Book Vs. Film: Howl
In the wake of all the tragedy and sadness that occurred in in Japan last week, we're going to attempt to kick off this week with a new feature here at The Cult. So turn off CNN for ten minutes and read something that hopefully makes you a little happier for the hour.
This idea is something that's been at the back of my mind on and off throughout the years, but it took Tina Estlin Page, one of our more reclusive journalists, to jolt it back into the forefront. She put forth the idea of reviewing the 2010 adaptation of Allen Ginsberg's controversial writing piece Howl, which was directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and stars James Franco as Ginsberg. And thus, the idea for this feature was born.
I'm going to call this new feature Book Vs. Film, but as you know, Howl is not a book at all, but a poem. Now, I'd love to actually call this a column, but I don't know with what sort of frequency we'll be able to keep up with. A lot of that will depend on you, the readers, and how well you respond to it. So here we go! - Dennis
A roommate of mine once had to fish her flailing cat, spitting and slicing dread, up and over a banister by the same leash that had bound him to a second floor railing. The leash was meant to keep him still and set limits for his enjoyment and just stay right there, cat, please. I had predicted that this would happen, in the way that pessimists always predict everything, as long as the outcome is disastrous.
"He's gonna fling himself over that rail, Lindsay. Seriously. And then the leash...It makes me nervous," I told her. Imagining the disastrous things. Saying sooths.
As it turns out, I wasn't present for the spectacle. She recounted the turn of things for me the following day, her gauze-wound right hand the punctuation of the goings.
"I don't think he meant to do it. He was scared, you know? But where he caught me, it just exploded with infection."
"I am never going to forget that," I said, and recoiled. Imagining sooth.
What I got out of that was that you could say anything awful, but if you said it well it was memorable. That's pretty similar to how I feel about Howl, Allen Ginsberg's most memorable of poems. It is exploding with infection. Monstrous and absurd in its speech, written it is no less imprintive, its structure and repetition pleasantly pushy but petulant, remarkable in its remarking and lousing in profanity. So that is how you spell gyzym? I'd have never.
It stayed with me ever after, its who who's and Moloch's and hyperactive punctuation, and when I heard there'd be a movie about it, I got worried quick. You either read it, or you hear it, or perhaps take it in an installation, but you don't film that which Howls. Because it does not make sense when you move something already moving just to say, now look at it! Sooth: it will not end well. Later it was clarified that it would be about the obscenity trial surrounding the poem; which is to say, oh. Well, okay. I supposed I was interested, then, but out of duty to the written word.
Then it was further said to be about Allen Ginsberg. Like, it was about Ginsberg and seminally called Howl and it would get around to addressing the trial, but, Ginsberg. And James Franco would play the man.
The previous incarnation was portrayed by David Cross in the Dylan collage, I'm Not There.
Let your math do its sums; I was dubious. Are we just going to pretend? Okay. You're going to insist; fine. I like the guy and he can be capable. The casting of Don Draper followed, and Jeff Bridges, and Mary Louise Parker, and I went, yes, alright, continue. I saw a trailer tacked onto Never Let Me Go (ugh) and I was, at the very least, anticipating. Of course it never came out anywhere near where I live and I finally watched it with the rest of the plebian tier of film critics when it became available to the unwashed masses on Netflix.
It is worse than you think, imagine. I said my sooth and it stood, and it was worse. This is the cat, over the rail. This is Howl, not exploding with infection.
Instead, Howl the movie hauls around Howl the poem's remarkable language gauchely, as if the language carries with it not explosive infection but unintelligible, grotesque, pitiful disease asking simply for a bandaid: here is a literal transcription of Howl. In drawings. The disease is surprisingly histrionic. Drawings animated and forced to shamelessly throw themselves down the reel while Franco recites Howl. Drawings rendered by New Yorker favorite Eric Drooker, the perfect pick for an already absolutely stupid choice, clearly asking no questions like, so, where he says machinery of night you literally want me to just? Just? Like it's leprosy.
I am embarrassed to be watching this, embarrassed I involved other people in watching it. We sit stricken with the embarrassment. I keep saying No, no, as if by my own mortification I could reroute celluloid. Like this wouldn't keep happening. Like I could pull the cat back over the rail and no one would be the wiser.
Alcohol and cock and endless balls, Franco recites, sliding already toward an eleven of loud and earnestness. Literally, endless balls in the frame.
"Oh, God. Wait 'til they get to Moloch," sooth'ed I.
Five minutes of this and Howl the movie switches back to its courtroom setting. Wait, but what about the group of kids Ginsberg is reciting to? Ginsberg and co. are nowhere to be seen. They could have made a documentary, they said, but didn't. Don Draper preens, Mary Louise Parker is pious. But Howl is moving on, no questions. We flash to Ginsberg, we flash to the court, we flash and cringe through more of this truly terrible animation and, like, that's just your opinion, man. The point is, those other two parts confuse each other and read like well-made 45 minute pieces that somebody hacksawed in edit to place parts of Howl, the actual Howl--that is to say, this here Howl, presented like this. The reading with the drawing. The Howl that was exploding with infection that now just limps that disease through Howl and asks, who is there? Who? Waving genitals? Ultimate cunt? Mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors? And then shows you those things, illustrated, obvious, just in case you aren't listening or could not understand or even fathom. Especially when you can't fathom. Here, here, let us fathom for you the unfathomable poem!
They get to Moloch, alright. They are with the soothsayers in Rockland. Imagine that. "Just turn it off," someone bleats, shielding their view of the television with a palm. "Just stop." I don't: principle. People walk out of the room to stop the imagining.
All of this is to say, no matter how you feel about the poem Howl, you will be offended by the movie Howl, and its diseased showing. It insists you are more stupid than can be imagined. There is a title card that informs you that everything is factual and from sources and recreated for you, as it sooths you might be woefully incapable of imagining where people come up with this stuff, I mean where do they get it? This talking and gesturing stuff. And, of course, it beats you mercilessly with Howl, imagining the angelheaded hipsters for you, so you don't have to imagine, or even read. And where Howl fails as a movie, it is at least fit to look upon in parts. The obscenity trial portion is needless, made especially exhausting by the fact that it reads directly from the transcripts and is just as boring as that sounds, no matter how many pretty people you place in scene with historically correct clothing and eyewear, and even if you light them correctly. The only thing interesting from a thinking person's perspective is the guise of people thinking hard about Howl and all its cussing. The biopic portion holds all the good there is to get of the parts; Franco did his homework. He sounds like the man when he reads aloud, and when he is being interviewed. He is certainly charming. But make no bones. If there hadn't been all this Ginsberg just lying around, especially all this Ginsberg that the movie just boorishly lifts from interviews and readings and transcripts like it was a no brainer and this writing stuff is for the birds, then we might have to call a spade a spade. I smell that most of those who make it to the end of Howl do so to watch Ginsberg finally fit the felching with his sexuality, which is to say that what in turn could have been sweet or sentimental instead just reassures (or, probably, thinks it informs) that yeah, he's gay by the end and Franco totally makes out with another charming, well-lit, fashionable and wildly facially fictionalized representation of another man.
No parts that actually involve Howl, the poem, are fit for the looking. There are the few that are, and then there is everything else. The everything else includes Howl. Never the twain. As an adaptation it fails on absolutely every single level. Howl, the poem, exploded with infection; it was awful things said memorably, provided the possibility to imagine. This is an embarrassment. Embarrassment. Just being in the same room as this movie is too much to bear, its oppressive catering to my perceived intellectual helplessness so burdens the constitution. It doesn't say anything awful memorably; it is just awful.