When watching biopics, I am never quite sure what to think. It is tempting, no doubt, to write off the life you are viewing as separate and distinct from your own- a story to enjoy and a person to admire, pity, or fear. I think, however, it is impossible to do so entirely. You see, in every life we witness, in every character we come to know, be they real or imagined, I believe we see a piece of ourselves and a reflection on a part or the whole of society
Howl tells the story of the life, or at least a piece of the life, of Allen Ginsberg, the 1950s Beat Poet who gained fame after writing the poem of the same title. I must admit I was largely unfamiliar with Ginsberg’s groundbreaking piece and his life prior to seeing Howl. I actually came across the movie after doing a Netflix search for movies in which Jon Hamm has a role (never underestimate the awesome discoveries that can occur when searching for Jon Hamm roles!)
Howl seems to be as much a love letter to the life of Ginsberg as it does to his poem. The movie is infused with the words from Howl, spoken by a solemn yet enthusiastic James Franco in a smoky, ill lit coffee shop full of young adults in the 1950s. We are treated to not only flashbacks on Ginsberg’s life, but to present day musings by the poet, dramatic cartoon imaginings of the images his words inspire, and quite importantly, sterile and perfunctory scenes taken place in the room of a courthouse where the fate of Howl’s publisher is to be decided on the grounds that he deliberately published obscene and pornographic material.
One of the stronger points of Howl is the almost effortless weaving in and out of Ginsberg’s actual work; it acts like a thread that anchors the scene transitions between Ginsberg’s apartment, the smoky coffee house, and the courtroom where the work’s fate is decided. The courtroom itself is a reminder of the wall through which Ginsberg is trying to break through- filled with men in three piece suits, women in hats and pearls, and a brightness that gives it the feeling of an operating room. David Strathairn has a strong performance as the prosecuting attorney, although I would have liked to see his discomfort with the subject matter far more apparent. Perhaps he should have taken his cue from our dear Republican politicians who find it so prudent to angrily rail against today’s “obscenities.”
Although it is a movie that centers on the so-called “obscenities” and free-spirited beings that were almost bursting through the seams of the 1950s, it is also one that is very much about our own time. Ginsberg, at least as portrayed by James Franco, seems to be a delicate soul who was, at least for much of his life, trapped in the fears of normalcy and deathly afraid of being seen as anything different. His story is a symbol for much of the youth of today’s generation, scared into submission over identities not yet deemed normal by the high-holy standards of American life. But even more than this, Howl, both in movie and in poetry, slams the point home about the importance of free expression and openness of ideas. These are themes that are timeless, and Ginsberg’s original poem is the paramount representation of the importance of breaking the mold, forging paths, and cherishing new ideas. These ideas come to a head near the end of Howl with an eloquent and timely monologue given by Howl’s defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, played as always with cool confidence and a righteous ease by Jon Hamm.
“The battle of censorship will not be finally settled by your honor’s decision, but you will either add to liberal-educated thinking, or by your decision you will add fuel to the fire of ignorance. Let there be light. Let there be honesty. Let there be no running from non-existent destroyers of morals. Let there be honest understanding.”
It’s important to note that, as far as I know, all of the scenes that took place in the court room, including this one, were directly lifted from the transcripts of the trial.
Given today’s political climate, this film spoke very deeply to me. It always amazes me how much we as human beings (and perhaps most of all Americans) seem to repeat the mistakes of our past. Howl serves as a reminder not only of the groundbreaking work of Allen Ginsberg, but what his work and his life meant for changing the course of American thinking on what counts as “normal” and “socially desirable.”
Pairs well with: A good craft IPA like Bell’s Two Hearted or Mad Hatter New Holland