Sunday, October 24, 2010

Howl & how not to hear poetry

Last night I watched the movie Howl. It's still showing in theaters but cheaper to see via cable's movies on demand gizmo that also keeps me home, which is where I mostly prefer to be and which I might add is, unlike movie theaters, guaranteed (so far at least) to be bedbug-free. But I digress. Howl. James Franco was great as the young Allen Ginsberg. Much of the movie consists of Franco, as Ginsberg, talking to an unseen interviewer about poetry, about the poetic process, himself as a poet, his life and its connection to his poetry, and about his great poem Howl. I found these segments riveting. I'd have happily sat through two hours of just this. There are also courtroom scenes, from the 1957 obscenity trial in San Francisco where the state tried to ban the City Lights publication of Howl in book form. While not fascinating the way Ginsberg talking about poetry was, these segments are interesting too. Interspersed with both are scenes of Ginsberg reading the poem in, I assume, San Francisco, in 1955. I very much liked this too, Franco's bravura capture of Ginsberg's unique persona.

What I did not like one bit were the animated sequences. These are literal, if whimsical, depictions of various passages from the poem that take over the screen enacting the words that we hear in voiceover. For me, they damned near ruined the movie. I can only guess that the filmmakers worried they would not hold an audience's interest with only the scenes of Ginsberg talking, Ginsberg reading his poem, and testimony at the obscenity trial, that they had to insert some visually arresting element. Well. I think it would have worked if the visual element had been abstract, suggestive, evocative, something to simply capture the eye, perhaps hypnotize us further into the poetic dream as the words washed over us aurally. Instead what we get is an interruption, a barging in on our attention to the poem's words, rhythms, layers of meaning, a most unwelcome assault on our ability to take in the poetry. An intrusion! I wanted to scream and throw something at the screen every time the animations appeared.

The problem, for me at least--and I know this sounds odd and contradictory but it isn't really--is that literature is not a literal art form. Poetry least of all. Yet with these animations in which the "story" of Howl is acted out, Ginsberg's creation is removed from the ineffable realm of imagination and yanked back down to earth, reduced to a matter of plot and character and this and that. To me this feels like a sad disservice to a great poet and a great poem.

I've read Howl twice (and now definitely want to read it again). There's no way I came close, in either of those readings, to truly understanding it. But, as with any quality literature, poetry or fiction, reading it was an intereactive experience between the words and me, between the mind of the poet and the mind of the reader, with me, the reader, my reading brain, creating images, ideas, feelings from the words created by the writer. As any writer knows, book, story, or poem, no reader reads the same thing. The words may be the same in every edition, yet every reader's brain makes of the writer's words something else. Even with fiction, even with the most straightforward conventionally written plot-driven story or novel, the act of reading is an imaginative, creative act--what each reader sees in her mind's eye is her own translation of the writer's words. This is what I mean when I say literature is not a literal art form--although on one level there is nothing more precise than words, on another, the most meaningful level, I think, the words serve as merely a sort of gateway, opening up worlds that the reader enters and creates as she reads. This is the interactive alliance between writer and reader. This is why reading, at least when the material you're reading is at the level of art, is a thrilling and creative act.

It's also why I generally feel that movies aren't the sublime art form that literature is, a view that I know opens me to all sorts of attack and that, truthfuly, I probably can't defend terribly articulately and am even willing to allow might turn out to be harebrained once someone argues me out of it. Till then, though, I can't help but feel that because movies depict everything right there on the screen, show every character's facial expressions, broadcast every character's voice, breathing, tone, tears, display brick buildings, green fields, bullets, blood, and so on--because, that is, they leave little or nothing to the viewer's imagination, they can't and don't achieve what books can. I think this is why film adaptations of books almost always disappoint. It's not just that Hollywood's crass profit-driven aesthetic sabotages any hope of capturing the depth and beauty of a great novel. It's that, just by the act of taking all those words that had been left to the reader's imagination to conjure into images and ideas each inside her own mind, taking those words, stripping them of multiple levels of meaning and alternate interpretations and transforming them into one inescapable literal depiction, the movie by definition destroys, subverts, dumbs down, dare I say erases the art from, the novel, story or poem.

To me, that's what the animation does in this movie. Otherwise, it would have been an intelligent, interesting consideration of art, the artistic process, the clash of art and commerce, censorship, gay oppression, all spiced with enough exciting readings of parts of Howl to entice viewers to read, or reread, Ginsberg's masterpiece. It's still that, but just barely, because, for this viewer at least, the animation sequences deny me entry into the heart of the poem and the mind of the poet.