Saturday, July 03, 2010

On Allen Ginsberg & Collateral Murder



I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix...

I have been surprised over the last week or so that so many of my friends have no idea who Allen Ginsberg is, or the significance of his Beat poem Howl, which I used as the backing drone for Bushmaster Crazyhorse Howl. My film professor at Foothill told us he used to keep a copy of Howl in his back pocket; many young people did, back in the day. Howl, with its cry to explode the stifling wasteland of mid-1950s conformity, its call for mental and sexual liberation is, along with Jack Kerouac's On the Road and William Burroughs Naked Lunch, a key document in the founding of the Sixties counter-culture revolution.

Furthermore, Howl has particular resonance for people in the San Francisco Bay Area. The release of Howl is inextricably linked to the great City Lights bookstore in North Beach, perhaps the most famous independent bookstore in the country and still owned and operated by the 91-year-old Beat poet and artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti. When Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems in 1956, he was arrested on obscenity charges -- a landmark free speech case he later won, and one about to be memorialized in an upcoming film called Howl that is due out in September. (I'm sure Ginsberg, an outspoken homosexual at a time when being Out was rare, would be amused to see himself portrayed by the handsome actor James Franco.)

For his own part, Allen Ginsberg became a major figure in the counterculture throughout the Sixties and beyond, right up to his death from cancer in 1997. He led the chanting at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in 1967 and pursued a singular path as a free-speech and human rights activist. Later in his life he taught literature at Brooklyn College where my uncle, as Chairman of the English Department, was ostensibly Ginsberg's boss. My uncle was somewhat awed by his colleague: "He's so famous. He'll fly off to have dinner with the Rolling Stones in Paris, or Havel in Prague, then come back and teach his class."


My original conceit with Bushmaster Crazyhorse Howl was to intercut clips from the Wikileaks Collateral Murder video with superficial Hollywood depictions of the world, including the world of warfare and violence. The Collateral Murder video is the leaked video of an American Apache helicopter in Iraq gunning down about a dozen mostly unarmed Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists. The Army later lied and claimed U.S. soldiers were engaged in a firefight when the killings occurred but the video is clear and unambiguous on that point. The Iraqis are merely walking along the road when the Apache crew receives authorization to kill them all.

The dispassionate voices of the Apache crew and their HQ commanders contrast with the horror of the damage they inflict--not only on the original group of Iraqis but also on some brave men who drive up in a van to rescue the wounded, plus two young children in the van who are also badly hurt. The closing line I use, "Well, it's their fault for bringing their children to a war" sums up the heartless depersonalization of war, and an astonishing lack of compassion on the part of the speaker. All of Bagdhad is a war zone; the Americans made that way.

Hollywood, of course, loves to play war, especially when they get to condemn it as something bad while still masturbating in its visual and visceral glory. I purposefully picked clips of violence and warfare that were outside the standard Hollywood formula. Tropic Thunder, You Don't Mess with the Zohan and Hot Fuzz are all broad comedies, while The Watchmen is a very deep, dark satire. Alan Moore's original graphic novel of The Watchmen is one of the strongest examinations of American hegemony, and Zach Snyder's improbably great film adaptation captures the fascist underpinnings of superherodom in general, and American superherodom in particular, with dazzling panache. In the book and the film, the reluctant blue giant Dr. Manhattan proves such an effective weapon in the American arsenal that the Vietcong insist on surrendering to him personally.

By coincidence I had the audio of Ginsberg reading Howl; somewhere along the way I realized it would make a keen backdrop to the casual brutality of the Collateral Murder video. If nothing else, Howl is a call to end top-down command structures and allow the full flowerings of creativity and freedom to bloom. The poem still packs a wallop over 50 years after it came out because its vision, hellish and beautiful, feels extremely contemporary. In some ways, the Collateral Murder video seems to point to the poem's relevance.

The addition of the Stockhausen quote was a happy flash of inspiration for me. Stockhausen's point, which is undeniably true, is that the 9/11 terrorists managed to make a stronger statement and jolt the world's citizens out of their consensual trances more powerfully than all the artists in the world ever could. He was obviously not saying he approved of the attacks, or that it was acceptable to make "art" that killed thousands. But he nevertheless got figuratively crucified for saying what he said. The first casualty of war, even before truth, is nuance.

Best of all, opening with the Stockhausen quote gave me a chance to use a couple of the composer's dischordant compositions as the background chaos unfolds. Stockhausen is one of the most influential avant-garde composers of the 20th century, counting among his influences such artists as Phillip Glass (who makes an appearance on the final music swell, care of The Watchmen), David Byrne and seminal industrial electronic artists like Kraftwork. Few people listen to Stockhausen's stuff these days because most of it, like the pieces I used, is pretty unwelcome listening. It's perfect for Bushmaster Crazyhorse Howl, though; in this context it actually seems to make perfect sense.

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