Written by:
Elgy Gillespie
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Howl (2010)

Ginsberg Goes Hollywood
(See trailer below.)

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in Howl

“I wrote it for Jack!” says Allen Ginsberg in Howl. “And I started writing poetry because I fell in love and I needed to express my feelings.”

Ginsberg was talking about the object of his desire, Beat writer Jack Kerouac — one telling line among a million telling details in Howl, the biopic about the poet.

The first narrative feature from Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman takes its name from Ginsberg’s era-defining epic. Their film describes how it became an instant hit and immediately after the 1955 Six Gallery reading, poet-publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti telegrammed Ginsberg, asking if his City Lights bookstore could publish the poem.  

Starring a bespectacled James Franco with black eyebrows and Ginsburg’s body language, Epstein-Friedman’s Howl was originally set to become another documentary in their already distinguished canon. Instead, Howl experiments with everything, from truly startling animation (by Ginsberg’s artist friend Eric Drooker) to jazzy riffs by Carter Burwell that echo the poem.

The core of the movie Howl is the San Francisco court case where Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried for obscenity, recreated by a celestial choir of actors Jeff Daniels, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban and David Strathairn.

To say the poem is a sexy young man’s sermon is stating the obvious. Ginsberg was 29 when he read his 3,000-line manifesto to Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and friends at the Six Gallery. Forged in desire, naked in longing, it’s akin to his opening a vein, loudly declaiming his need to demand the freedom to love in what became the Beat anthem: “…I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked …”

The poem “Howl” introduced a young, shy, bespectacled, cute Ginsberg to the world, according to teenage eyewitness Yvonne Rainer, and became an immediate sensation.

Too drunk to read, Kerouac wove around the room. In the movie, Rainer describes him waving a jug of Dago red and shouting “Yeah! Go, go!” after lines like “Who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy!” caused the crowd to erupt.

“Howl” was ruled to be not obscene by the court. But beyond the First Amendment debate, the movie deals with “Howl” as a confused young man’s longing for love.

What was it like to be a poet, perhaps gay, to be young, to be erotic and human in a pre-“Howl” America? And what was it like to be gay, but doomed to forever fall unrequitedly in love with straight guys and become famous overnight?

“In a sense the movie is about looking for love in all the wrong places, and that’s something we can all identify with,” says Friedman, sitting in a San Francisco office.

Drooker’s animations are as explicit as can be — from forests of soaring redwood penises to conception and birth. Redwood ejaculation was the one moment that alarmed censors. “Our hope was that the animation would interest a new generation,” explains Rob Epstein.

It also solves the uncomfortable problem of onscreen sex neatly. (Ironically, the movie is unrated, although it carries a parental advisory).

The real Allen Ginsburg makes cameos, talking about Kerouac and Neal Cassady with the disarming: “There is no Beat Generation, just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” The movie is set to open Sept. 24 in San Francisco and New York, with a wider release in October.

Have Epstein-Friedman invented a genre, a whole new kind of movie? They say no. Howl is a narrative to them.

Known and respected as The Twin Ken Burns of Queerdom for their documentaries Life and Times of Harvey Milk, Paragraph 175, and The Celluloid Closet, Epstein-Friedman were approached first by the Ginsberg estate to make the movie for Howl’s 50th birthday — and then met Eric Drooker and took a more experimental tack.

“And people thought we were crazy to try to do all this, of course.”

Well, were they? Sitting across from Friedman in a San Francisco office, Epstein remarks that we tend to think of Ginsberg as the bald, straggle-bearded father of the Summer of Love counterculture.

But Ginsberg was young and in love in 1955, when the reading and trial of Howl changed the world forever, and that’s the moment Epstein-Friedman wanted to catch — what they call “the golden moment.”

“The idea of a sexy young writer who was determined to change the world did have a great impact at this golden moment, the moment that tipped the countercultural movement into being, when afterwards everything changed, and that’s what we were aiming at.”

Their ambitions to reintroduce this “milestone moment” to a new generation were blessed by Gus Van Sant of Milk, their executive producer, who got them James Franco. “And then the right people just fell into place.”

Van Sant helped lasso the strong cast led by Franco. Jon Hamm (Mad Men’s Don Draper) was the lucky shoe-in for the hotshot defense attorney Jake Erhlich, in a nuanced performance. David Strathairn contributes as prosecutor Ralph McIntosh.

They’d interviewed survivors like Ferlinghetti, now 90, Ginsberg’s long-term lover Peter Orlovsky, and their Six Gallery witness, choreographer Yvonne Rainer. Through a key Time film clip they found Drooker, but otherwise few contemporary film clips, and no actual footage of the actual Six Gallery reading, depending instead on Rainer and Time to recreate the poets.

“They weren’t yet famous and there were no handheld movie cameras,” points out Epstein.

Instead the partners found themselves gallantly trying to make the movie match and interpret the poem’s mood with a disparate multiplicity of elements, “and the advent of a formal structure that resonates within the poem,” as Epstein puts it. “But the documentary scenes inform the narrative and narrative informs the documentary. So we consider it all narrative, though this is our first documentary-narrative with actors.” Oh, and with animation.

Among the eyewitness interviews and other elements, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure are noticeably absent. The filmmakers don’t comment. But they do talk about their debt to Tuli Kupferberg, the anarchist-poet who survived a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge and who showed them Drooker’s work, and their way forward.

Ginsburg’s tragic mother appears fleetingly in childhood clips, the mother whose lobotomy consent papers he had to sign, and whom he never mentioned except in poetry.

Surprisingly for documentarians, Epstein-Friedman say that throughout what they call “the fast-moving train of the film shoot” they enjoyed painstaking research least. Reading between the lines, Howl was not all fun. Nor is the fast-moving train getting a blast-off on their next project — their pre-production on the Linda Lovelace story. In this particular case, the estate did not contact them first. The estate is the problem this time.

Do Epstein and Friedman think of Ginsberg as a hero and giant of the last century?  No, they don’t. “We never think in terms of heroes, don’t even think of Harvey Milk as a hero. Milk and Ginsberg were both ordinary men who did heroic acts.”

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