Letters to Father Jacob
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have celebrated a poem. Experienced film-makers, they have made a picture dedicated to the single most famous American poem of the last hundred years, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” The result is far from an ordinary educational tool: it is a talented attempt to transmute the sweep of the poem to the screen, along with some acquaintance with the poet.
Epstein and Friedman used four approaches. Basic is the straightforward reading of sections of the poem by the actor playing Ginsberg. Then, while some of the poem is being read, the screen explodes in animation (by John Hays)—a spectral figure moves, flees, through atmospheric vistas related to what we are hearing. There are also interplayed bits of interviews—professionally lucid—with the film’s Ginsberg but using the poet’s words. Finally, there are sequences of the California courtroom in which the poem’s publisher was tried for obscenity.
Ginsberg is played by James Franco, an actor who is now noted for matters besides acting. In films he has already made a considerable mark, but he has also exhibited artwork, taken various college courses, and is now a doctoral candidate in English at Yale. Whatever his other interests, he is a capable actor. We first see his Ginsberg in a San Francisco café in 1955, reading “Howl” to a coterie. (All the sequences other than the “present” ones are in black and white.) As Ginsberg, Franco reads “Howl” with enough flavor to convince us that this is his poem.
The poem itself, as he begins it, seems to have been born where it belongs—in the human voice. This long work was written for Carl Solomon, a friend of Ginsberg’s who was then in a mental hospital in New York. Ginsberg sings of the America that has, he implies, put Solomon where he is—the America of continuing hopes and disappointments, of nobility and detritus, of frenzy and noise, of beauty and cancer of the soul. (At the film’s end, we are told that Solomon was eventually released and resumed his life in that America.)
When “Howl” was published, William Carlos Williams wrote an admiring foreword. In other eyes it has often been seen as Whitmanesque, in its continuing play of muscular form, its free far-flung verse, its national address. But—not to speak of other matters—there is a basic difference. Whitman was a musician of hope and promise: Ginsberg’s poem is hardly a ballad of hope. The so-called “Footnote” to the poem, which repeats and repeats the word “holy” attached to a wild assortment of nouns, is a kind of breath-catching after an aria that both laments and accepts the harsh way that things are.
The film has some light, yet it is at the last insufficient. When the poem first appeared, it was read as the work of an unusual person. The Ginsberg we see here is an amiable young man who smokes pot and does a lot of hanging out with his chief lover, Peter Orlovsky, and with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Certainly this is true, but it leaves out the man who broke rules and laws from an early age just to keep from fitting in. When Ginsberg was at Columbia, after some egregious misbehavior, he was arrested for either robbery or receiving stolen goods. All these aberrations were presumably deliberate, iconoclastic, anti-conventional. It took the combined efforts of Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, both of whom thought him an exceptional student, to keep him out of prison. (They helped arrange a free year of treatment for him at Columbia’s psychiatric hospital instead.) The film doesn’t show us the Ginsberg whom I saw some time later, smilingly undressing onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music before a cheering protest meeting—chiefly to show that, in the Beat age, another rule could be broken. (Friends stopped him.)
The film could not have been a full biography, but it lacks the color of a work from a poet who was leading as public, disruptive, and epitomic a life as he could. In a sequence of the obscenity trial, a defense lawyer states that it is disproportionate to judge a phrase extracted from a whole work. Howl gives us much more than phrases of Ginsberg’s, but the film has taken his poem out of its context. It was and surely is still seen as the outburst of that particular person at that time. I can’t think of any other Anglophone poet since Byron whose public persona was so vivid. “Howl” was especially striking because it came from that public person, who is not in the film.
We surrender at once to a Finnish picture called Letters to Father Jacob. The first shot is transfixing. A serious man, seriously dressed, is seated at a desk speaking to someone we can’t see. His face and body are sculpted out of light. Around him is darkness, as there could not be in life. The moment we see him we know that, in its making at least, the film means to aim above the usual. Films begin with establishing shots, don’t they? In recognizable places? This director thinks otherwise. He begins with an icon.
We quickly learn, as this man speaks, that he is the warden of a prison and that the person he is addressing is a lifer who is being released after twelve years. That prisoner has behaved well, has never asked for parole, has never permitted visitors. Then we see the prisoner—another surprise. It is a woman, and not a haggard odd face but a pudgy middle-aged woman. She is being released because an old country priest needs a housekeeper, has learned this woman’s story, and has specifically asked for her. Because of her quiet prison record, the priest’s wish is being granted.
Thus the opening moments. What follows never wavers in visual vigor or truthful acting. The screenplay, however, is almost exactly the contrary of the fresh making of the film. All the engaging vitality of the picture’s means is spent on an essentially worn story. The lifer, a tough bird named Leila Sten, is placed in the house of a lovable, loving, blind old priest, Father Jacob, who is an exemplary Christian. What can possibly happen in this picture except that his purity is going to improve her? Some surprises come along the way, but they are all complementary to the main predictable moral growth.
Father Jacob is well known in a way. Daily the postman bicycles out to his house and church in the country and delivers packets of letters asking the priest for advice or consolation or prayer. Jacob is far behind in his correspondence: bundles of letters are under his bed—and presumably Leila is to help him. All of course does not go smoothly between the two, despite his meekness, but the ending is no surprise.
Through most of this film, I kept worrying about something. Why did this exceptionally gifted director, Klaus Härö, want to do this script? He himself wrote the screenplay from a story by someone else. Why? The result is an almost perfect mismatch, as if Martin Scorsese had followed up The Last Temptation of Christ with a remake of A Christmas Carol. The film is stylistically sharp; the two main performances by Kaarina Hazard and Heikki Nousiainen are redoubtable; the rest is just comfortable cliché. But though the film merely strokes us gently with the familiar, at least we meet an exceptional director.
Postscript. The film world changed in September. One element has left. For the last fifty years, no matter what else was happening in that world, we knew that Claude Chabrol was making a film. He died on September 12, in Paris, at age eighty; and that flow of (practically) a film a year has halted. His work, varying of course in interest, rarely varied in the quality of its making. Besides the obvious fact that his films will be missed, we will also miss the constant knowledge that one is coming. (Well, one more is coming: Inspector Bellamy with Gérard Depardieu.)
Chabrol’s career was singular. He began as a critic in the Cahiers du Cinéma group, and with one of that group, Eric Rohmer, he wrote a book on Hitchcock. He made shorts. In 1952 he married (the first of three wives) and with some money that his wife inherited he made his first feature, Le Beau Serge. The prestige of this work and his very active support in every way helped to promote several others in the New Wave.
After a few more films in that Cahiers atmosphere, works of some sort of social or textural adventure, his consequent work, without losing any of its formal distinction, became more popular. It would be teasingly inaccurate to call him a sell-out: he was seduced by the pleasure of making films into making as many as he could. Many commentators (myself included) have quoted John Russell Taylor’s remark that it is difficult to evoke Chabrol’s films on paper “because so much of the overall effect turns on Chabrol’s sheer hedonistic relish for the medium.”
Far from the tone of his earlier pictures, most of Chabrol’s subsequent films involved mystery and murder without being anything like thrillers of the conventional type or even like his adored Hitchcock. His stories almost always had a core of character pertinence. Character was usually his chief concern—entanglements, oppositions, collusions, and drastic results, all seen with a kind of Gallic sophistication and all slightly tinged with comic despair. The action was never less than immediate and whole, yet often we got the sense that he was sitting next to us, saying, “Now look at this.”
His chief latter-day attempt at something different, Madame Bovary, was not one of his best. For myself, insofar as I can sort through in my mind the dozens of Chabrol films that I have seen, two immediately stand out: This Man Must Die, in which a man seeks the runaway driver who killed his child, and Landru, in which Chabrol treated with magical irony the Bluebeard story that Chaplin had used in Monsieur Verdoux. The two pictures could and should be shown together. It is almost enough to say of Chabrol’s life that his film is a fit companion for Chaplin.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This piece ran in the October 28, 2010, issue of the magazine.