It’s 1955 in America. Chuck Berry’s Maybelline is the number
one song; Lolita and Catch 22 are the great books of that year. Disney’s Lady
and the Tramp is highest grossing film, though On the Waterfront is also
released that year. Poet Allen Ginsberg is 29 and reads at the Six Gallery in
San Francisco, his epic, hallucinatory poem, Howl, to an enraptured audience. In
the audience is fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who the next day sends
Ginsberg a telegram offering to publish the poem.
In 1957 the published book was purchased by undercover
police at Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookshop in San Francisco, who then
arrested Ferlinghetti and store manager Shigeyoshi Murao on the grounds of
obscenity. This all makes for background for the film, Howl, made by filmmakers
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Presented the other night as the opening film of
Outfest, the film tries for the impossible—to make a poem come to life. In
this case, with the help of animation and an imaginary interview with the
author, Howl strives to deliver something about the man, the poem, the times,
and a country on the verge of a cultural overhaul.
The film is divided into three parts: the man, the poem and
the trial. Based on a fabled Time magazine interview, Ginsberg gives a long
interview to explain the meaning of the poem. The interview, which was never
published or located, becomes the device through which Ginsberg speaks to a new
The poem Howl is rendered in animation based on drawings
made by Eric Drooker. Best known for his graphic novel Flood!, Drooker had
collaborated with Ginsberg on a collection of illustrated poems in 1992. The
animations are not modern, but conjure up a dark world similar to the film,
Watchmen, where it should be noted, men in both animations are exceptionally
The other factor in the film is the trial concerning the
publication of Howl. At the time, Allen was in Tangier with Jack Kerouac,
helping Bill Burroughs put Naked Lunch into publishable shape. In San
Francisco, Municipal Judge Horn allowed nine literary experts to testify about
Howl, including Mark Schorer, Luther Nichols, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Herbert
Blau, Arthur Foff, Kenneth Rexroth, and Vincent McHugh. They addressed the
literary merit of Ginsberg's work and, even more significantly, the poem's
social importance. Howl was not "art for art's sake" but deep social
criticism, a literary work that hurled charge after charge at the values of
American society, just then trying to shake off the malaise of McCarthyism.
The prosecutor in the Howl case was Ralph McIntosh, whose
earlier targets included nudist magazines and Howard Hughes' sensual Jane
Russell movie The Outlaw. But Allen's poem took McIntosh beyond his depth. He
could not understand the poem, except for the dirty words, and neither literary
critic Mark Schorer, the defense's main witness, nor Judge Horn, who tried the
case without a jury, would help him out. The characters are played by a hotlist
of Hollywood actors, including Jon Hamm, Mary Louis- Parker and Treat Williams.
The trial ends on a very bright note for culture in America as Judge Horn
wrote: “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his
vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism? An author should be real in treating
his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words.”
The Outfest audience broke into cheers at this point.
directed by veteran documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman,
Howl, the movie was eight years in the making. Originally conceived as a documentary,
the filming took on a life of its own and evolved into a full length film. The film stars James Franco as Allen Ginsberg and his performance
is excellent. For anyone knowledgeable of this time, the film presents all the
influences in Ginsberg life, from Jack Kerouac to Neal Cassidy, though
strangely, the actors playing these roles lack any charisma. The other pivotal
figure is Peter Orlovsky, who was Ginsberg’s life party for over 40 years.
Played by Aaron Tveit (he was Zachary Boule in the last season of Ugly Betty),
and at some point in the film, they feel like Bruce Weber models, shot in beautiful
black and white, as both Franco and Tveit can be considered nothing less than
beauties. There is little sexuality in the film, but they are captured in a
Hollywood kiss moment (all lips, no tongue).
The film is 90 minutes but it sometimes feels longer for
despite the great acting, the dark and brooding animation, the fabulous
soundtrack by Carter Burwell, the film is at its essence, academic.
While not being completely true regarding the facts at this
moment in time, the filmmakers would have been wise to explore the
Orlovsky/Ginsberg relation a little deeper. While courtroom dramas are nearly
always compelling, there is nothing like a backdrop of a love story and in this
case, it was there, it happened and they remained partners for a lifetime. In
many ways, this film hints at culture, especially for gay men, of what it was
like to be a gay man in the 50s. How audiences will react to a long treatise on a
single poem will be known when the film is released in October.