Volume 20, Number 40 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | September 22 - 28, 2010
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Opening Sept. 24
Angelika Film Theater
18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St.
260 W. 23rd St.
Lincoln Plaza Cinema
1886 Broadway at 62nd St.
James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in “Howl.” Below, Jeffrey Friedman, Rob Epstein, and Franco on the set of “Howl.”
‘Howl’ Heard Again
James Franco tapped to reanimate Ginsberg
BY GARY M. KRAMER
Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” which he first read publicly in 1955 and published in 1956, created an instant sensation. Considered obscene, with lines about “cock and endless balls” and depictions of homosexual acts, its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books in San Francisco, was arrested and put on trial.
Writers and directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have now brought “Howl” vividly to life on screen. The film focuses on the two-year period from 1955 to 1957, and is divided into four narrative strands — an interview with Ginsberg (James Franco); his reading the poem; the poem itself, which is presented in animated episodes; and Ferlinghetti’s obscenity trial. Franco also appears in flashbacks from Ginsberg’s life, adding an additional layer to the interwoven storytelling.
In a recent phone interview, the filmmakers talked about “Howl,” each mentioning they had read the poem while in high school.
“I’m not sure what I made of it then,” said Friedman, adding, “Moloch was a buzzword in my high school to refer to ‘the Man’ — the powers that be.”
Epstein conceded, “I’m not sure I read it all. I understood very little of it.”
The poem certainly is challenging, but Epstein and Friedman were not intimidated by putting it on screen.
“It’s a risky film, but if we did anything less than that, we wouldn’t be meeting the subject matter face to face,” Epstein explained.
The directors were motivated to tackle “Howl” by their interest in making a film about creating a work of art.
“What happens when you put that work of art out into the world?” asked Friedman, to which Epstein added, “How do you make a film about a poem and the creative process?”
One answer comes in a smart sequence in which the filmmakers show Ginsberg typing, then the letters on the page turning into musical notes, those notes becoming Kokopelli, a mischievous flute player of Native American myth, who turns into a jazz saxophonist and continues to evolve through further poetic, playful imagery.
“We were formally adventurous because we were writing a poem that broke a lot of rules and had an impact on the culture,” Friedman explained. “We wanted to be different and startling, with a form that would resonate with the poem itself.” Other threads in the film, such as the courtroom drama, explored the way the poem was accepted or not, understood or not, by others.
“It gave an outsider view of the ‘in-crowd,’” Friedman said.
The poem’s publication and the trial took place more than 50 years ago, so it’s fair to ask whether “Howl” will resonate with today’s queer youth, who may or may not have read or be familiar with the poem.
After offering some anecdotal evidence that teens and 20-somethings today are still fascinated with the Beat generation, Friedman said, “One of the reasons we wanted to do the film the way we did was to bring alive that youthful exuberant rebellion the Beats personified — that any young person would identify with sexy young poets changing the world with their words. It’s a wonderful moment to capture.”
And the filmmakers capture it perfectly. The images in “Howl” are mirrors of those from the poem’s day. The trial dialogue is based on court transcripts. We see Jack Kerouac smoking in precisely the same pose as was captured in the famous photo of him, and many of the interview sequences are styled in the manner of movies made at the time. Even the animated sequences, designed by Eric Drooker, who worked with Ginsberg on a book entitled “Illuminated Poems,” clearly suggest the poet’s sensibility.
The ability to seamlessly incorporate all of these disparate elements comes from Epstein and Friedman’s work as documentarians.
“We’re used to building a story out of a lot of different sources,” Friedman said. “Younger audiences are accustomed to see stories told in different styles — all mashed up together.”
Epstein said of their technique, “It’s very designed. Our methodology is like coordinating an outfit, deciding how things work together.”
“Howl” flows like the poem, with verbal and visual associations that carry the viewer through the work. The emotional thread charts Ginsberg’s unrequited love for Kerouac, his tentative intimacy with Neal Cassidy, and his eventual long-term relationship with Peter Orlovsky.
Epstein talked about how the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
“First we came to see what was going on for Allen emotionally and psychologically at the point where he found his voice and created this masterpiece,” he said. “We found these three men who were essential for him to find his voice. Throughout his life, he articulated that in different ways. Each is represented visually with no dialogue.”
The approach is incredibly effective. Viewers come to appreciate the arc of Ginsberg’s love and, by extension, how creating the poem was an exercise in self-examination.
The poem’s emotional and psychological significance proved critical to James Franco in finding the character of Ginsberg.
“We wanted him to make the role his own,” Epstein recounted. “By the time he performed ‘Howl,’ he internalized Ginsberg, and then watched a video and listened to tapes of Ginsberg. That was revelatory.”
The directors were particularly excited with the casting of Franco, who came at the suggestion of “Milk” director Gus Van Sant. (Epstein won an Oscar for his 1984 doc “The Times of Harvey Milk.”)
“Franco not only was a student of literature and read the Beats,” Epstein said, “his mom was Jewish and he was exactly the same age Allen was when he wrote the poem.”
The young actor returned his directors’ enthusiasm, telling them that their film has “the soul of a documentary.”
“He meant that in the most complimentary way — that it’s so informed by the research,” Epstein said. “We took that seriously.”
Friedman expanded on how he and his co-director appreciated the intent behind Franco’s comment, saying, “We strive for honest moments of emotional intensity in all of our films. The film is an argument for frankness. It’s an example of seeing the world as it is and speaking the truth about it.”