Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl pairs the veteran documentary film-makers with a line-up of seasoned actors, including Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, and James Franco as a young Allen Ginsberg.
Fifty years after the publication of Howl, Bob Rosenthal approached Epstein and Friedman about the potential of creating a feature film about the man, the poem and the trial. After working on the script at Sundance Institute Writer's Lab, Epstein and Friedman sent everything to Gus Van Sant, who signed-on as executive producer of the film. Van Sant then sent everything to James Franco, who would play Allen Ginsberg. Franco evokes the intellect and energy of Allen Ginsberg at the time when he was emerging as a man of letters, as an activist and cultural icon.
The movie is composed of three interweaving sections: an interview with the poet, his famous Six Gallery reading, and the landmark obscenity trial—depicting a Ginsberg both personable and larger than life.
James Franco as a young Allen Ginsberg in Epstein's and Friedman's Howl. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Films.
In his interviews (pieced together from actual transcripts), Ginsberg is portrayed as a chain-smoking poet in his New York apartment, casually discussing Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, his mother, insanity, love, and inevitably the composition of "Howl." His reading at The Six Gallery is accompanied by Eric Drooker's animation—pseudo-surrealistic sequences in the spirit of Illuminated Poems, an illustrated volume Drooker collaborated on with Ginsberg in 1995. These moments with the poet are counterbalanced by the courtroom scenes in which the text of "Howl," more so than Ginsberg himself, goes head-to-head with 1950s censorship laws.
Poets Eileen Myles, Mark Doty, and Anne Waldman at a New York screening of Howl, followed by a panel discussion; 2010.
In the introduction to Howl And Other Poems, originally published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1956, William Carlos Williams notes the poet "has, from all the evidence, been through hell...he shared among the teeth and excrement of this life something that cannot be described but in the words he has used to describe it."
Yet, when the 2nd edition of Howl was en route from England to America, United States Customs and San Francisco police officers confiscated the entire shipment. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of City Lights Books, was charged with selling "obscene" material. The court case to follow would acquit Ferlinghetti, help make Ginsberg a world famous figure, and, in the process, prove to be a harbinger of the massive social, cultural, civil rights, feminist, and sexual revolutions of the 1960s.
Both the poem and film begin with Ginsberg's unflinching and provocative 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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient
heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in
the machinery of night,
The movie is grounded in the poem. By the end of Howl, the audience will have listened to almost all of the original work, which is a difficult thing to present on film. As Mary-Louise Parker's character notes, it is also, in the end, "a story about people being able to express themselves fully and what we are and aren't willing to accept when it comes to that."