A post about a movie about a poem

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I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness

When I saw there was a movie called Howl playing at NWFF this weekend, I kind of hoped it was about werewolves. But it’s actually about “angelheaded hipsters” – which, come to think of it, would make a fun Halloween costume. (Send us your photos!)

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall

These hipsters are the friends, lovers and fans of Allen Ginsburg, the young gay poet whose 1956 Howl and Other Poems, along with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (published one year later) created an instant beatnik canon. The movie is an ode to the poem, the poet, and the movement. It was made by documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, which probably accounts for its unusual structure.

who burned cigarette holes in their arts protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism

James Franco is a charismatic and convincing Ginsburg, in a recreated 1957 interview and in flashbacks to the people, adventures and nightmares that inspired Howl. These are intercut with scenes of Franco reading to an appreciative coffeehouse audience, animated sequences, and dramatized excerpts from the surreal obscenity trial of Howl’s publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity

The trial scenes are a lot of fun, as a parade of expert witnesses (played by appropriately hip actors like Mary Louise Parker and Alessandro Nivola) alternately attack and defend Ginsburg’s work. Subjecting art to cross-examination is unavoidably silly, and as one witness points out, can unintentionally turn individual pieces into historic icons.

Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!

But my favorite part of “Howl” is the recreated interview with Ginsburg, which shows him to be insightful, articulate and wise well beyond his then 30 years. Example: “The question is what happens when you make a distinction between what you tell your friends and what you tell your muse. The trick is to break down that distinction, to approach your muse as frankly as you would talk to yourself or to your friends, to commit to writing, to write the same way you are.”

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