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I randomly discovered “The Hours” by sifting through Netflix. I had never heard of the film before, nor was the description entirely enticing, but I decided to watch it anyway because I caught two words: Virginia Woolf. As it turns out, the film follows three women, each in a different era, each living a different, screwed-up emotional drudgery. Naturally, Woolf’s experience is to be expected; much is known about the chauvinism of medicine during the author’s day. The other women, acted by Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, are a bit more difficult to forgive.
First, I must point out that Nicole Kidman was unrecognizable to me in her portrayal of Woolf. I recall thinking at one point, “Wow, she sounds a lot like Nicole Kidman,” yet I never would have dreamed that I was right. Kidman’s methodical intensity and liberating fits of anger captivated me, and Virginia Woolf became the most fascinating character in the film. (Shocking, I know.) Streep’s performance was also well done, yet her story did not capture me as much. I was significantly more interesting in her companion, Richard, and his life as an author near death from the catastrophic effects of AIDS. Moore’s performance seemed lackluster to me. From her first appearance, I was confused by her manner; she drifts into the scene like a faint ghost, hardly giving expression or inflection to any action or word. My initial thought was that she must also be suffering some physical disease, but that was not the case. Eventually, my brow got tired of furrowing and I lost compulsion to watch her.
I suppose the connection between these women exists in two ways: each woman is deeply tied to the novel Mrs. Dalloway (Kidman writes it, Moore reads it, and Streep lives it), and each woman must deal either directly or indirectly with suicide. While the ideas were nice conceptually, I wonder if they actually achieved a purpose. I understood the ways in which Streep’s life echoed the title character Clarissa, with whom she shares a name. I understood that each storyline included suicide. I understood the final connection, which I shall not reveal, lest someone has yet to watch it. Still, upon the film’s conclusion, I could not muster the enthusiasm to write this post. I still have hardly anything to say about the film.
One problem I did have was that the kisses between women in the film seemed to be connected with the mental instability that accompanies suicide. Perhaps it makes sense in Woolf’s era, and perhaps the intent was opposite, but the presence of insinuation was too strong to go unnoticed. Perhaps only Streep’s character acts a kiss between women as a normal occurrence, but the other characters’ kisses were inexplicably linked to their sanity. I doubt the film’s purpose was to emphasize that sexual prejudice is a cause of suicide, or if it was the purpose, it is difficult to determine. Either way, it would be nice to see some woman-to-woman love that was not linked to mental instability.
I have already run out of things to say. It is possible that this is a film I just didn’t get. Either way, I would still say it’s worth a watch, if only to witness the excellence that is Kidman’s performance of a harrowing Virginia Woolf.
My first opinion of “Howl,” the 2010 film starring James Franco and detailing Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem of the same title, was that it was a glorified poetry reading performed by Franco, who has lately seemed to determine himself as literary educator extraordinaire for the uncultured American public. My opinion flipped itself throughout the film as easily as the bodies in Ginsberg’s poem, opening itself to contradiction and uncertainty. Though some scenes continue to support my initial opinion, they often blend into moments of appreciation stirred by either Ginsberg’s lasting genius or cinematic magic.
The film illustrates a certain discussion I participated in earlier the day I watched the film. Discussing the poem “Howl” academically, my classmates and I attempted to articulate and describe Ginsberg’s notions of the sacred and the profane within the poem. Our class split into three groups. One group determined that Ginsberg intended either to drag the sacred down to the profane, or to lift the profane up to the sacred. Another determined that it was difficult to decide between the notions, and that one or the other must be true, and several instances of language in Ginsberg’s poem prove a sense of hopelessness tied to the struggle. A third group determined that Ginsberg in fact created a bridge between the two words, ensuring the sacred and the profane existed on a level field of interpretation and experience.
The third group’s explanation appeals most to me, as it was indeed the group in whose discussion I participated, and underscores my interpretation of the film. As an enthusiast of any cinematic creation glorifying literature, I watched the entire hour-and-twenty-four-minute piece with rapture. I laughed at exaggerated imagery, at certain tics in Franco’s performance, at the Italian subtitles that reminded me I have yet to take my third-level class before I graduate in six months (subtitles are not generally included; it was the only copy I could find to watch). Surprisingly, however, I found myself enraptured with the film all the same. Although still believing I could feel the radiation of Franco’s self-satisfaction in his portrayal of a great American beat poet, I fell caught into the words of the poem, into the animated illustrations of the poem, into the reenactments of Ginsberg’s life experiences that led to the words in the poem. I found myself desiring to debate the film in much the way the lawyers it depicts were debating the literary merit of the poem itself upon its publication as a pocket book. It is in this way I discovered that the elements of the sacred and the profane which we had discussed in my class applied to all aspects of poetry: its writing, its interpretation, its dictation, its merit, and its presentation.
In today’s culture, we of the youthful generation like to believe that we are above literary elitism, this belief itself a contradiction and possibly the reason why such unedited gravel as Fifty Shades of Grey is published. We like to believe that because we have stupefied ourselves in the light of screen after screen after screen, the mere fact of our reading means we are all cultured, all educated, and all uniquely qualified to deem that any digital representation of a written work is unworthy of genuine praise. We believe ourselves exempt from the turns of irony we impose upon our own culture, denying the cinematic interpretations of poetry and fiction as media-twisted and products of the rise of the literary machine, preaching these thoughts while flicking a smooth finger over the glass corner of electronic pages in our Kindles and Nooks. I am guilty myself of abstaining from electronic readers for the Principle of Print, as I will always consider it. All of these notions, however, are merely illustrations of what our own generation would appear like in Ginsberg’s work, had it extended through to our years. We, too, are leaping between sacred and profane, dooming certain works to lack of merit and praising others because we like them. We are laughing at Franco for his opportunistic exploitation of literature to mold himself into a snarky cinematic hipster-elitist. We, too, have lines between obscenity and, in the film’s language, “palatable” depiction of lifestyles. While our digital access grants us little trouble in the publication of such words as “cock” and “fuck” and “asshole,” unlike Ginsberg, we fail to see the significance of their incorporation into our daily literature because we do not see them as literature. Despite the call of “Howl” for the contradiction and glorification of the messiness in our disturbed human lives, we never cease to appraise ourselves and abhor those who oppose us.
At risk of getting distracted, I defer myself to my main conclusion. Yes, I still believe, to an extent, that the film “Howl” is James Franco’s glorified poetry party. I also believe that it is an extraordinary piece worth at least one viewing, alone, with clean-slate eyes and hungry ears. If the viewer listens closely, he can hear the emotional and experiential impact within Ginsberg’s words. He can hear the descriptions of past, present, and future mistaken generations dealing with pain after pain after agony. He can hear the repetition of the beat echoing in Ginsberg’s mind as he tries with line after line to get somebody to listen to what he is trying to say. He can hear even the voice of Ginsberg himself, breaking through the vibrations of Franco’s vocal chords, emphatically mirroring the euphoria of the first performance of such a revolutionary work.
The clearest notion of merit, to me, is whether or not I am provoked to write. Before the film “Howl” had ended, I had already decided there was much I had to say, and it would be said before the day was out. The credits had not finished scrolling when I began this response. That is the fervor of inspiration, and although that inspiration may rise more certainly from Ginsberg’s original poem, the film’s revitalization of the poem’s relevance may be telling us something about our generation that we may need to hear.
*Note: Before watching the film, I recommend listening to Ginsberg’s own performance of “Howl.” Audio clips can be found easily on YouTube.