PRINT September 2010


Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl

PROBABLY NO WORK of American literature of the mid-twentieth century has taken on so many identities as Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem “Howl”: Beat anthem, First Amendment cause célèbre, Lower East Side fringe festival. It’s safe to say that even those who have never read the poem would recognize its haunting opening lines: “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.” It’s even safer to say that few of its admirers would have considered “Howl” a likely subject for a motion picture. Who would make a poem into a movie anyway? That’s even more unlikely than Ginsberg appearing in a Gap ad!

Nevertheless, with their new film Howl, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have managed to do just that—forging a highly original solution to the thorny problems inherent in the task. The approach they take is at once minimal and maximal, stretching far beyond the directors’ documentary roots. (They are perhaps best known for their 1995 collaboration The Celluloid Closet; Epstein won an Academy Award in 1985 for his direction of The Times of Harvey Milk.) By dividing their focus between this iconic poem in performance and the scandalous 1957 First Amendment–rights trial in the San Francisco Municipal Court (City Lights cofounder Lawrence Ferlinghetti was brought up on obscenity charges for publishing “Howl”), Epstein and Friedman have created a credible historical account of a seminal American literary event and an ode to free expression in our still censorious age.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl, 2010, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm and Super 16 mm, 90 minutes. Allen Ginsberg (James Franco).

To borrow another of Ginsberg’s titles, I can only think of Howl the movie as a “reality sandwich”: Words are the reality, lifted from interviews with Ginsberg and from the transcripts of the San Francisco court, combined in a multilevel form that suggests an extravagant club sandwich, stuffed with dramatic reenactments and scenes from the life, and heavily flavored with documentary sauce (not to mention an extravagant dollop of fantasy animation). Even the (few) minimal sets are precise re-creations, right down to the postcards of Baudelaire and Poe on Ginsberg’s refrigerator and the Dinah Washington record (Dinah Jams) sticking out of a box in his living room.

The sandwich’s first layer is a reenactment by actor James Franco of Ginsberg’s legendary reading of “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, with such Beat icons as Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Peter Orlovsky in the audience. The second layer is a dramatization of Ginsberg (Franco) recording an interview with an unseen and unheard interviewer. The third layer, a reenactment of the 1957 obscenity trial, overtly connects the personal, the literary, and the political. The final layer, overlaid with Franco’s reading of “Howl,” is an extended animation sequence by graphic novelist and illustrator Eric Drooker.

In the material that constitutes the first two layers, Franco is the only person who speaks, portraying Ginsberg publicly, as a performer, and intimately, in his heymisher mensch mode. I was deeply skeptical of the decision to cast a heartthrob like Franco in the lead role, because it threatened to turn the film into yet another Hollywood version of the counterculture (though I’m sure Ginsberg creamed in his grave at the thought of looking like the General Hospital star, who has also played such gay icons as James Dean and Harvey Milk’s boyfriend). Incredibly, Franco both looks and sounds like Ginsberg. Not a matter of an elaborate makeover—a pair of heavy horn-rimmed black glasses and a beard do the trick. Franco inhabits Ginsberg so completely that even those who knew the poet well are taken aback by this remarkable performance. Plainly, Franco not only absorbed countless recordings of Ginsberg and studied archival footage—few people have been so abundantly documented as Ginsberg—but immersed himself in the poet’s spirit as well. The re-created reading at Six Gallery vividly calls up Ginsberg’s oracular presence. The heat of that electrifying event, immortalized by Kerouac in Dharma Bums as the “mad night,” was fueled not only by the words but by Ginsberg’s amazing delivery. His voice, deeply resonant and intensely passionate, could fill St. Mark’s Church or carry across an outdoor Be-In. Whether reciting poetry, singing along with a harmonium, or chanting om, Ginsberg exuded a charisma as vast as Walt Whitman’s America. Franco uncannily channels that energy.

The reality sandwich’s second layer—the interview—captures Ginsberg’s extraordinary candor and sociability. Like countless others, I experienced these qualities firsthand, when I met him in 1994. I introduced myself as a writer working on a book about the Beat Generation and organizing an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC (“Rebels: Painters and Poets of the 1950s”). I expected Ginsberg to grant me about fifteen minutes of his time; he generously gave me two hours. He wasn’t much interested in the book but he was highly enthusiastic about the show. He rambled around his scruffy three-room apartment at 437 East Twelfth Street, pulling down books, showing me photographs, and finally sitting me down at his kitchen table with his address book: “Take whatever you need.” He wasn’t pushing his own photographs but the work of his friends. He was the Grand Central of the counterculture, and his address book was the richest data bank imaginable. At his memorial, the poet Andy Clausen remarked that Ginsberg had more friends than anyone in history. That claim may not be as hyperbolic as it sounds. His nonchalant immediacy made people he had just met feel they were dear friends of his. I felt it within minutes of our meeting. Ginsberg’s genius for friendship and intimacy is evoked perfectly in the film. Franco, à la Ginsberg, speaks candidly without indulging in self-revelation, without playing “gay” or “Jewish.” For that period—the middle of the Eisenhower years—Ginsberg said things that were controversial in the extreme. However, such remarks were made as casually as his statement that he smoked marijuana about as often as he went to the movies. Personal openness that is not self-serving creates friendship.

The film’s trial scenes make up its factual core, and all of the dialogue in these segments is based on court transcripts. Unlike the average courtroom drama, Howl contains no dramatic Perry Mason reversals, no smoking gun, and the case isn’t cheapened by making certain figures cartoonish prudes and others noble defenders of freedom. (One reservation I do have, though, is that, while the film’s cast is universally excellent, the several famous actors who appear in court interfere in a way that I didn’t experience seeing Franco playing Ginsberg. Perhaps the problem is that their roles are essentially cameos—Oh, there’s Jeff Daniels! There’s Don Draper—I mean, Jon Hamm! There’s Mary-Louise Parker!) Although we already know the outcome of the trial—Ferlinghetti was found innocent and Howl & Other Poems went on to sell more than eight hundred thousand copies during Ginsberg’s lifetime—these courtroom scenes are a fascinating reminder of the limits imposed on literary expression in 1957. In 2010, when unblinking pornography is everywhere available on the Internet, it may seem astonishing that one of the most legally contentious lines at stake in the People v. Ferlinghetti was “[angelheaded hipsters] who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.” (The problem was “joy.”)

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl, 2010, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm and Super 16 mm, 90 minutes. From left:Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers) and Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm).

The most daring, and problematic, aspect of Howl is Drooker’s animation. Ginsberg would no doubt disagree with purists who insist that a poem should rely solely on its words, that an image is a limiting and competing force—he could point to the example of William Blake—and indeed he collaborated with Drooker in the early ’90s on his volume Illuminated Poems (Four Walls Eight Windows). Ginsberg recognized the value of updating his work to appeal to the generation of “today’s lowered-attention-span TV consciousness.” The problem is not so much Drooker’s kinetic images—which are inventive, allusive, and often brilliant—but seeing them simultaneously competing with Ginsberg’s words in real time. (I suspect they will work better in the forthcoming book Howl: A Graphic Novel [Harper Perennial].) It is one thing to animate a narrative poem like “Casey at the Bat,” as Walt Disney did in 1946, where the images are matched to doggerel, or to deploy visionary abstractions that bear no obvious reference to text or score, as Harry Smith did in Mahagonny (1970–80), his film version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s opera. Drooker’s strategy, however, falls somewhere in between.

Although the leap from his graphic novels to story-boarding wasn’t a huge one, Drooker admitted he was initially overwhelmed by the idea of animating “Howl,” as the poem has no linear narrative. “Dante’s Inferno would have been easier,” he told me. He spent three years sketching out “Howl” in pencil, creating storyboards similar to his graphic novels, and his bravura drawings are hugely imaginative, cohering in his distinct brand of hipster expressionism, which reminded me of a wide range of imagery—from William Blake, Odilon Redon, and Edward Hopper to Zap Comix and psychedelia. The result is cognitive and visual overload, phantasmagoria on top of phantasmagoria. I am reminded of something Virgil Thomson once said to me about the difficulty of setting Gertrude Stein’s modernist words to music for their opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1928): “You can’t be advanced all over the place. Adding complexity to complexity is like throwing sand in a gear.”

Trailer for Howl, 2010.

But the adventurous animated sequences are the only aspect of the film that distracts from its otherwise impressive “reality effect.” Throughout Howl, Epstein and Friedman combine dramatization and documentary images so fluidly that one experiences what may be a new form—one that’s neither drama nor documentary. We are familiar with docudrama, but not with the juxtaposition of documentary photos and actors. Friedman and Epstein do this with an assurance that enhances the mixture. Yet here one must ask what significance the reality so depicted bears for the filmmakers—and for us. Why, in short, did they set out to make a movie out of “Howl”?

The “mad night” at Six Gallery is not only about gay liberation (not yet so named) but about something more broadly political—the unfettered expression of personal life. As Ginsberg wrote, “I was curious to leave behind after my generation an emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in U.S. consciousness.” By focusing so tightly on a single poem, Howl adroitly telescopes an act of courageous candor. We are still feeling the ramifications of that moment more than a half century later.

No matter how skillful and poignant the dramatizations in Epstein and Friedman’s film, there’s nothing like the real thing. Howl ends with archival footage of Ginsberg singing his poem “Father Death Blues.” It brought tears to my eyes. Was I reacting to Ginsberg’s consciousness of his own demise? To my own experience of Ginsberg in real life? To what all of us lost, collectively, in his death? Surely, to all of these.

RIP Allen Ginsberg. Long live “Howl.”

Steven Watson is the author of The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944–1960 (Pantheon, 1995), among other titles.