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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 22, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 43
Howl directors make film resonate with Queer youth
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Howl directors make film resonate with Queer youth

by Gary M. Kramer - SGN Contributing Writer

Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl created quite a sensation when it was read in 1955 and printed in 1956. As it was considered obscene, publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books in San Francisco was arrested and put on trial.

Writers/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have now brought Howl vividly to life on screen. The film focuses specifically on the two-year period from 1955-1957, when Ginsberg wrote and performed the poem, and the subsequent obscenity trial.

In a recent phone interview, the filmmakers talked about Howl. They each admit to reading the poem back in high school. 'I'm not sure what I made of it then,' recalled Freidman, adding, 'Moloch was a buzzword in my high school to refer to 'the Man' - the powers that be.' Epstein concurred, 'I'm not sure I read it all. I understood very little of it.'

Although the poem is challenging, Epstein and Friedman were not intimidated by putting this work 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 insisted.

The filmmakers were prompted to make Howl because they wanted to create a film about creating a work of art. 'What happens when you put that work of art out into the world?' asked Friedman. 'How do you make a film about a poem and the creative process?' posed Epstein.

The answers in this film are revealed in the smart way the filmmakers show Ginsberg typing, having the letters on the page turn into musical notes, those notes becoming Kokopelli (a mythical, mischievous flute player), who turns into a jazz saxophonist, and continues from there. The imagery is poetic, playful, and incredibly striking.

'We were formally adventurous because we were writing a poem that broke a lot of rules and had an impact on the culture. We wanted to be different and startling, with a form that would resonate with the poem itself,' explained Friedman about the style of the film. Other threads, 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,' he suggested.

Given that the poem and the trial are more than 50 years old, the question arises if Howl resonates with today's Queer youth, who may or may not have read the poem.

Friedman offered anecdotal evidence that contemporary teens and 20-somethings are still fascinated with the Beat generation. 'One of the reasons we want 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 images of the day. A famous photo of Jack Kerouac smoking is referenced in the film, and many of the interview sequences are styled in the manner of the films made at the time. The trial dialogue stems from the original transcripts. Even the animated sequences, which were designed by Eric Drooker, who worked with Ginsberg on a book entitled Illuminated Poems, were done with Ginsberg's sensibility in mind.

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,' said Friedman.

Howl flows like the poem of the title, with verbal and visual associations that carry the viewer through the work. The emotional thread involves charting Ginsberg's unrequited love for Kerouac, his tentative intimacy with Neal Cassidy, and eventually his long-term relationship with Peter Orlovsky.

Epstein observed 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. We found these three men who were essential for him to find his voice.'

Viewers come to understand and appreciate the arc of Ginsberg's love and by extension, how the poem was formed as a catalyst for his self-expression and examination.

The emotional and psychological background was also a critical step for actor James Franco 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. Milk director Gus Van Sant suggested the actor for Ginsberg. (Fun fact: Epstein won an Oscar for his doc The Times of Harvey Milk.) 'Franco not only was a student of literature and read the Beats, his mom was Jewish and he was exactly the same age Allen was when he wrote the poem,' enthused Epstein.

The filmmakers were further inspired when Franco told them that Howl had 'the soul of a documentary.'

Epstein said, 'He meant that in the most complimentary way - that it's so informed by the research. We took that seriously.'

Friedman emphasized this point, 'We strive for honest moments of emotional intensity in all of our films.' He continued, 'The film is an argument for frankness. It's an example of seeing the world as it is and speaking the truth about it.'

© 2010 Gary M. Kramer

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