I had a rather pleasing weekend for a liberal-minded man.
Saturday night was spent taking in an alluring biopic, “Howl”, at the unique and authentically old-school Nickelodeon Theatre in Columbia. The following morning, as millions of my fellow countrymen and women were getting their religion on, I was thumbing through pages of Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the great existentialist thinkers and philosophers of mid-20th Century Europe.
If my memory serves me correctly – which is really a tossup these days – I’ve touched on Sartre before here on Page 3, so let’s talk first and predominantly about “Howl.”
Seldom have I seen a film so up my alley. It’s about the art of misunderstood outcast with things to say – Allen Ginsberg, who at the time the film is set is an insecure 29-year-old writer.
To say the film is a documentary on the life of Ginsberg isn’t appropriate. Rather, the 90-minute, unrated, limited-release flick is a historic snapshot of the bohemian poet’s first-published work, “Howl,” and the criticism it garnered.
“Howl,” a poem I read way back in college (three years ago), was considered by many to be obscene, explicit and too vulgar for the public in the year it was released, 1956. Because the poem made numerous references to homosexuality, the poem’s publisher was eventually taken to court for his part in the disseminating the work.
The film’s technique is what makes it great -- part takes place in a San Francisco coffeehouse, where Ginsberg (played by James Franco), rehearses his poem to a crowd that looks exactly what you’d expect from a bunch of young San Franciscans sitting around a coffee shop, listening to poetry and drinking and smoking, in the 1950s; another sequence follows the proceedings of the court case, in which the judge in San Francisco ultimately deemed the poem indeed had literary merit, and did not punish the publisher or ban the poem; and a third aspect, which I found to be evocative, was a dreamy animation sequence paired with the language of the poem.
Whether the film accurately portrayed the atmosphere of mid-1950s counterculture in California, I can’t say -- I wasn’t there. But it’s unequivocally what I’ve always imagined -- a place where you can challenge thought and norms and conformity. A place I’d love to spend some time.
I’m not a proponent of making the entire world such a place. I know a great deal of people would prefer to not be part of such society. I, of course, would.
Jean-Paul Sartre, if you recall, was a public intellectual in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. He wrote and philosophized about human responsibility and accountability. An atheist by his own account, he declared that man is responsible for his actions and what he makes of himself.
What these stimulating artists, Ginsberg and Sartre, have in common is a staunch belief in freedom of speech and thought. And theirs was not just any speech, but words which alarmed many. Sartre and Ginsberg had an inkling their writing was valuable, that it needed to be out there for the public to absorb and weigh. They pushed the boundaries.
Because of men and women thinkers such as these two, millions of people’s minds and tolerance have evolved.