The Beat Goes On

“Howl,” the movie I did some storyboarding for, opened in limited release this past weekend. If not for the obligations of Candy Dance, I would’ve trekked out to San Francisco see it on the big screen — it doesn’t seem to be coming to Reno, so I’ll probably catch it when it opens in Sacramento or Davis in a couple weeks. The reviews appear to be a replay of the reaction it got when it opened Sundance — opinions are all over the map. And it’s not just that opinion is split: there also seems to be general disagreement about which parts of the movie work and which parts don’t. Some people find the animation imaginative and striking, others find it over-literal (one reviewer found the animation “pornographic” and “fruity”(!)). Some find the coutroom scenes, detailing the obscenity trial for “Howl,” an enthralling re-enactment of literary and legal analysis, others find them stiff and static. The one thing most agree on, across the board, is that James Franco gives a fine performance as Ginsberg, transcending his moviestar good looks to get at his subject’s soulfulness (not that Ginsberg would’ve objected to a cinematic reincarnation as marquee-ready beefcake; and at any rate, he actually was cute when he was young).

A worthwhile piece that uses the release of the film to talk about the social context of “Howl,” when the poem first appeared, is How “Howl” Changed the World, by Fred Kaplan. Here’s an excerpt:

Ginsberg proved prophetic. The same year that he wrote “Howl,” Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were breaking free from the cage of Abstract Expressionism. Over the next few years, Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis would free jazz from the structure of chord-changes; Norman Mailer would smash the barrier between literature and journalism, the subjective self and the world; Allan Kaprow would stage the first “Happenings,” which blurred the boundaries between spectacle and spectator, art and life; Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl created a new stand-up comedy that rejected mere jokes for jazz-inflected monologues on politics, race, and religious hypocrisy.

(Although I feel obliged to note that Kaplan mischaracterizes Eric Drooker, the designer of the animation, as a “graffiti artist,” when in fact he was a street poster artist)

Serendipitously, I was recently reacquainted with an example of beat poetry making ripples in popular culture, when Ralph Carney posted a link to the below clip on his facebook feed. The beats, as Kaplan underscores, were cultural outsiders — they were also too distinctive to avoid a translation into the more mainstream entertainments of the day. The clip of Phillipa Fallon as a beat poet showed up in the B-movie High School Confidential, two years after the publication of “Howl.” It’s more or less a square’s version of hip, but Fallon brings it all the way back to cool again somehow.

If you’d prefer to hear pure beat performance, unfiltered through the lens of 50s teensploitation, here’s Ginsberg himself (click through to youtube for the full performance — and be warned that the language makes it NSFW):

And lastly, here’s a clip of Ginsberg on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line.” Though Buckley drips contempt, it’s weirdly quaint to see two ideological opposites being civil while talking past each other. It’s a transmission that might as well be from another world.

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