“Howl”: first feature-length videopoem?

I wake from a dream of flying and being grounded — flying with my own wings, I mean, and then being stopped and held back by a ring of people who were all masquerading as me: Poetry.

Jesus. Did I really just dream that? I did, and I have no doubt what prompted it: watching HOWL on Hulu last night before bed. The hallucinatory animation sequences, full of flying and falling souls/poets/angelheaded hipsters, were clearly still percolating through my subsconscious.

Andrew Weil once wrote about psychotropic drugs that one’s experience is greatly determined by set (i.e. mindset) and setting. I think the same is true for many other kinds of mind-altering experiences, including reading novels and watching movies. My experience of HOWL was largely positive, therefore, in part because the setting was right. My belly was full, the chair was comfortable, and I had been actively searching for something to watch that would be slightly challenging, but primarily escapist entertainment. More importantly, I think, was my mindset, shaped by a couple of years of curating Moving Poems and studying all manner of poetry films, especially animations and film-poems or videopoems. I read the reviews of HOWL when it first came out and conceived the notion that it was basically a feature-length version of the kinds of things I most like to post to Moving Poems, and sure enough, that’s what I saw last night: a brilliant mixture of documentary, animation, and interview with the poem itself at center stage.

A couple other critical elements of my mindset help account for my reception. One is that I’m a strong advocate of free speech and gay rights, things central to the obscenity trial, which was the film’s chronological anchor and source of dramatic tension. I don’t often think about the kind of courage required to do what Ginsberg (and Ferlinghetti) did in pre-Stonewall days. The details about his and his mother’s involuntary consignment to mental institutions were sobering, too, and I didn’t know anything about that background to the poem.

Another thing that shaped my perception of the movie was my attitude about Beat poetry in general and Ginsberg’s poetry in particular: I’ve never particularly cared for either one, but I recognize their importance to 20th-century American poetry — which I am obviously very deeply interested in. From the opening seconds of the film, I was like, Holy shit, that’s the reading, man! The one that started this whole craze for live poetry readings (and later, poetry slams) that’s still with us 55 years later. But in general, I find Beat poetry boring, self-indulgent, and severely lacking in the kinds of silences I prize in modern lyric poetry. Perhaps if I’d had a more exalted opinion of the poem or its author, I’d have been disappointed with what the directors, actors and animator did with it. Instead, I thought they succeeded brilliantly, not only in bringing the poem to life, but as Stanley Fish pointed out in the New York Times, communicating something of the intellectual pleasures of literary criticism, and of reading itself — a real feat for any movie.

In my post-movie enthusiasm last night, I also read an interview with the filmmakers, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, at TribecaFilm.com. As a connoisseur of film-poetry I was especially interested in their description of the process:

Q: So HOWL is a movie about poetry. How did you even start to conceive how to do that?

Jeffrey Friedman: Yeah, it took us a while to figure it out. We just approached it as we would any other project by starting to do research. We wanted to understand what went into the making of the poem; Allen’s creative process and his personal process; and what he had to go through to get to the point where he could produce this poem.

We wanted to understand the world that the poem [was] being introduced into, and the obscenity trial seemed like a ready-made theater to show that. We wanted the poem to live on its own, [which the poem does in] different ways in the movie: it lives as performance art, which is the way it was first presented to the world, as spoken word—it was really the first poetry slam—and in the animation, which was inspired by Eric Drooker’s collaboration with Ginsberg on a book of poems, including part of HOWL, called Illuminated Poems.

Rob Epstein: We wanted the poem to be a character. That was the starting point.

Q: I’m fascinated by your switch from doc to narrative. Were you always planning that with HOWL?

Rob Epstein: When we started immersing ourselves in research, we didn’t yet have a concept. Once we did, the first idea we had for the film was pretty close to what it ended up being: we knew we wanted to do a dramatic film that had the veracity of a documentary. We became less concerned with category than with approach.

A little later in the interview, they address the animation specifically:

Q: One of my favorite lines in the film is during the courtroom scene: “You can’t translate poetry to prose; that’s what makes it poetry.” Would you talk about the process of translation [sic] poetry into animation? Do you think it’s a better fit?

Jeffrey Friedman: Well, we don’t think of it as translation, we think of it as adaptation, the way you would adapt a novel. So you have to make it specific, because you’re creating something visual, so it’s a very specific vision that we try to imagine as what might have been going on in the head of the poet as these images were emerging.

We have all these different realities in the film. We have the present tense, all in color, which is the obscenity trial and the imagined interview with Allen, which was inspired by this Time magazine interview that he gave during the trial that was never published. And then we have flashbacks (in black and white) to events in his life and the first reading of the poem. But we also wanted the poem to live in a kind of timeless, unreal world, so the animation was a way of trying to create that.

I think the vividness of my dreams this morning is testimony to just how well they succeeded. Unmoved as I was by Ginsberg’s insistence on the importance of confessional authenticity, and by his over-all worldview with its achingly sincere, youthful visions of revolution, somehow I was captivated by a film about a poem I still consider terribly over-rated. I think that says something about the power of the film-poem genre in general, where the leaps, gaps and paradoxes of the poem guide the action, and where poem and film combine to make something greater than the sum of its parts. For Epstein and Friedman’s next project, perhaps they could take a look at Elizabeth Bishop’s work? “The Art of Losing” would make a great title for a movie…