I arrived in Zurich to find a film festival, which, by immense good fortune, included the Swiss premier of Howl, a film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, about the Ginsberg poem.

Now, I know American films like to get some details wrong, and I know Hollywood does have the habit of taking a perfectly good story and turning it into an alien cowboy bunfight, but even so I didn’t expect to discover Ginsberg had written Under Milk Wood. That’s a good thing too, because that’s not what I got.

The film gently celebrated Ginsberg’s seminal poem. It recreated the poem’s first public outing. Although the filmed reading certainly didn’t have the disrespectful edge of the many readings I’ve attended, it beautifully rode the atmosphere and audience of a poetry event, a very successful first recital at that. Lap lap. The expressions, the riding the words, the laughter. Lap lap. I do doubt whether the first reading would have been quite so word perfect as the soundtrack, lap lap, which was, I’m pretty sure, the actor miming a recording of an older Ginsberg who was obviously very familiar with pronouncing the sounds. Lap lap. Even so, that reading was obviously highly significant, the film–makers were right to glorify it, and right to use Ginsberg’s voice.

Was Ferlinghetti really born decades before Ginsberg? Sorry, that’s from the court scenes. Ferlinghetti was the first publisher of Howl, and a damned fine poet in his own right. In the film, he had no words, just facial reactions, but the face that gave the Ferlinghetti facial reactions was in his 30s, maybe even 40s, & very respectable too. It seems he was. Ginsberg was apparently in his mid–20s when the trial took place. Oh, the court scenes were the attempt by the American state to censor the publication of the poem. Things have changed over there, now, of course, American corporates do the prurient censorship in place of the American state, out of the reach of that pesky freedom of speech thing that the state censors had to respect. Ginsberg would rail against that! Anyway, the poem apparently contained ordinary words used in naughty ways. The 1950s American state hated that. Or part of it did. It’s almost a wet dream for a poet, to get that kind of attention and publicity from officious bollox grinders. Hello Visa. Like your new role, do you? A consequence of the trial becomes a clever trick of the film, to show the critical reaction to the poem, have critics cross–examined, express their opinions, show that all but the least adventurous rated the poem highly.

One long shoehorn of a sequence of scenes was a fictional interview, written using Ginsberg’s words from many real interviews, covering Howl, its motivations, components, the nature of poetry itself, and drifting into biography, his family, his history and his search for a partner. It mentioned Ginsberg’s fear of his father, his episodes in mental hospital, his crushes on his friends amongst his contemporary great writers, before his final good fortune to meet Peter Orlovsky, his life–partner. Lucky git.

But most of all the film was about the poem. It interspersed the first reading scenes with animation, the feel of jazz riffing from the words. The dominant image of the industrial beast Morloch, Rexroth’s Morloch, strongly reminded me of HG Wells’ work for some reason, but some of the other images, for examples souls and angels, struck me as a little too easy. Even so, the animations worked as a complement to the poem, they certainly reinforced rather than opposed. However, those scenes make me strongly recommend getting to know the poem before seeing the film: their interpretation is only one of many, one I find too simplistic. When I use religious language I don’t use it so, well, so childishly, to be honest, and I wouldn’t expect Ginsberg to have done so either. Obviously, I could be wrong; mine is, after all, an uninformed interpretation. My idea of a soul is not something translucent, floating and clichéd; my idea of a soul is not so crudely fantasy of this world; my idea of a soul is not the snowman on benzedrine. I’ve gone too far with that criticism, it’s not deserved. But, hey, it’s a poem.

My one objection whilst I watched the movie were the introductory credits. The film opened with the first recital launching into the poem, just enough to get me into the words, when, at “jazz”, it cut to those damn titles. What, did they really want to punish people who were enjoying the poetry?! Silly arses.

The acting? The acting?! Ach, I know sod all about acting. Lets just say I believed the guy playing Ginsberg was Ginsberg, a gentle but genuine portrayal, there was nothing he did that was not the young poet gathering his soul, there was nothing that was not an ordinary human being who happened to be a great artist. All the performances told the story, I believed the performances, I believed the story they told. They went gentle into that good light, the film light, and rightly so. The directing, the directing? I know even more sod all about directing. Lets just say it worked, and worked very well indeed.

Overall, a gentle, sympathetic exploration of an essential poem, and thoroughly worth seeing. Clap clap. In fact, clap clap clap clap clap. :-)

Written & directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Starring James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Mary–Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels