Sunday, October 3, 2010

drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

Last night I ended up seeing Howl after messing up the times for the movie I actually wanted to see. It was one of those great unexpected viewing experiences. I'm sure a lot of people will hate it. There isn't really a script: the whole thing is made up of scenes from Howl's obscenity trial, Franco as Ginsberg talking to an unseen interviewer, and Franco reciting the text over a truly odd set of animations. It doesn't come close to passing the Betchel test, but it's hard to fault it for that when Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassidy and Peter Orlovsky get about three lines between them. There are also lots of great photos of the young Allen & friends, which are gorgeous and heartbreaking the way the photos of young Dylan in the Scorcese documentary were. When the real Ginsberg sings over the closing montage, you kind of start to weep a little. The closest thing to it I can think of was Chicago 8 from a few years ago. It's hard to know what to say about the animations: Moloch is a giant calf like the golden calf you destroy in Sunday School pagents. There are lots of phallic fields and the approaches to animating lines about the cocksman and Adonis of Denver or sweetening the snatches of the sunrise are not metaphoric, to say the least. But the whole thing made me kind of weepy. I mean, first of all, putting basically the entire text in a movie is gutsy. Why not team up with Oprah and have a whole series of movies that are nothing but animated recitations of great books? Maybe that will be Franco's next project, or his Columbia thesis, if he doesn't first get inspired by this role to throw potato salad in the face of professors who lecture on Dadaism.

If there is an idea that comes across here, it seemed to be something about the liberatory, utopic feel of the poem. What feels hard to recapture about 1955 was not why Howl might have been shocking or met an obscenity charge. (The trial part of the film was the least compelling - it's fun to see the expert witnesses make fools of themselves, but it's all too smug.) What you get from Franco's reading is the celebration of these men and their beauty. It's the sex revolution before there was a sexual revolution. In the interview Franco as Ginsberg says that the key thing about the infamous line about saintly motorcyclists is that it ends with joy, which the reader doesn't expect. And as Andrew O'Hehir points out in his review, despite all our progress, we still don't have a lot of unabashedly romantic and erotic celebrations of same-sex love in our culture (or, arguably, of heterosexuality either.)

The movie also made me think more about the idea of self-disclosure, which I contemplated in my last post. Why not just write what happened isn't quite the question for poets, of course. To the extent that the movie has any kind of a 'plot,' it's how Ginsberg comes to write the poem he doesn't want his father to read. The format of the film protects it from the paint-by-numbers Freudian 'find your voice' thing of most Hollywood biographies. But we get close to it when Franco as Ginsberg talks about learning to put the everyday in his poems, about how the best of us comes out when we speak to our friends, but writers hide that to try to sound better than they are. This took Ginsberg to his reinvention of Whitman, making his subtext text. It's a familiar revelation, but somehow Franco makes it work.

But here's what I was really left thinking about, of course: Jon Hamm. He doesn't have a lot to do as Ferlinghetti's lawyer. But when we get to "who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments if fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality" the animation takes us past billboards that look exactly like the opening sequence of Mad Men. There's no way this is a coincidence. Later we see Ginsberg in a San Francisco ad office, moving tag lines around the page, expressing relief that he can survive in a straight job "with several secretaries." All of which leads me to one inescapable conclusion: in the series finale, when Don finally drops acid, he's going to find out that his whole stint in adversing was a peyote trip and he's going to wake up in the apartment of Midge's bohemian friends from Season one. Roger was the ghost of his dead father, Bert Cooper is the shaman, and Ken Cosgrove is the angel-headed hipster." Then he and Sal run away together. (Sal as in Sal Paradise: coincidence? I think not.) Who's with me?

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