Howl (2010)

Howl is the name of both a poem and a film. The poem is meant to be recited in one breath. Literally, this applies to each individual line, though some of these are so long that doing so is hardly practical. But the poem as a whole is a scream of outrage, pain, love, and joy so pure that through all its long lines and the different moods of its four sections, it achieves a single mass that breathes out in one great wind what Allen Ginsberg had to say about the young people of his generation and the oppressive shadows under which they were born and the courage with which they could or might escape, at the moment in 1955 when he wrote the poem. It expresses one thought and one movement of the soul.

Howl the film is meant to be one breath as well, but it makes the bold move of breaking up the poem and scattering the pieces throughout its running time. Precisely by disrupting the unity of the poem, the film creates just as careful an artistic unity of its own. It remains a seamless garment, woven of three or four threads that intertwine so closely with each other, another thread taking up the weight instantly and smoothly as soon as one slackens, that the film moves much as the poem does: without pausing, in one great blaze of passion.

One of the threads is the 1957 obscenity trial, when Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher of Ginsberg’s book Howl and Other Poems, faced potential jail time if it was found not to have “redeeming social importance” to make up for its sexually explicit content. The film reportedly hews close to fact here, lifting the script directly from the transcripts of the arguments and testimony. The prosecutor (David Strathairn) awkwardly reads naughty passages from the poem and grills English teachers and literary critics on whether this or that word is necessary to add literary value, while remaining stolidly oblivious to the golden river of sound and image flowing past him. When the poem says, “…and were red eyed in the morning but were prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sunrise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake,” how can such a line be questioned? How can anyone quibble about “snatch” when it is part of such music? But, of course, those with the law in their charge cannot afford to be too sensitive to beauty. Besides, if it were not true that one person’s music is another’s noise, there would be no need for such trials—which is precisely the point.

The problem is not entirely that the poem is so new and revolutionary; one witness opines that it has no literary validity with regard to form precisely because it is not innovative, but instead imitates a form used by Walt Whitman eighty to ninety years prior. (He must not be crazy about Shakespeare or Donne.) The problem is rather a lack of imagination among those who desire censorship, who assume that because their eyes are blinded by the glare of language they are unaccustomed to, there is nothing there to see. Tellingly, two witnesses testifying against the book not only admit but emphasize that they did not spend time with the poem, but made their judgments quickly, not questioning the shock of their first impressions.

The trial scenes, then, are not without some human interest. However, all they really shows is how dull the whole affair was. The speech about the importance of free speech to a liberal society made by the attorney defending the poem (Jon Hamm) is heartfelt, and the decision of the judge, well played by Bob Balaban, is heartening to hear (we are told early on that the judge leans conservative, though we don’t hear the story about his sentencing some women shoplifters to watch The Ten Commandments and write essays on its moral lesson), but neither contains anything that seems particularly surprising or hard-hitting today. At the end of the day, the entire courtroom portion of the film is concerned with the legal and procedural, and these matters are very dry bones next to the letters of fire they are concerned with. It is a case where what is said is vastly more interesting than the simple right to say it; however much we all depend on the latter as citizens, it is not our concern as readers.

Another thread is an interview with Allen Ginsberg, in which, like the trial, all the words we hear are historically accurate. However, these scenes avoid a “documentary-like” portrayal: tricks with picture and sound, such as one spoken line briefly overlapping with the next as we switch camera angles, deliberately remind us that we are watching an artificial recreation of an imagined reality. The interviewer is not shown, so these scenes are carried entirely by James Franco as Ginsberg, who is warm and likable in the role. He discusses his struggle to write honestly, to stop imitating what he already knows and be open with himself about his feelings—including his homosexuality, which his desire to conceal from his father is one of his main reasons for being reluctant to publish the poem. Fortunately, lest we think the transmutation of a feeling into a great poem happens automatically, he also makes clear how much detail work there is, how much thought went into the construction of those long flowing lines.

The occasional, mostly wordless flashbacks to the scenes the later Ginsberg describes are fine, but are not meant to carry the film by themselves. They bring us rather to the third and most important strand of the film: the poem itself. The poem is presented to us through a reenactment of its first public performance in 1955, during which sometimes the matter-of-fact black and white cinematography depicting the Six Gallery in San Francisco gives way to trippy animated sequences visualizing some of the imagery in the poem—the result perhaps of taking literally to heart the poem’s mention of those “who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness,” etc., but the decision was not an inspired one. Or perhaps (who can say) it’s only the animated images themselves that lack inspiration, and if the sinewy and uncomfortably muscled naked figures flying from those sketchy streets up into the stars had something more surprising to show us, they might be worthy companions of Ginsberg’s vivid language. Either way, they must unfortunately be regarded as well-intended superfluities.

Franco’s actual reading of the poem is good, though a little out of order and cruelly abridged. Wisely, it attempts neither the overwhelming force that the hypothetical ideal reading of the poem would have, nor a historical reconstruction of the young Ginsberg’s expressionless declamation. It’s more like an attempt to imagine the voice that might have been in Ginsberg’s head as he composed: passionate but uncertain, strong but awkward, intellectual and painstaking, it’s the heart of Franco’s performance, and it anchors the film.

Such are the pieces. They fit together surprisingly well. Pace is everything in Howl, and it is the film’s greatest strength (at least until near the end, when it becomes a little too slow). This is a feat in itself, but it is not quite enough. Ultimately we learn nothing from dissipating the poem that we might not have learned from keeping it in one piece. The film is an engaging presentation of part of the poem and part of the history surrounding it, but it doesn’t offer the kind of grand synthesis that would validate it all. It’s good, but it’s nothing really special. That, not the lines that are missing from James Franco’s reading, is its biggest difference from the poem, which is very special indeed.

Abandoned by Tomorrow

Drew McWeeny called Randy Moore’s Escape From Tomorrow, the psychological horror film about bad things happening in Disney World that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has now finally received a commercial release, a “magnificent, impossible nightmare.” Any sentence that uses the word “magnificent” is potentially a money quote for a movie’s publicists, but the publicity for Escape From Tomorrow has chosen instead to focus on the “impossible.” They want you to know that making it—much of which was done guerilla-style, covertly shooting with miniature cameras while posing as ordinary park-goers—was an act of defiance against the laws of probability, not just Disney. It was impossible to make and equally impossible for it to be shown—and yet here it is.

“Yet here it is” is the dominant tone throughout most of the film. Nothing makes sense. In the opening scene, a father named Jim has a frustrating telephone conversation with someone who tells him he’s lost his job, but can’t satisfactorily say why. During the first few rides he and his family go on at the park, demonic faces grin at him from the animatronic figures and his son’s eyes turn black. The surreal mingles with the banal as the family experiences continual petty friction and Jim and eventually his wife struggle to hold on to their sanity. Jim develops a sudden obsession with a pair of teenage French girls also visiting the park. The disorienting final act offers a little explanation for some of the goings on, or at least draws some new connections, but doesn’t really make it all coherent. In particular, it doesn’t offer us an antagonist. Disturbed, dangerous, and weird characters walk around making life difficult, but they’re not acting in concert. They’re just existing in the same haze of madness that covers the whole place.

All this is doubly impossible: impossible because it’s bizarre, but also impossible because it takes place at Disney World, where bad things aren’t supposed to happen in the first place. The film relies for its effect on everyone in our society to know what Disney World is: mass entertainment engineered to be as perfect as a human creation can be, a shining corporate paradise. More than a haven for the innocence of childhood, it’s designed to be a place where adults can become children again. That’s why the most horrifying (and inspired) ideas and images in the film have to do with the desecration of childhood. Beautiful Disney princess actresses preside over an underground empire of kinky sex with visiting businessmen and, curiously intertwined with this, become the focus of a universal desire for innocence—a desire so intense that it leads to the unhinging of minds.

The film, then, is not just weird for weirdness’s sake; it speaks to some basic human needs. However, its spell doesn’t work on everyone. It isn’t a very polished production, truth be told. In some places, the script uses ham-fisted callbacks and flashbacks when it should let us make connections on our own, and in others, it makes some missteps with pacing that make the story structure seem a bit random. I occasionally felt that the film was getting in its own way, doing too many things at once and diffusing its power.

But in a way, its imperfections might be seen as an advantage. It belongs to the grand tradition of “underground” horror, and this includes not just movies but written stories as well. Today, of course, these stories are circulated on the Internet. If one happens to seize many people’s imaginations, it gets spread around on various websites, usually without attribution, as if it had arisen out of the collective consciousness of the web, and becomes a “creepypasta.” (A copypasta is anything that is copied and pasted; a creepypasta is the same thing, only creepy.) A good creepypasta can do just what Escape From Tomorrow does: tap into fears and doubts about the way we live our lives today that are rarely discussed openly, but that many people feel. They always begin with the mundane: they deal with the evil that might be lurking in computer games, TV shows, and other everyday entertainments.

A fundamental feature of creepypastas is that they’re never very well written. Some have better writing than others, but none are superb. You can never quite say whether the mediocre prose is an artistic choice (since they tend to be first-person accounts, and are supposted to sound like they could have been written by anyone on the Internet) or a result of the writer’s limitations, just as you can’t quite say whether the black and white cinematography in Escape From Tomorrow is an artistic choice or a result of the difficulty of doing uniform color correction on footage shot with miniature cameras in uncontrollable lighting conditions.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no art involved in writing creepypastas. These stories are produced in vast amounts on forums and blogs everywhere, but only a few have what it takes to really take off. Many are extravagant and blood-soaked, but the most effective ones tend to rely on the power of suggestion. A good example is Candle Cove, an imaginary message board conversation about an old kids’ TV show that was just a little bit…off. Another is Normal Porn for Normal People, which, unlike most computer-centered pastas, many of which involve people somehow being killed through their computer screens, seems just surreal enough to be disturbing and just possible enough to be scary.

The one most clearly relevant to the film is also, if you ask me, one of the best, and one which all readers of this post should take the time to read if they don’t know it already: Abandoned by Disney. It’s a story about a terrifying experience someone had while attempting to explore an area that Disney was trying to turn into a theme park and resort, but inexplicably abandoned during construction.

The story takes place in a park called “Mowgli’s Palace,” supposedly located in North Carolina, which is of course completely fictional. However, the beginning of the story refers to a different abandoned park, one called “Treasure Island” and located in the Bahamas, and emphatically states: “This is a FACT. Look it up.” Looking it up, it turns out, isn’t too easy. Scanty information is scattered about on various sites, none of them obviously reliable. The one that seems to most know what it’s talking about, Notes from the Road, is frustratingly incomplete, especially on one page that seems to have been intended to provide a complete history of the incident but instead gives only a capsule summary lifted from a newspaper, with no hint of the publication date of the article it quotes. However, as far as I can tell from this muddle, “Treasure Island” was indeed a real thing that actually happened. It was constructed by Disney and its partner, a company called Premier Cruise Line (a company with a similar name still exists, but I don’t know whether there’s any connection), on the island of Great Guana Cay in 1989.

By all accounts, the attempt was at best a hubristic act, and at worst an act of eco-terrorism with overtones of cultural imperialism thrown in. Disney, according to this narrative, dredged a tiny and unnavigable channel to make room for their cruise ship, helpless to resist the shifting tidal sands, which was nevertheless wide enough to “shit the poisonous excrement of potato-chip-eaters and Mountain Dew drinkers” into the pure tropical sea; tore up the native flora of the island to make room for more properly exotic pine trees from the Middle East; built a park out of spare parts; and treated its captive dolphins, the signature attraction, with brutal indifference. Pollution, rape of the natural world, Orientalism, and cruelty to animals in one fell swoop: this story is tailor-made for those who have no love for corporate mass entertainment.

And it may well be true, as the creepypasta says, that locals were none too happy about the project. There really is a blog post with pictures of the ransacked and vandalized remains of the park, and while the chuckleheaded author of this particular post treats the whole thing like a joke, the serious side of it suggests itself as well. “Abandoned by Disney” evokes all this with its reference to Treasure Island, and then asks Americans to imagine: what if there were another goofy attempt at an exotic Disneyfied paradise, where tourists could amuse themselves by observing a constructed vision of a fictive “Other,” built with the same disregard for the feelings of the local inhabitants and the same wanton destruction of the native environment…only this one took place in our own backyard. It may be an implausible scenario, but it’s a potent thought experiment. Such a project would remind us of our national insecurities about race and culture. Disney would seem to be imposing on us a grotesque, monstrous version of what we already have complicated feelings about, and the results would be uncomfortable:

We’re talking about a large Indian Palace, Jungle, and Loincloths not only in the center of a relatively wealthy area, but also a somewhat “xenophobic” area of the southern USA. It was a questionable mix at that point in history.

One member of the crowd tried to storm the stage, but he was quickly subdued by security after he managed to break one of the presentation boards over his knee.

Disney took that community and essentially broke it over its knee, as well.

A Disney theme park is a happy place. It has to be. And yet no matter how much we all love Disney, there’s something about it that gives us pause. Can it really be that this manufactured joy conceals no dark secrets? How much of real life, how much of truth, did they bulldoze to build this storybook fantasy? To many people, as stories like this show, the comprehensiveness of Disney’s sweetness and wholesomeness bespeaks a frighteningly casual attitude toward the real world. There must be cracks in the foundation somewhere; something must be wrong under the surface.

In “Abandoned by Disney,” there’s some mysterious kind of evil power lurking in the abandoned theme park, something that defies any attempts to document it or to determine its true nature. Its inverted coloring suggests that it is a sort of anti-Disney, but in another way, it is Disney itself. Or at least, it was something that it was natural for Disney to find.

In Escape From Tomorrow, however, Disney only brings out the darkness that is already within people’s hearts. The film is a story of a man striving hopelessly to save his own soul. His efforts at redeeming himself are inadequate: he can try to make the right decisions, but there is no innocence to be found in Disney World, not even in the children the park was built for. There is only depression, madness, obsession, bitterness, and foul disease. After the surrealism of most of the film, the ending may seem disappointingly mundane to some, but it’s a logical, frightening conclusion to the story. Never have Disney’s simple icons—Buzz Lightyear, Mickey Mouse—looked more chilling.

The irrationality of the story’s events don’t make the film any less full of ideas, and it’s made with so much wit and passion that its shortcomings are more than forgivable. I’ll be seeing it again.

The Beginning of the Adventure

You are reading the first post of my new blog, Simple Gifs. An explanation of this name, and everything else that you need to know right away, can be found in the About and Rules pages.

This blog was a very long time coming. I’ve had the domain name (which I expected to be already taken) for a couple years now, I think, and the site has been in place for almost that long. What’s held me up has been writing the About This Blog page. This will seem strange to you when you read it, since it’s hardly a major work, but, though clearly I did not work steadily at it that whole time, I did take some pains over it. I consider it vastly more important than this initial post, which few people will see or care about in the future.

This is a multi-subject blog (the infallible mark of an amateur), and its content will reflect my interests on a given day. While I could make some broad predictions about what this will entail, I’d rather not do that yet. For the most part, anyway, people read blog posts, not blogs, so getting people to read this will simply be a matter of writing posts that people want to share, not announcing a group of topics and watching the enthusiasts roll in.

The blogging platform I’ve chosen is WordPress, which seems to strike the best balance between seriousness and ease of use (I actually had a lot of trouble installing it and getting it working, which isn’t supposed to happen, but that’s now a distant memory). What little design is here is based on a few modifications I made to an extremely minimalist WordPress theme called Toolbox, which is basically just a two-column layout. I hope to improve it a little in the future. This website is hosted by Nearly Free Speech. I chose NFS primarily because of the low cost: unlike other hosts, you don’t choose a monthly plan upfront, but instead pay as you go, paying only for the bandwidth, storage space, and other resources you actually use. For small websites such as this one, the result is a much lower cost.

Nearly Free Speech is also interesting as an example of the rule that business cannot be conducted with ideological neutrality. NFS admits and embraces this: they are very open about their libertarian philosophy, which can be seen on full display in their public response to a government attempt to make them take a site down, for example. This brings up an issue that all non-libertarians should face: I myself am not a libertarian, but I very much want my web host to be one. If my website ever faces a threat of censorship from anyone (which isn’t about to happen, but that doesn’t affect the argument), I can be confident that they will do everything legal in their power to protect me from it as well.

Their response to the UK government’s lawyer at the bottom of the linked post says: “Of course, I do embrace our Constitution’s second amendment as enthusiastically as I do the first; perhaps that contributes to my peace of mind.” This is an attitude that I always find slightly worrisome and a bit ghoulish; the “every man his own vigilante” vision of society that many second-amendment enthusiasts seem to have is not attractive to me. Nevertheless, the statement seems logical and perfectly consistent in its own way, as my position does not: how do I justify combining my enthusiastic support of American-style free speech (which is by world-historical standards quite extreme) with my increasing desire to leave behind most of what goes by the name of “conservatism,” including most “small-government” rhetoric, in America?

Fortunately, NFS is a business and not a political party, and I need not resolve this issue before joining them and giving them (very little of) my money. In the meantime, it’s up to me to give people something interesting to read while I work through my political identity crises. That unavoidably grandiose project is what will be going on in this space.