Howl: Everything Has Changed
Well, my goodness.
Things certainly have changed since I was a girl.
And thank God for it.
This, more than anything else, was what kept drifting into my mind when I saw Howl, the new film about the renowned Beat poem and the obscenity trial that surrounded it, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg.
A lot of things drifted into my mind when I was watching this film. The connections between eroticism and artistic creativity. The connections between eroticism and anti-conformist rebellion. The roots of gay liberation that extended back years before the Stonewall riots. The They Might Be Giants song, "I Should Be Allowed To Think." (I know, I'm a Philistine.) What a tasty little dish James Franco is. How to make films based on real events that don't seem like Lifetime docu-dramas.
Starring James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, Treat Williams, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Alessandro Nivola, Todd Rotondi, Jon Prescott, and Aaron Tveit
Animation by Eric Drooker
Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
90 minutes. Unrated.
The film Howl has an interesting structure, one that gives it a feeling of authenticity while still having drama and artistry and without reading as a documentary. It's just four interweaving threads, all of which are drawn from real events: the obscenity trial, a re-creation of the first public reading Ginsberg gave of "Howl," re-created excerpts of interviews with Ginsberg (with the events described in said interviews sometimes being re-enacted), and a luscious, evocative animated interpretation of the poem by comics artist Eric Drooker. Deceptively simple; quietly compelling; elegant.
But the idea that kept drifting into my head, again and again, gently and relentlessly, was this:
Damn. The world certainly has changed.
It has radically changed when it comes to matters of sex.
And thank God for it.
The entire Howl obscenity trial, by today's standards, seems ludicrous on the face of it. I kept listening to various renderings of the poem... and I kept thinking, "So where's the problem?" (Yes, I've read it before, but it's been a while.) Okay, yes: "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy." A few other phrases along those lines. Really? That's it? The poem uses sexual language that they now use in The New Yorker. It explores sexual themes that they're exploring on Mad Men. The idea that a poem with occasional mentions of sex and homosexuality—some of them explicit, many of them not—would result not only in controversy, but in the banning of the work and the actual arrest, by actual policemen, of the publisher... by today's standards, it seems laughable. Outrageous, too, of course. Appalling, yes, without question. But mostly just... well, dumb. Baffling. Literally incomprehensible.
And think about this movie itself. The movie, with its multiple readings of the supposedly obscene poem and the supposedly obscene poetic passages in question. The movie, with its occasionally explicit depictions of the passages in question. I have heard zero controversy about it. There may be some in the Bible Belt—it wouldn't surprise me—but even the Religious Right doesn't seem to be wetting its pants over a cinematic depiction of/story about the poem "Howl." Hell, the thing will probably be on HBO in a few months. And it's unlikely that anyone will raise a stink when it is.
Plus, of course, the world has changed in other ways. Gay ways. We now have a world where movies with positive gay characters, even heroic gay characters, are relatively common. And we have a world where actors and actresses are happy to play gay roles in movies... and where they get nominated for Oscars for doing so. I remember in the 1980s, when they were trying to get a movie made of the gay-themed book The Front Runner... and no actor would touch the lead role with a ten-foot pole. Playing gay characters was seen as the kiss of death to a movie career. It was generally assumed that, once you played gay, movie audiences would think that you yourself were gay, and nobody would ever accept you in a straight role ever again. Now, we have James Franco. Who is quickly rising to Hollywood ascendency... in large part on the strength of his roles as Harvey Milk's lover Scott in Milk, and as Allen Ginsberg in Howl.