Tuesday, April 12, 2011

April is National Poetry Month...

...so celebrate by seeing Howl (2010) -- but NOT IN YOUR CLASSROOM. The movie, like the poem is most definitely NSFS or W, but it is the best film I've ever seen to enter into a poem and inhabit it. Frankly, I can't think of another that even tries.

This clip, which is from YouTube, and therefore IS safe for work (though probably blocked at school), is nicely representative of the film. It begins with James Franco as Ginsberg talking first about himself, and then about his creative process, admitting that the sense and meaning of a given verse is not readily apparent even to him at first, that the meanings and patterns emerge as the poem develops, or after it is finished, or maybe not even after that. Those are clearly for the audience, not for the artist, who, at his best, is in direct contact with his subconscious.

Then the clip moves to one of the wonderful animated segments which form a contrapuntal interpretation of the poem. As you see, they do not directly illustrate the words, but run in parallel with them, and frequently illuminate them. For me, the animation lends a cohesion that is difficult to find in the poem at first hearing. Some might argue that they are limiting, but it is not necessary to watch this animation to enjoy the poem "Howl." You can walk always walk away from the film and pick up a book and read the poem. Meanwhile this film is out there to entice skittish filmgoers into the strange and familiar universe of "Howl."

For the sake of the general audience, the film takes the form of a courtroom drama, based on a criminal charge of obscenity lodged against the poem. the filmmakers have promised that all the dialogue in the film is documented. In the court, they are taken from transcripts; otherwise they are taken from letters, memoirs and interviews. The conservative Republican judge evidently had no real difficulty in dismissing the charges, especially since the prosecutor seemed to want to turn the proceedings into a hearing on the literary merits of the poem, i.e., it should be banned because it is dirty AND bad.

But the movie is not meant to be biographical or even purely documentary in nature. Its principal thrust seems to be to convey the energy and excitement of "Howl" as a work. It is a bit like those symphonies that are based on a novel, or a painting of a mThe yth, or a song about a painting. It is art celebrating art, but that does not make it derivative, except in the most literal since. The film Howl might not be as original as its source poem, but it is an independent, original piece of art, and for me anyway, got me engaged about modern free verse poetry all over again.

It reminded me somewhat of Seraphine (2009), another story of an artist, this one a naive, outsider artist in France in the early 20th century, whose visions seemed to arrive directly from another planet without the artist's intercession.

The artist was an uneducated scrubwoman who, without any apparent outside stimulus or encouragement, began scrounging natural materials to make paint from and flat surfaces to paint on, to record the complex and baroque visions she had based on visual motifs taken from the natural world. She painted plants and flowers yes, but plants and flowers with an Escher-like paradoxically unnatural naturalness never seen in the real world. She ascribed the visions to the guiding hand of her guardian angel. She was discovered by a painter-collector-dealer, had a brief vogue, yet continued working and developing regardless of the size or prestige of her audience. She was as happy painting for her friends and neighbors as for the international art cognescenti.

In this clip, Seraphine reveals some of her larger, more complex canvases to trusted friends. At this point the film starts to climb inside her work, as though despairing of ever getting insider her head. (Please forgive the ad up front, the clip is worth it. And do yourself a favor and expand the video to the full screen.)

This film is far more of a character portrait than Howl, which is perverse, given that Seraphine is far less articulate and far more unfathomable than Allen Ginsberg. But like Howl, the net result of the film is a view of the world as if from inside the art. It's worth the trip.

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