This weekend I watched Howl, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. Odds are it won’t be out for long, and because of the film’s extremely limited release you might consider watching it now while you can. Franco nails his character, particularly in the sequences representing Ginsberg’s interview and his reading of the poem “Howl.” All of Ginsberg’s charming verbal ticks– the nasal, incantatory drone of his elocutionary style, his tendency to toss out phrases and images in conversation in order to make a point– are referenced in this performance. Franco– whom a friend, on seeing Freaks and Geeks, once described as “alternately repulsive and hot”– seems to have a genuine intellectual dimension, and for this reason– coupled with his apparent commitment to the roles he plays– he appeals to audiences who like to think about film.
In an era of profound conformity– albeit operating in the free market circus of commodity plenitude– maybe it’s time to reacquaint ourselves with a literary movement which ultimately knee-capped Cold War social conservatism by setting the conditions for the Cultural Revolution of the 60s. True enough, the cultural landscape of the United States has shifted dramatically since 1955, at least on the surface. Yet if we’re jaded to the sight of tongue-pierced tweens promenading the mall in sweats with “Juicy” printed across the ass, or if reality shows featuring jubilantly gay protagonists (cf. Austin and Santino— clearly I’m thinking of Austin) now seem rather tame, then the fact remains that for all of the ebullient, taboo-shattering Pop gushing across the internet and out of our televisions, the United States remains hedged in by certain stark ideological limits.
When Lawrence Ferlenghetti was charged with obscenity upon City Lights’s publication of “Howl,” Ralph McIntosh, the assistant district attorney of San Francisco who prosecuted the case, underscored the mutual incomprehension of two factions of postwar society. On the one hand there were those in a grey, disciplinarian fog attempting to police the boundaries of acceptable speech. On the other was a younger generation– many of whom were raised during the Depression, coming of age in the waning years of WWII– suffering from a generalized sense of existential claustrophobia. If the nascent form of Rock and Roll signaled the brushfires of Youth in Revolt, then plenty of city councils– for example in Santa Cruz, CA– banned its performance as a corrupting influence on the young. Though the Beats were not as taken with Rock as they were with Jazz, particularly Be Bop and its variants, their own sense of the fundamental vacuity of mass society impelled them to reject, in extravagant terms, the demands of straight society. These were liberatory energies– sometimes crude, often naive– and they amounted to a subcultural defection from the leaden obligations of social life under the regimes of anti-communism, heteronormativity, Jim Crow, and a kind of shopkeeper’s morality that has characterized so much of the history of American culture.