This review was originally published on CarnalNation. The movie is now available on DVD.
Things certainly have changed since I was a girl.
And thank God for it.
This, more than anything else, was what kept drifting into my mind when I saw "Howl": the new film about the renowned Beat poem, and the obscenity trial that surrounded it, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg.
A lot of things drifted into my mind when I was watching this film. The connections between eroticism and artistic creativity. The connections between eroticism and anti-conformist rebellion. The roots of gay liberation that extended back years before the Stonewall riots. The "They Might Be Giants" song, "I Should Be Allowed To Think." (I know, I'm a Philistine.) What a tasty little dish James Franco is. How to make films based on real events that don't seem like Lifetime docu-dramas. (The film "Howl" has an interesting structure, one that gives it a feeling of authenticity while still having drama and artistry and without reading as a documentary. It's just four interweaving threads, all of which are drawn from real events: the obscenity trial, a re-creation of the first public reading Ginsberg gave of "Howl," re-created excerpts of interviews with Ginsberg (with the events described in said interviews sometimes being re-enacted), and a luscious, evocative animated interpretation of the poem by comics artist Eric Drooker. Deceptively simple; quietly compelling; elegant.)
But the idea that kept drifting into my head, again and again, gently and relentlessly, was this:
Damn. The world certainly has changed.
It has radically changed when it comes to matters of sex.
And thank God for it.
The entire "Howl" obscenity trial, by today's standards, seems ludicrous on the face of it. I kept listening to various renderings of the poem... and I kept thinking, "So where's the problem?" (Yes, I've read it before, but it's been a while.) Okay, yes: "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy." A few other lines along those lines. Really? That's it? The poem uses sexual language that they now use in the New Yorker. It explores sexual themes that they're exploring on "Mad Men." The idea that a poem with occasional mentions of sex and homosexuality -- some of them explicit, many of them not -- would result not only in controversy, but in the banning of the work and the actual arrest, by actual policemen, of the publisher... by today's standards, it seems laughable. Outrageous, too, of course. Appalling, yes, without question. But mostly just... well, dumb. Baffling. Literally incomprehensible.
And think about this movie itself. The movie, with its multiple readings of the supposedly obscene poem and the supposedly obscene poetic passages in question. The movie, with its occasionally explicit depictions of the passages in question. I have heard zero controversy about it. There may be some in the Bible Belt -- it wouldn't surprise me -- but even the Religious Right doesn't seem to be wetting its pants over a cinematic depiction of/ story about the poem "Howl." Hell, the thing will probably be on HBO in a few months. And it's unlikely that anyone will raise a stink when it is.
Plus, of course, the world has changed in other ways. Gay ways. We now have a world where movies with positive gay characters, even heroic gay characters, are relatively common. And we have a world where actors and actresses are happy to play gay roles in movies... and where they get nominated for Oscars for doing so. I remember in the 1980s, when they were trying to get a movie made of the gay-themed book The Front Runner... and no actor would touch the lead role with a ten-foot pole. Playing gay characters was seen as the kiss of death to a movie career. It was generally assumed that, once you played gay, movie audiences would think that you yourself were gay, and nobody would ever accept you in a straight role ever again. Now, we have James Franco. Who is quickly rising to Hollywood ascendency... in large part on the strength of his roles as Harvey Milk's lover Scott in "Milk," and as Allen Ginsberg in "Howl."
The world has changed.
It has radically changed when it comes to matters of sex.
I keep saying, "Thank God for it." But I ought not to be saying that. God is not the one who changed the world. I don't even think God exists.
People changed the world.
People made the world more free to express sexual ideas. People made the world more free to share sexual information. People made the world more free to control when, and indeed whether, the sex they have produces children. People made the world more free to make and sell products that enhance sexual pleasure. People made the world more accepting of homosexuality. People made the world more accepting of sexual minorities generally. People made the world more accepting of oral sex, and masturbation, and the very idea of sexual variation generally. People made the world into one where having sex with people you're not married to is not only acceptable, but normal. People made the world more accepting of the idea that women can, and do, experience sexual pleasure.... and that we have a right to ask for it.
Etc.. Etc. Etc.
People made the world a better place for sex. Not perfect -- not by a very, very long shot -- but better.
And watching "Howl" reminded me of that.
It reminded me to take heart. It reminded me to take heart when we're having some stupid battle over sex education in the schools, or when access to abortions is being whittled back piece by piece, or when wives are being counseled to put up with unwanted sex because it's their Christian duty, or when children are being taught actual lies about sex in the public schools, or when gay teenagers are killing themselves because they're being bullied and think they have no hope. The movie reminded me not to despair, to remember that it gets better, to keep on fighting.
And it reminded me to give my sexual liberation forbears their props.
It's easy to dismiss the people who came before us in this fight. It's easy to dismiss their earnestness, their Utopian idealism, their occasionally goofy ideas, the stuff they got wildly wrong. And yes, it's fair and appropriate to be aware of the stuff they got wrong, both factually and strategically, so we can avoid their mistakes. But the people who fought for sexual liberation and sexual sanity in the '50s and '60s and '70s made it that much easier for the rest of us to fight the battles we're fighting now. Hell, they made it that much easier for us to just live our lives.
And Allen Ginsberg was among them.
As a rule, I'm not much into poetry. And I'm really not much into Beat poetry. I tend to think of Beat poetry as noodly and formless and dated; I usually find it dull at best, irritating and silly at worst. I liked it somewhat better watching this movie -- this movie did a good job at "'Howl' For Dummies," conveying the beauty and value of the poem to Philistines like me -- but it's still far, far from my favorite art form. Which is fine. There's no law, not even a moral law, that says I have to like Beat poetry.
But I do have to respect Allen Ginsberg. I have to respect him for writing candidly about sex, at a time when writing candidly about sex could get you arrested. I have to respect him for being an out gay man in the freaking 1950s. I have to respect him for breaking the ground that I'm casually strolling on today.
Allen Ginsberg lived in a world that was much, much shitter about sex than the world I live in today. And the world I live in today is better, in part, because of him: because of the things he wrote, and the fights he fought, and the life he lived out loud.
A lot of things drifted into my mind when I was watching this film. But the idea that kept drifting into my head, again and again, gently and relentlessly, was this:
Howl. Starring James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, Treat Williams, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Alessandro Nivola, Todd Rotondi, Jon Prescott, and Aaron Tveit. Written, directed, and produced by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman; Elizabeth Redleaf and Christine Kunewa Walker; producers; Gus Van Sant and Jawal Nga, executive producers. Animation by Eric Drooker. Oscilloscope Laboratories. Unrated.