courtroom is ridiculous, there is something off-putting about the way the trial is presented.
The courtroom scenes are suffused with a disingenuous veneer of smugness, a self-congratulatory wink that lets you know the filmmakers and the actors all recognize that the trial is absurd, and if you do too, you can be in on the joke, wink, wink. After the judge’s verdict, when everyone in the courtroom is cheering, there’s a half-second shot of a woman wearing cat-eye glasses and a silver-haired bouffant who has a disapproving scowl on her face. She looks exactly like the church lady on SNL, and it’s clear the filmmakers enjoyed sticking a frame of her in at that moment, just as they enjoyed sticking it to the ignorant, uneducated masses who, in the late 1950s, thought the use of certain words and ideas in public discourse was somehow criminal.
The trouble with this knowing wink—the tip of the director’s hat that makes you feel smarter for living in the more enlightened 21st century—is that we haven’t come far enough as a society to deserve that congratulatory pat on the back. Homosexuality is still a crime in many states, gay marriage is one of the hot-button issues in the upcoming election, and there are people all over this country who are still working hard to ban books they disapprove of from school reading lists. Free artistic expression is an illusion, too, especially in movies, where the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating board regularly pressures movie-makers to shorten or cut sex scenes and reduce or eliminate foul language—by threatening to slap movies that don’t comply to their demands with a dreaded NC-17 rating, which is essentially the kiss of death for a mainstream movie. (The MPAA’s tolerance for violence seems to have no limit, however.)
In short, the only thing that has changed over the past fifty years in terms of the public’s attitude toward offensive behavior and language is that it’s hard to imagine a mere poem riling people up anymore. The idea of building a mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero, yes; of gay people raising children and living happily ever after, yes; of women having the right to choose an abortion or not, yes; of Harry Potter books promoting witchcraft, yes; of crazy preachers threatening to burn the Koran, yes; of wardrobe malfunctions at football games, yes; of rap lyrics and videos that treat women as sex toys, yes: of politicians lying about having sex with people other than their wives, yes; of Wall Street moguls who game the system in their favor, yes; of presidents who promote “socialism” by giving poor people access to healthcare, yes; of cartoons that contain desparaging depictions of Mohammed, yes.
But a poem? Not so much.
And that’s the best reason to see Howl : to remind yourself how powerful a poem can be, if it is written at the right time, in the right language, and tells a truth society is ready to hear. Howl valiantly attempts to dramatize that power as it manifested itself half a century ago, in a courtroom where one of the principle tenets of democracy was challenged, and, for a brief moment in time, people paid attention to a poem. Audiences can argue about how well the film portrays the true spirit of "Howl"—whether the film is dark, angry, or disturbing enough to communicate its true cultural impact. But the producers and directors of the film must be commended for taking on the challenge, and for preserving a moment in time when America’s consciousness was raised just enough to allow one of our greatest poets to have a voice and make a difference.