Well this is quite a movie, but what kind of movie do you classify it as? That is a very difficult question to answer. I originally thought this was more or less a documentary about the eponymous poem and how/why it became so popular, but this is not at all the case. There are essentially four parts to the movie that are segmented and dispersed throughout the film. There is a reenactment of the debut performance of the poem at the Six Gallery, an interview with Ginsberg, an animated adaptation of the poem, and a reenactment of the 1957 obscenity trial revolving around the poem.
The debut reading does a good job at capturing the way people reacted to the poem when they first heard it. laughter at first, when some of the odd phrases and vulgar words were spoken (I’ve read the poem before but it’s been quite a while and I didn’t remember it being so vulgar when I had read it, not that I have a problem with that, there very clearly was a reason why those words were used). But as the reading continues and the movie progresses and you can see the raw emotion within the audience. Yet given all of this, this is still the least significant part of the film.
The interview with Ginsberg gives some (but limited) insight into the poet’s life. He struggled with homosexuality in a time when tolerance (at least in this regard) was virtually nonexistent. He was sent to an insane asylum (for reasons that aren’t exactly clear) and in order to get out he had to essentially promise to be strait, and then struggled with a double bind as to what he should be and what deep down inside he was. I am personally very glad I do not live in a time or place where alternative lifestyles are so rigorously repressed. Luckily for Ginsberg after all his struggle and personal internal torment, his life met with a happy ending when he found a man he truly loved and they remained together for the rest of Ginsberg’s life, which was quite long given that most of his beat era friends did not make it out of the 60’s.
As a fan of animation, I of course loved the adaptation of the poem. The animation does not always act out directly what is being discussed in the poem, at times it is very hard to visualize just what the poem is talking about, even for the most intuitive of us. There are a lot of animations of sex throughout, heterosexual union, man and woman connected together twirling in a cosmic skyscape, you get the idea. But it’s more beautiful then erotic.
The most significant part of the movie however is the courtroom drama. I was unaware that “Howl” had gone under trial for obscenity. I still find it difficult to imagine a world in which works of art, literature and so on, would be securitized in a legal sense, and as a writer I am very glad that this whole idea is well buried in the past. All art, no matter what, has the potential to be of value to someone at some time, and who is to judge what that value is? Leave it alone, let it go, let it flourish, let the art make its own value to one day change someone else’s life.
This movie in multiple ways shows how far we, as a county and to an extent the world, have come, in terms of art and respect for difference and a greater understanding of who we are as a society and as individuals, and it begs the greater question too of just how far do we go from here and how can we continue to change and evolve to make the world a better place?
Needless to say, great film. if you want to read the poem for yourself, click here.