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The Illustrated Howl


By David Witzling

The film Howl, written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, recently screened at the UW-Milwaukee Union Cinema as part of the LGBT Film Festival.  

Depicting the 1957 obscenity trial for Allen Ginsberg's poem with the same title, each character's spoken part is taken from actual historical documents, making the film somewhat of an historical re-enactment.

Two Versions of Moloch: 18th Century German (left), Howl (right).

With consistently high production value, the film employs a novel plot structure involving four interlocking parts: scenes of the obscenity trial, scenes of an interview with Ginsberg, Ginsberg giving a public reading of Howl, and animated sequences 

depicting the poem itself.

Although the animated sequences are visually quite beautiful, they struck me as often too literal; I felt, as a stylistic decision, the content of the animation could have more dramatically diverged from the poem.  I'm not just trying to find a polite way to say I thought the animation was a gimmick; rather, I think the intricate collisions of words and images in the poem warranted a more abstract visual interpretation.

I'm reminded of three things in connection to this, which illustrate my concerns about film's treatment of the poem:

1. In John Updike's forward to the 1971 Schoccken edition of Franz Kafka's Complete Stories, an anecdote about the first printing of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" relates certain concerns raised by the famous butterfly collector Vladimir Nabokov.  Nabokov, noting that "Gregor is too broad and convex to be a cockroach," and probably only humorously (or in revolt) called a "dung beetle" in the story itself, touched upon something that Kafka himself demanded of his publisher while working out the cover design for his book: "The insect itself cannot be depicted.  He cannot even be shown from a distance."

2. In cooperation with the Fitch-Febvrel Gallery, David R. Godine published a series of etchings by Erik Desmazières to illustrate a printing of "The Library of Babel" by Jorge Luis Borges.  While the illustrations quite masterfully depict a Gothic vision of the Library, the visual effect of the images "framed" on the finite page in a certain way 

disagrees with the story's exploration of infinity.  Plate II, "La Tour de Babel ou l'entrée de la Bibliothèque," depicts a tower nowhere described in the text (though the title of the story takes the Name of the tower in question as a metaphor).  The text, which concerns a structure of great height, also concerns a structure indeterminate in breadth.  The 23 known letters of the alphabet and the identical length of every book in the Library 

suggest certain spatial limits to the purely interior space the text depicts: if one believes that the Library is no larger than what is required to house identically-bound books 

containing every possible combination of the letters, one can compute the size of the Library.  It is, however, quite possible that the Library be larger than what is minimally necessary, just as it is possible that the Library does not contain every possible book.  Although every room involves an identical design, each with an equal number of bookshelves, the inhabitants of the Library have removed certain books from the shelves, each of an indeterminate value; fabled heretical sects have moreover composed volumes to mimic the "divine disorder," and reputedly destroyed other volumes for various obscure purposes.  One might even suppose a secret alphabet has been hidden away from view; or perhaps the notion that certain volumes were long ago cast into the abyss is itself a fabrication.

3. In a college Shakespeare class, I was made to watch a film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream starring Ally McBeal.  At the time, Superman was confined to a wheelchair, Darth Vader read the Bible, and Moses was President of the NRA.  What I remember most about the film were a handful of extended visual sequences which, although not exactly present in the printed play, otherwise contained no dialog, and were therefore not contrary to the text.  Because Shakespeare acted in his own plays, the plays themselves contain almost no stage direction: cinematic and theatrical Shakespeare productions each contain countless additions not present in the printed plays, ranging from staging to costume to performance, all of which influence interpretation (whether such a performance is seen before, after, or in lieu of reading the text).

Illustration of a tower by Erik Desmazières, depicting a traditional form described neither in the Bible nor in the story by Borges.

My point about "in lieu of reading the text" is not meant as a jab at the "Cliffs Notes culture" of compulsory education, or a comment on the fact that some number of viewers will be introduced to the poem through this film's particular visual rendering.  Howl is very much a text composed in an aural tradition, and Hearing it––at least until its printing was permitted––was the only legitimate way to encounter the artwork.  When translated into a film, the poem is at once rendered from sound to picture, and from performance to recording.  Furthermore, the relationship between word and image is less stable than that between word and sound, and rendering the words visually in an immutable recording medium deprives the poem of some part of its essence.

There is an inescapable act of critique involved in translating a literary work into a visual form.  The poem involves multiple types of wordplay, autobiographical idiosyncrasies, and descriptions of physical impossibilities that suffer when nailed down with concrete visual images––however spectacular they appear.  While the film was successful in many ways, I think it would have benefited from a different conceptual model for the visual adaptation of the poem.

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