Today I discuss a showcase of multiple art-forms, those beginning with great writing and continuing with great filming and performances. Rarely have I watched a reality show or even the majority of sitcoms and have the depth of thoughts and laughs I had when viewing these two films. Both are rich in worthiness and drowning in depth and meaning, but mainly, they are entertaining and intelligent, and lead to reflection and inquiry over my own level of courage. These films are Howl and Defending Your Life. Howl For those who aren’t familiar yet, Howl is a four-part poem written by acclaimed American writer, Allen Ginsberg. It was written in the late 50’s, a proclamation of love, creativity, passion, rebellion, honesty, and truth. A bold account of life as a young artist in a post World War II era, a time speckled with parallels to now, to our generation of aspiring artists, our fears, our love, our hope and our honesty. Howl is Ginsberg’s On The Road, him being of that “Beat Generation”, which is merely a handful of prolific writers and artists of other genres who explored New York City, the United States and their inner turmoil together in the 50’s and 60’s. The poem is raw, vulgar, heartfelt, combustible, and thought-provoking. Howl set fire to the emotions of many when it was published, creating a storm of support and a hurricane of hate. Copies of Howl were removed, burned and often those caught reading it were penalized. The publisher stood trial with a famously conservative judge on it’s literary merit and validity, facing the potential for imprisonment and a shift from our 1st amendment rights into a darker, more conservative realm, a world where our government controls our expression, judges it against ambiguous and impossible standards, and then decides on their own whether others can read it themselves.
Allen Ginsberg is portrayed by the enigmatic and endlessly talented James Franco. What a chameleon he is. There are plenty of good actors out there, those that can deliver lines naturally, believably, but there are very few with the range of James Franco, Sean Penn or Meryl Streep. Or Kate Winslet. There’s a short list and James is on it. I’m digging his choices, his writing, his pursuit of education, his laid back nature and his handsome, symmetrical face. It doesn’t hurt, all I’m saying. He transforms into this ethereal, cerebral man whose verbal expression is as exquisite as it is jarring. Allen shares through Howl, and other pieces, his love and attraction for men, particularly the men he was friends with, the men finding their own way, men including Jack Kerouac (most famous for writing On The Road) and William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch), eventually finding love with Peter Orlovsky, who he remained with until his death in 1997. Howl is a naked portrayal of Allen’s truths during that time, his sexuality being merely one of many facets. As you can imagine, it caused quite the stir.
The film has a style and execution all its own. Inspired and created from Ginsberg’s published writings, interviews and court records, Howl follows the prolific and unprecedented legal proceedings taking place in 1957. The script adheres to the trial’s transcript verbatim, with the brooding and sexy Jon Hamm playing the charismatic, ball busting defense attorney, J.W. Ehrlich. These scenes are interwoven with Franco passionately reading Howl to an audience of nonconformists with gorgeous, jazzy animation telling the visual story while Ginsberg read his own. Edited beautifully from courtroom to poetry readings to the one-on-one interview with an older Ginsberg, the film tells an inspired story that changed history and continuously plays on the hearts of aspiring artists today. The poem reminds us that love is love, there is no set structure or guideline to recognizing or defining art, we must make the distinction between prose and poetry, and we must have the balls to lead with our hearts. The Beat Generation rejected materialism, the confines of western organized religion, and basic standards and practices of literature. They wrote soulfully, from who they are, not who society forced them to be.
We can all benefit from the previous generation’s artistic integrity and Howl is a perfect marriage of old and new, showcasing a creator’s work while making an original piece on their own. I’ve never known where I belong and I’m somewhat happy to march to the beat of my own drum, but I’m also glad to resonate with those from different eras and to remind myself to keep creating and sharing, regardless of opinion or outcome. 84 minutes of truth. You should watch it.
Defending Your Life I love Albert Brooks. I do. He’s brilliant, comically and intellectually. I’m stoked he’s receiving high praise and nominations for his supporting role in Drive, a film unmatched, in this year or any other. Oddly enough, there’s more reasons than Ryan Gosling in a tight shirt to watch it. It’s unbelievably good and really fricken cool. Back to Albert. After small roles in the early seasons of SNL, Brooks went on to be cast in such memorable films as Taxi Driver, Terms of Endearment, Private Benjamin, The Twilight Zone film, and a slew of voiceover work, most notably as Nemo’s father in (what else?) Finding Nemo. You can find all this on imdb, if you don’t know who he is, I’m not sure what to say. He has a distinctive voice both in sound and in expression. He is caustically funny, humorously cranky and a damn good writer. He starred in two of my favorite films from the 80’s, Dudley Moore’s Unfaithfully Yours and the genius, unforgettable Broadcast News. You could check out any number of the films I mentioned previously, but if I were to direct you to one piece, something that showcases him at his very best, then it’ll have to be Defending Your Life.
I wish I’d seen this movie sooner, earlier in my life, because I loved it so much and feel I could have benefitted from it’s humor and message at a young age. I’m fortunate in that my parents passed on some great films from before my time, so I grew up and still love movies no one my age cares about or has heard of, and that’s part of my objective as a writer, to share goodness, and Defending Your Life is damn good. Brooks wrote, directed and starred in this film and wisely cast the good in anything she does Meryl Streep and the fascinating and entertaining Rip Torn. Brooks plays Daniel Miller, an affable, hard-working, do-gooder, typical middle-aged American dude with too much emphasis on self-preservation and avoiding fears. Daniel is dry and inquisitive, smart and kind, but lacking a heavy dose of courage. A series of unfortunate decisions leads to Daniel’s death, where he’s sent to Judgment City, resembling Anytown, USA and involving details most likely found in purgatory, if it exists.
Judgment City is a place with pleasant weather day in and day out, an endless supply of perfectly cooked food which will have no consequence on your body, regardless how much you eat, and a horde of mostly centenarians all awaiting trial to defend their lives. Daniel is led to Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), a lawyer of sorts who seems to have swallowed happiness pills and been tasked with defending Daniel’s life in front of two objective judges. Depending on your life’s decisions and circumstances leading in, you are given an allotted number of days from your life which the two appointed judges will observe along with you, your defender and your prosecutor. The prosecutor selects clips in which you exemplify and choose fear, the defender then countering with shots of courage and instances of goodness, the whole premise being earthlings use 3-5% of their brains and in order to move along in the universe, you must prove you deserve it by showcasing your ability to overcome fear and take advantage of your brain. Those living and working in Judgment City utilize a whopping 50 + percent of their brains and are therefore highly evolved, critically thinking, compassionate human beings who are at once courageous and wise, bold and understated, thoughtful and heartful (I’m going to make this a word).
Daniel then meets Julia (Meryl Streep), initially drawn together because of their proximity in age, who then find themselves falling deeply in love over a four-day period. Streep’s character has 4 days to pull from in order to defend her life; the less you’re given, presumably the less you need to move on, to be allowed to evolve further instead of giving life another shot on Earth. She’s led a fearless life, full of love and ambitious pursuits. Being fear natured as Daniel is, he is both drawn and intimidated by Julia’s magnetic courage. Throughout the film, we look back on 9 pivotal moments in his life, seeing both sides of the coin, making our own arguments for him to either be sent back to Earth, or moved forward into the evolving universe. It’s a captivating idea, one which certainly makes you ponder the quality of your own existence and measures of courage. We’ve all wimped out before, in some way or another. Many of us deal directly with very common fears; heights, claustrophobia, death, by facing them head on in any number of ways. I’ve jumped out of an airplane and hurtled my long limbs toward the earth at god knows what speed and yet was terrified to pursue writing, teaching and especially romantic love. If I could go back in time and slap my weak self I would, but clearly regrets are a waste of time and are only meaningful if you haven’t learned from your past. I’m much stronger now and through the inspiration of the outside world and my inside circle of friends I’m finding myself to be more courageous everyday. This film dares you to acknowledge your own level of courage and to perhaps be more bold than you ever have before. I will not ruin the end or provide too many details, just know what a smart, humorous and considerate film this is. It’s no wonder it has the respect and love it does. You’ll love it, if not for the first time, then again.
It’s befitting I watched both films this week, as courage has been a running theme and goal in my life for the past few years, kicked into high gear over the recent resolution chatter. Courage comes from the latin root cor meaning heart. And through various readings and pondering, it has emerged that courage does not equate to fearlessness but rather the acknowledgment of fear and the choice to be courageous in spite of that fear. And as much as courage is thrown in with the adjective brave, courage refers more to a consistent state of being, a pervasive attitude and approach to life. Courage refers to an open heart. It was brave to jump out of an airplane, some saying bravery is the kindest euphemism for stupidity, but it takes courage to love openly, express yourself truthfully and follow your passion, without any guarantee of success, money, or knowledge of a future outcome.
Being courageous, similar to being happy, is a choice. It is far easier to wallow in fear, complaint, blame and self-pity, and believe me I’ve been there. But it takes guts, balls, vagina (Betty White wisely pointed out that testicles are sensitive orbs that retreat with any presence of danger, whereas a vagina withstands all kinds of intrusive obstruction and perhaps when referring to the brave or courageous, we should not refer to a big set of balls but rather a tough vagina. Too much? Ah, get over it, wimp (; ), to live with gusto, in the active pursuit of life rather than the passive avoidance of death. Defending Your Life simultaneously makes us ponder the quality of our existence while also recognizing if we are in fact living in an act of defense, opposition, spending more time protecting and not doing, fighting against something, instead of nutting (vulva-ing? there’s no good ring like nuts or balls, what a shame) up and living actively, openly, passionately on the offense. I dare you to do the same. The beautiful truth is it’s never to late to play offense, to give fear the middle finger and to live a more courageous, heartful life. Give yourself and others that gift, and remember it’s a process. Be better everyday, with limited focus on the end goal and more emphasis on the nature of your daily reality, moment to moment. I’m a work in progress but feel better today than yesterday with and intention to be better tomorrow.
Be passionate. Be courageous. Be loving. Be grateful. Just Be.