Sunday, January 29, 2012

Have you read or watched The Howl?

Every once in a while when I go through a sporadic bout of literary crisis, which is to say I feel utterly devoid of being able to write a piece of fiction or a poem, I watch the film Howl (2010) for inspiration. Based on the life and times of American poet Allen Ginsberg, played by James Franco, on his most famous and controversial poem Howl, the film is a pure celebration of cinema, digital art and poetry.
It also chronicles the 1957 obscenity trial faced by San Francisco poet and City Lights Bookstore co-founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, over the publication of the poem, which is hilarious and ironical as it’s based on actual courtroom records. Adding to this is Jon Hamm from Mad Men, who plays Ferlinghetti’s lawyer, and is sort of vindicating to watch on screen.
It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read the poem before you watch the film, there are brilliant animation sequences that give a stunning, breathtaking visual interpretation of the poem, and the deftness with which the narrative and the poem are stitched, it quite literally blows your mind. And apart from the censorship and politics of Howl; the historical relevance it had on independent publishing; the film also deals with how Ginsberg comes about expressing his homosexuality and mental health through the poem.
Most of all, the film works for me as an edgy romanticism of writing and poetry that I find lost today in the world of publishing formulas and multi-cultural literary festivals. In faux interviews, Franco-Ginsberg likens the urge to write as a sexual feeling that springs from the pit of a stomach which travels to the mouth and is let out in a sigh in search of words.
Franco’s haunting voice and the rhythmic, tumbling, hallucinogenic howl of the poem is also a fresh introduction to the jazz and psychosis of the literary movement in the 1950s called the beat generation, coined by writer Jack Kerouac. It was Kerouac’s fictional memoir On the Road that set the map for a bunch of writers that came to be regarded as the beats or beatniks.
Howl has the same effect on me today as it did when I was in school after discovering the works of Kerouac and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. They inspired Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan, and led me to smoke my first chillum at the Pink Floyd Cafe in Pushkar followed by disastrous bus journeys. On YouTube, you can listen to some of the other famous poems by the beats, including Ginsberg’s America and Gregory Corso’s On Marriage in their voice.
On the Road, the film, is finally set to release this year. Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now fame has had the rights for years and has made several attempts to make the film, but failed. It was only after he watched The Motorcycle Diaries (the bike road trip of Che Guevara in his youth), he roped in Brazilian director Walter Salles, and a cast and a script have been put in place. The film was set to release last year, but for some reason has got pushed to this summer. I’m not sure what to expect from it, the few unofficial trailers I’ve seen on YouTube seem strange.
For now, I’ll leave you with the opening lines of The Howl by Allen Ginsberg.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix/angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night/who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz...”


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