I just watched HOWL, the film by documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, where they take tapes and transcripts of Allen Ginsberg and the 1955 trial over obscenity charges, with reenactments of scenes with James “Oscar Boy” Franco as the poet. It is the most homoerotic film ever, if in a very cerebral way, as it explores the mental and emotional sides of homosexual desire in the most honest way I’ve ever seen. Yes, I am that blown away by it.
But it’s almost as if HOWL was the 84-minute elephant in the room, at the Oscars last Sunday night. On one level, you can depict James’ hosting duties as payment for NOT saying anything about HOWL during the broadcast. He agreed to put on the gown, but not the dark glasses? Whether you use the reenactments of documented scenes and authenticated documents, with video and audio of the time to describe this film as a documentary, the performance was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever encountered. It illuminates, as if from inside, the attraction of and the audience’s attraction to the character the way that Jude Law, for me, brought a sense to Wilde’s fixation on Bosey that I’d never understood before. Obligation not to mention HOWL would also explain if it were resentment that was behind James’ later refusal to show up at the afterparty he was supposed to be hosting. I am not rendering judgment here, just speculating – turning the film’s place in Oscar history into a narrative to explain its very absence.
This film fits into a developing cultural chronology of gay experience (granted, it’s a gay white man’s timeline, but each of us can only experience one predominant timeline of our own, and this is mine). It is my considered opinion that HOWL holds its place well, alongside
- Boys In the Band
- Stonewall Uprising
- The Word Is Out
- Longtime Companion
- Love! Valour! Compassion!
(I haven’t seen the newer “Uprising” yet, the older Stonewall is fun, but much less serious in intention as well as execution)
Each of these films depict their moment with a specificity and a fullness, pointing to different landmarks, or signposts, of our collective gay cultural experience. The actions in HOWL lead, if indirectly, or at least contribute to a shift in culture when literature came out of the closet, and it opened a window and allowed some air into the claustrophobic atmosphere that strangled the Boys In The Band, and the blast of air that sparked the Stonewall riots into a cultural conflagration. I’ve always found it so interesting that Boys in the Band was still playing when Stonewall occurred, and over one weekend, rendered the play obsolete.
And these are the films that are important to me. There are others, of course, and depictions of other aspects of our varied culture as gay, lesbian and transgendered, and alternagendered people of all colors, persuasions, ethnicities, cultures, and this is a mighty scrawny list to encompass any, much less all, of that. But it is, in its limited beginnings, pointing to a narrative line about my generation and its immediate predecessors.
Then, I was thinking about HOWL’s place in cultural history (the poem, not necessarily the movie), and the thought came into mind of my favorite opening, to My Favorite Year, and I suddenly realized one is the dark reflection of the other, and finally the alternaversion of what the 50s was, and what it wasn’t, for those of us born queer to the prevailing culture’s version of normal.
“Homosexuality is a condition.. and because it alienated me, or it set me apart, from the beginning, it served as a catalyst for self-examination or detailed realization of my environment and the reasons why everyone else is different and why I’m different
– Allan Ginsberg, as quoted in HOWL.
HOLY HOLY HOLY HOLY HOLY HOLY HOLY HOLY HOLY HOLY HOLY
This world is holy.
The soul is holy.
The skin is holey.
The nose is holey.
(The soul is ponderous, the skin is porous.)