When I first heard about Howl a couple of months ago I was pretty excited but due to limited release I had to wait until this week until it was showing at my local cinema.
Howl caused controversy in 1956 America due to explicit language describing homosexual acts such as:
who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
(The poem can be read in its entirety here)
The publisher and bookstore owner where the poem was sold were both arrested on obscenity charges and taken to trial in 1957, a traditionally conservative judge ruled in favour of Howl, deciding it wasn’t obscene. This ruling is wildly regarded as one of the most important steps in fight against censorship.
James Franco plays Ginsberg in and gives an emotive performance, especially in the scenes of his debut performance of Howl at the Six Gallery Reading. These scenes are interspersed with interpretational animated sequences of the poem with Franco acting as the narrator.
Many have criticised the animation, believing it’s not possible to represent poetry in such a way, asserting a person’s interpretation should be their own. Whilst I agree with the notion I did enjoy the animated parts, admittedly the first couple took me aback and I wasn’t quite sure how to react but for me, Franco’s cadence and dramatic inflection paired so successfully with the animation it was almost a hypnotic experience. They also serve to make the film accessible to a larger audience, presenting a potential interpretation on screen could help people who perhaps otherwise wouldn’t engage with a simple narration of a complicated text to do so.
However, I think the trial scenes lacked depth; they were unashamedly and completely one-sidedly liberal. The conservatives who were against the poem were characterised from their introduction as either fools or prudes who couldn’t justify their objection, always being beaten by the liberal defence. It would have been interesting to see some more well rounded argument and context to why the poem was so opposed.
All in all, Howl is an interesting dramatisation of one the 20th century’s most important gay poets whose use of a variety of cinematic techniques make for a challenging but rewarding watch.