There are many reasons to champion the film “Howl,” which opens this weekend at the Landmark Lagoon Theater in Uptown. Foremost is the fact that this is a film about poetry, self-expression and censorship that clips along with so many ideas about art versus polite society that, after viewing it twice on pay-per-view, I still haven’t tired of its inspirations or revelations, and expect more when I see it on the big screen soon.
There are amazing performances, primarily from James Franco as then-unpublished 29-year-old poet Allen Ginsberg, who, in 1955, stood behind the podium at a poetry reading at Gallery Six in San Francisco and delivered his four-part poem “Howl” which famously begins, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” It unspools from there as an eruption of rhythm, words, jazz, the moment, and a celebration of Ginsberg’s brothers-in-sexuality-and-free-thinking Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.
The other terrific performance comes from Jon Hamm (Mad Men’s Don Draper), who, in an inspired bit of casting, plays San Francisco attorney Jake Ehrlich, who fights for the First Amendment rights of “Howl and Other Poems” publisher and City Lights bookstore co-owner Laurence Ferlinghetti. Thankfully, “Howl” celebrates the poem itself and stops well short of yet another celluloid mythologizing of the Baby Boom generation, which may have seen its last gasp with the wretched “Pirate Radio” and tepid “Taking Woodstock.” “Howl”’s greatness lies in its dedication to representing Ginsberg’s mind, heart and words via interviews, court transcripts and animation. The result is a template about creativity and the artist’s way that’s as instructive as anything out there at the moment.
Like most good things in life, “Howl” reminds me of people I know or have known, and this crazy little thing we call Minneapolis. As I type this, there are artists, writers and musicians working in solitude and coming together to foment around a scene that has been well documented over the years, if elusively defined. “Howl” and Ginsberg — who “spent time in the looney bin” and drove his mother to her lobotomy — brings them all together and gets at the slippery slope of artistry and how loners, freaks and various sundry other golden-headed hipsters butt up against a status quo that would, per the folk singer Malvina Reynolds, put them in “Little Boxes.”
Upon the conclusion of the “Howl” reading, fellow poet Michael McClure wrote, “Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America.”
Despite the obscenity trial prosecutor’s conclusion that “Howl” is nothing but “a lot of sensitive bull***,” voices and bodies still hurl themselves against the harsh wall of America. The conclusion of “Howl,” film and poem, celebrates a litany of anti-heroes and other fine messes with the repetitive line, “Holy the.” In doing so, Ginsberg baptizes the unwashed huddled masses who escape social or religious validation, and, 55 years later, begs for open-ended collaboration:
Holy the chaos seekers
Holy the scribblers
Holy the peace peddlers
Holy the twisted, bitter, and kind
Holy the ATM at midnight
Holy the bar flies and observers
Holy the feral
Holy the eyes met in consort
Holy the beats
Holy the tweets
Holy the shiny bottles
Holy the loner’s manifesto
Holy the absinthe angels
Holy the dusty page
Holy the cold keyboard
Holy the punks, hippies, drifters
Holy the dreamers
Holy the box cars
Holy the light rail
Holy the crazies
Holy the crazies
Holy the crazies
Jiw Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.