Friday, September 19, 2008

Biopics and Talking Bugs

When I first heard of the upcoming movie Howl, about Beat poet Allen Ginsberg's seminal work of the same name, I, of course, thought the worst: that the film industry would desecrate yet another literary work/figure with the biopic treatment.

Yes, I'm jaded; still, my initial balking has given way to at least interest. First is the scope: the film will not focus on Ginsberg's life or the "creation" of Howl, but on the obscenity trial surrounding the controversial poem. This could, of course, easily cross into pedantic, preachy message-movie territory, but I like when biographical films have a more narrow focus, rather than just doing an overview of someone's life, which tend to be reductive and shallow. And the artsy biopic is particularly reductive--Pollack, Frida, and--the worst--Factory Girl. I think I would rather see a courtroom drama than a literary biopic.

Also, a film about censorship and freedom of speech is, regrettably, particularly prescient now; after all, Howl is just the sort of book vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin would likely want removed from her local library's shelves.

I heard about the film shortly after seeing another "Beat" movie, David Cronenberg's imaginative, trippy adaptation of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, which ended up being part adaptation of the book, part imagined explanation of the book's creation. I read the book in undergrad and actually remember very little, save for the protagonist being an exterminator and a passage involving a dildo named Steely Dan and feeling vaguely queasy throughout. So I don't know how much of the film was taken from the book, but I loved the manic quality of of it, made all the more unnerving with Ornette Coleman's free-form jazz improvisations, and the nonchalant absurdity of shooting up bug powder to get a thrill or having conversations with giant talking vaginal bugs who double as typewriters. The film is in this happy limbo of reality and absurdity until about the last 20 minutes, when a tidy explanation is given for all the talking bugs and secret government missions and made-up foreign cities inhabited by homosexuals. It seemed at odds with the rest of the film, which is brilliant--and it seemed unnecessary; with some thought and analysis we might have concluded that, yes, this was a film largely about the writing of Naked Lunch--a book, by the way, that also underwent an obscenity trial--rather than a straight-up adaptation. (The biggest clues are the friends of the exterminator--a hunky athletic type in flannels who seduces the protagonist's wife (Jack Kerouac) and a bespectacled, gangly poet (Ginsberg).) Or maybe we would have just taken it for a crazy, sci-fi movie about talking bugs. Ah well, ignorance is bliss, I guess.

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