Literary Criticism Comes to the Movies

Stanley Fish in The New York Times:

Howl There are movies based on literary works (“Paradise Lost” is on the way, I am told), bio-pics about literary greats (“Bright Star,” “The Hours”), movies that feature a bit of literary criticism (“Animal House,” “Dead Poets Society,” “The History Boys”), even movies — documentaries — about literary critics (Zizek and Derrida, who are only literary critics occasionally), but no movies I know of about literary criticism as such. None, that is, until “Howl,” the new movie about Allen Ginsberg starring James Franco, which is not only about literary criticism but is the performance of literary criticism, an extended “explication de texte.”

It is also a narrative, kind of. There are four time frames: (1) Ginsberg writing “Howl” on an old black typewriter (a nostalgia-producing image if there ever was one) (2) Ginsberg declaiming “Howl” to an appreciative “with-it” audience in what appears to be the poem’s first public reading (3) Ginsberg being interviewed about “Howl” and other things by someone you never really see and can barely hear, and (4) the trial of poet-bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who had been indicted for publishing and distributing an obscene work, that is, a work that appeals only to prurient interests, has a tendency to incite lustful thoughts and has no redeeming social or literary value. Although the movie jumps back and forth among these time frames with no warning, continuity is provided by the trial whose events unfold in sequence; when the trial is over, the movie is over. But the real business of the movie — the effort to figure out what “Howl” means — is not over because it has barely begun, even though everyone has a go at it, including the members of Ginsberg’s audience who produce a running commentary in their facial expressions.

More here.