A Movie Recommendation for Writers

This isn’t a movie review, per se. I’m not going to get into the particular cinematic strengths and weaknesses of the piece in question. I will, however, strongly advise anyone that is serious about writing to check out Howl, starring James Franco.

The movie is several years old, so it’s probably old news to many of you. But I just last week got it on Netflix, not knowing what to expect. It was in several ways a pleasant surprise.

This non-conventional movie is broken up into several “timelines” for lack of a better term. Only one of these has any true linear plot to speak of. In one timelines, the then unknown Allen Ginsburg writes and performs his poem, “Howl” for the first time. In another timeline, Ginsburg is being interviewed, mostly about writing, by an unseen interviewer. In a third timeline, the obscenity trial for the poem in 1957.

There are also tiny flashback vignettes spread throughout.

Ostensibly, the Ginsburg poem is the centerpiece of the film, and indeed the entire poem is read throughout the film in pieces, interspersed with animated interpretations of the text. Yet what Howl is really about in the end, is writing itself as far as I am concerned. The interviews with Ginsburg (played by Franco) are made up of actual things Ginsburg said. His insights and exploration of what it truly means to be a writer are perhaps the best thing about the movie. Naturally one could simply read Ginsberg’s actual thoughts on these matters, but I have to give Franco credit for bringing life Ginsburg’s commentary in ways that reading and interview in a magazine would probably not accomplish.

The scenes from the obscenity trial are also based on the actual court transcripts, and hence provide an important commentary on the nature of both obscenity and art. How to define either one? Who has that right? Again, one could simply read the transcripts of the actual trial to see the points and counterpoints made in real life along this line, but I’m talking about a movie here. A movie that presents both sides of the trial with reverence while making clear where, (in my view) any writer or indeed any artist must fall on the issue.

I like the trial scenes for another reason; it gives one permission to not understand every aspect of the “Howl” poem, and therefore permission to not understand every aspects of every artwork or piece of literature. Too often we feel that if we don’t totally understand on first, second, or third reading the masterpieces of our time, or of previous times, we must be lacking. Or, the immature would argue, the masterpiece is worthless. Yet both Ginsburg’s commentary and the progression of the trial make room for the notion that we need not understand every word of a masterpiece in order to enjoy it, or in order for it to retain its masterpiece status.

I had read “Howl” before I saw this movie. I knew the basics of Allen Ginsburg’s position in the Beat movement and in American literature in a broad since before I saw this movie. But it wasn’t until I saw the Franco film that I began to take away from it all, (at least as packaged here), some of the universals that writers and artists should embrace. Universals such as embracing one’s art, being open and honest with one’s self and one’s muse, accepting one’s self for who one is in order to be better at writing, the importance of free speech in this land, and of refraining from judgement of creations we do not like or do not understand right off. Not that we must love or even respect everything that is produced, but rather that we not let our own personal preferences dictate what should and should not be art in most cases.

The acting, editing, cinematography and certainly the animation in this film are to be admired. I’ll let the movie reviews on the internet delve further into those aspects. For my part today, I simply repeat that all serious writers should take a look at this film. Even if you are not a writer and would like to understand some aspects of how many of us feel about the craft of writing, this film may be for you.

And if you have seen it, or do in the future, let me know here what you thought of it and it’s themes.


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