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howl

My research currently has me looking into the surrealist-Beats, and I recently read Bob Kaufman’s Solitude Crowded With Loneliness. This was Kaufman’s first book, published in 1965, which brought together work from the late fifties that had made him famous, including The Abomunist Manifesto and Does the Secret Mind Whisper?

I am in awe of how completely Kaufman was able to embody a multitude of traditions. His work is absolutely Beat, absolutely jazz/blues and absolutely surreal. He is thinking, living and writing with all three in mind—indeed, all of these “philosophies” were in the very core of his being—and he made them perfectly harmonious, crafting poetry that enacts revolt and social critique at the same time as it heals the primitive, hard-knocked soul. The reader familiar with the Beats will probably sense intuitively that jazz and Surrealism are highly compatible with the Beat ethos and that it makes perfect sense for the Beats to draw on them, but these poets still had to transmute these influences into a singular, shamanic, “howling” voice.

One of the most powerful tools the Beats employed was the catalog or anaphora. This is prominent in almost every famous Beat poem, including “Howl.” When surrealist-Beats infuse images of dissonance into their catalogues, the effect becomes one of controlled (but threatening) hysteria. Call it the hysterical catalog. Here’s one from Kaufman’s “I, Too, Know What I Am Not”:

No, I am not death wishes of sacred rapists, singing on candy gallows.
No, I am not spoor of Creole murderers hiding in crepe-paper bayous.
No, I am not yells of some assassinated inventor, locked in his burning machine.
No, I am not forced breathing of Cairo’s senile burglar, in lead shoes.
No, I am not Indian-summer fruit of Negro piano tuners, with muslin gloves.
No, I am not noise of two-gun senators, in hallowed peppermint halls.
No, I am not pipe-smoke hopes of cynical chiropractors, traffickers in illegal bone.

As with “Howl,” the catalog slowly overwhelms the reader with its unrelenting monotony.

Playing against the monotony is the energy and bursts of thought in the images themselves, each one packed with jarring disjunction, political parody, social criticism and humor. As I read Solitudes, I began to wonder how the Beats consistently discovered images to contain all these elements simultaneously (not to say that their poems do not vary in quality). With Kaufman, the images are enhanced by courageous comparisons, yet remain firmly fixed in the mode of socio-political critique:

Hawkeyed baggy-pants businessmen,
Building earthquake-proof, aluminum whorehouses,
Guaranteeing satisfaction to pinstriped murderers,
Or your money back to West Heaven,
Full of glorious, Caesarean-section politicians,
Giving kisses to round half-lipped babies,
Eating metal jazz, from cavities, in father’s chest,
Purchased in flagpole war, to leave balloon-chested
Unfreaked Reader’s Digest women grinning at Coit Tower.

Kaufman and other surrealist-Beats transposed Surrealism’s “chance meeting of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissection table” into more direct images of social dissent and protest. To do so, they moved away from automatism toward images that float around the semantic fields of recognizable political and social concerns. Their parodic statements, most of the time, are actually quite vague, but the poetry has a distinct political subtext.

Paradoxically, the Beats depicted themselves and the society they were rejecting in surreal imagery. America, in their estimation is a surrealist circus, full of absurdities. The Beat, likewise, lives a life of contradictions, dream-reality and contorted madness because of the context in which he finds himself. The Beat incarnates the body politic and becomes a martyr on behalf of humanity. He becomes the landscape of maligned conditions that oppress the Beat virtues of love, life and liberty. This is the premise of the Beat lifestyle, but it is especially poignant in a writer like Kaufman, whose “mongrel” heritage of Creole, African American, Jew, Catholic, sailor, peyote-smoker, poet and jazz enthusiast exposed him to, and makes him the inheritor of, a broad range of cultural prejudices and injustices. Kaufman draws all these forces and beatness into himself with images that are centered on his body:

My body is a torn mattress,
Disheveled throbbing place
For the comings and goings
Of loveless transients.
. . .
My face is covered with maps of dead nations;
My hair is littered with drying ragweed.
. . .
The nipples of my breasts are sun-browned cockleburrs [sic];
Long-forgotten Indian tribes fight battles on my chest
Unaware of the sunken ships rotting in my stomach.

Like Whitman, Kaufman “contains” America, but this kind of containment does not resolve the contradictions, absurdities, atrocities and madness. So the Beat becomes one who is absurd, atrocious and hysterical—but he is not a hypocrite. He restores himself by embracing the contradictory nature of life (as well as the pleasure-principle and a few other Beat tenants). This allows the Beat to survive and even thrive in a society blinded by moralism and paranoia—a society whose misguided premises preclude it from containing contradiction. Thus, by simply affirming the contradictory nature of reality (in the abundance of surreal configurations of life available to him everywhere he looks), the Beat poet reverses his condition. Thus, Kaufman’s triumphant body is restored to life:

The hairy little hairs
On my head,
Millions of little
Secret trees,
Filled with dead
Birds,
That won’t stay
Dead.

When I die,
I won’t stay
Dead.

On this basis, Beat poets like Kaufman, Corso and, to some extent, Ginsberg, utilize the Surrealist strategy of radical juxtaposition to transform the political landscape. It is in Beat poetry that Surrealism finds its first widely-visible expression—a poetics that embraces poetry’s revolutionary potential.

If James Franco’s first name had been Ben, it would take very little to convince me that he is, in fact, the 24-hour multimedia reincarnation of the original King of Enterprise and Toil, Benjamin Franklin, whose parades through Philadelphia at the dawn bell with a wheelbarrow full of already-completed paperwork resemble Franco’s continuous and uncanny stream of films, art exhibitions, grad lit classes, short stories, and appearances on soap operas.  Sam Anderson rode the wave briefly over the summer, and wrote a telling profile for New York Magazine, concluding,

Plenty of actors dabble in side projects – rock bands, horse racing, college, veganism – but none of them, and maybe no one else in the history of anything, anywhere, seems to approach extracurricular activities with the ferocity of Franco.

Except for, well, Franklin. Anderson continues,

This fall, at 32…he’ll be starting at Yale, for a Ph.D. in English, and also at the Rhode Island School of Design. After which, obviously, he will become president of the United Nations, train a flock of African gray parrots to perform free colonoscopies in the developing world, and launch himself into space in order to explain the human heart to aliens living at the pulsing core of interstellar quasars.

Anderson’s quippy exaggerations nonetheless point up the outrageous nature of Franco’s juggling act.  But it begs the appropriate question: is this seeming jack of all artistic trades still a master of none?  Anderson smartly points out the lack of virtuosity in much of Franco’s work, particularly his fiction. He doesn’t, however, attribute it to being thinly spread, but to a more organic transitional period that besets every artist’s life. Ultimately, “He’s an excellent writer, for an actor. He’s brilliant, for a heartthrob. But he has yet to produce art that’s good enough to break the huge gravitational pull of his fame and fly off on its own merits.” Regardless of the quality of his work, his unabashedly zealous desire to work inspires me.  Would that we could all be so tireless.

While many, including Anderson, may consider Franco’s entire professional life (this might be redundant—he doesn’t seem to have any other kind of life) to be a piece of performance art, I want to talk about two actual such pieces.  In Franco’s fashion, two films—Howl and 127 Hours—are currently playing that have cast him as the lead, and each has the potential to establish Franco among the upper echelon of screen actors.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s take on the inception, production, and delivery of Allen Ginsberg’s euphoric masterpiece exists across a series of evenly paced set pieces.  The film begins as a seemingly reticent Ginsberg stands before an eager crowd at the now legendary Gallery Six in San Francisco, preparing to read for the first time those famous and often parodied opening lines. We return to this scene periodically as the entirety of the poem is eventually read across the film.  The rest of it alternates between the obscenity trial (with a Hamm-like performance from Jon Hamm and well placed cameos from Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels), which ultimately serves an interpretive function, an interview with Ginsberg circa 1957 in which we glean most of our biographical information, flashbacks to his life pre-”Howl,” and an hallucinogenic rendering of the poem itself from animator Eric Drooker.  This is by far the biggest risk of the film, but I don’t agree with the Times‘ A.O. Scott that it was “nearly disastrous, the one serious misstep in a film that otherwise does nearly everything right.”

I’m going to disagree with not only the first part of that claim, but also the latter part.  There is one grating thing that, for me, Howl misses. The film does well to emphasize that much of Ginsberg’s poetic energy sprung from his (questionably) unrequited love for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.  But each of these figures is presented as a stiff, Don Draper type, rather than as the real madmen that they were.  For a movement so devoted to the lovely power of the human voice, these characters have a combined total of—get this—zero lines.  Not only does this serve to render Ginsberg’s love unrealistic, it does a disservice to the Beat generation and what it stood for. Both Kerouac and Cassady come off as leering fraternity brothers, in a malicious way. The real Beats were assholes—just not that kind of asshole. Ginsberg himself claims in the interview portion (granted, the entirety of the dialogue is drawn from historical record, but this was still a directorial choice), “There is no Beat Generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” I don’t think anyone, including Ginsberg, believed that in 1957. Regardless, Franco’s performance across these set pieces is every bit as “impressive [and] beguilingly sensitive” as Ann Hornaday claims in her Washington Post review.  The film is worth seeing for that alone.  What is more, with the sudden recuperation of the perpetually “in production” adaptation of On the Road, we may see a great Beat Generation film sooner rather than later.

*                                  *                                  *

Whatever hype I had encountered about 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, spoke to the climax, what David Denby of The New Yorker has dubbed “The Scene,” namely the re-creation of Aron Ralston’s brutal extrication from a dire encounter with a rock.  If you’re like me, then perhaps the most excruciating element of this experience is the anticipation.  When is he going to get trapped?  Is now the time when he will begin cutting?  Are these screams going to be even more blood-curdling when he hits the nerve? But Danny Boyle spends this time of nervous anticipation artfully juxtaposing crowds and solitude, noise and silence in a way that prepares the stage for Ralston’s spiritual crisis (in all, Boyle stylistically airs it out on a premise that could have come off as, well, boring). Regardless, you will throughout the film sit with your hands (for which you are suddenly very grateful) at the ready to cover your eyes, pull at your hair, or just wring for minutes at a time.

Generically, 127 Hours can be compared to Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild, but while Emile Hirsch’s Chris McCandless treks to Alaska out of a rejection of society (not to mention everyone who loves him), Franco’s Ralston is passionate about the wilderness.  He’s not escaping; Canyonlands is his “home away from home.”  But his love and positive enthusiasm (when his co-worker tells him to have a good one, he replies, “Always do.”) are put to the ultimate test over five days, as his ordeal transforms from a race against time to free himself from the rock without dying of thirst into a spiritual journey through his conscience, memories, and hopes for the future.  He “has nailed himself to his own special cross” (Denby), eventually realizing that “this rock has been waiting for me for thousands of years.”  This is Ralston’s Trial, and it is ultimately a parable about embracing life.

The beauty of Franco’s performance resides in his preservation of Ralston’s quirkiness amid desperation.  This story is so powerful because we know that this is a regular guy who has done something extraordinary.  But Franco and Boyle were brilliant not to locate the human universality of the story in the unfathomable circumstances but in Ralston’s personal experience.  Faced with death, he repents, remembers times of love, and laments unrealized future ones, all via nicely placed flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations.  But the nuance here is important—Ralston’s not a bad guy.  He loves his parents, misses his ex-girlfriend (whom he apparently did slight), and laments his vainglorious subconscious wish not to have anyone know where he is.  His life wasn’t in shambles, hence his happy-go-lucky attitude that pervades the first part of the film.

His transformation, however, is no less remarkable.  His family knows he loves them, so he doesn’t need to ask forgiveness for wrongdoing; rather, he, and we all can identify with this, apologizes into his camcorder (which, for much of his ordeal, serves as a Bakhtinian superaddressee, a God-figure) “for not acknowledging you in my heart as much as I could.”  This was powerful, and had me weeping, childlike.  The acknowledgement of a higher power becomes more palpable the deeper into crisis he becomes. As he agonizes, his bellows of “Please!”—to the rock, to the camcorder, to God—resonate with our similar moments of angst.  But his utterances after he gains freedom (which, thankfully, only took about five minutes, contrary to rumor) are most revealing.  Standing there, suddenly unbound, bleeding, he almost immediately mutters, “Thank you.”  He says nothing as he staggers his way out of the cave and—incredibly—rappels down a canyon wall.  Soon after, he sees, murkily, a group of hikers, and, desperately, but at this point triumphantly, begins screaming for help.  Of course, he needs medical assistance. But in this moment he is also affirming that he needs help in the same way that we all need help.  The subsequent dénouement is exuberant, an exaltation over the letting go of material life—our literal attachments to our bodies—for the sake of a new, spiritual life. Which, for Ralston, is as enthusiastic as the one he already led, only with added consciousness.  One comes away from 127 Hours not necessarily thankful for being spared a similar ordeal, but jealous of Ralston’s trial and awakening.  But true to the humanness of this story, it reminds us that every day we are faced with the possibility of death, and should act and think accordingly.

I could say a lot more about this film, especially about Boyle’s work, but I will stay on task about Franco.  Truth be told, I wrote the first half of this article before I saw 127 Hours, and a large part of me wants to take back that jack-of-all-trades bit.  What if Franco wins an Oscar for this performance?  Will he continue with his Alexandrian feats of intellectual conquest?  Or will he focus on fulfilling his vast potential as an actor?  Regardless, I propose Franco begin his speech as follows, in keeping with the mysterious and ironic fashion of his persona: “I’ll make this brief – I’ve got somewhere to be.”