Ode to obscenity
Cultural icon Allen Ginsberg and the legal controversy over his
groundbreaking poem "Howl" are brought to life by filmmakers Robert
Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
by MATTHEW HAYS
October 21, 2010
When filmmakers are told that a novel is unfilmable, they often see
it as a challenge, seeing the impossible page-to-screen adaptation as
proof of their mastery of the form. But taking a lengthy, legendary,
landmark poem like Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and turning it into a
feature film seems completely beyond reach.
But two renowned documentary filmmakers, Jeffrey Friedman and Robert
Epstein, have managed to conjure up a feature around the
controversial and sensational trial that erupted as a result of
"Howl"'s first publication, and have managed to do so while
respecting the mystique and complexity of the poem itself. "Howl," of
course, is now regarded as a poem that changed the course of American
literature. At the age of 29, Ginsberg first read the poem in the Six
Gallery in San Francisco, where people declared it a trailblazing new
work of poetry, ushering in the Beats. With its brazen descriptions
of drugs, queer sex and social alienation, it was at once entirely
honest and an attack on Eisenhower-era staunch conservatism. It was
one of the key subversive moments that set off numerous
countercultural movementscivil rights, anti-war, pro-drug, queer
liberationall of which Ginsberg would ultimately play a pivotal role in.
ART OR SMUT?
By 1957, U.S. government authorities caught wind of Ginsberg's
insolence, and seized copies of Howl and Other Poems at customs. An
obscenity trial ensued, in which defenders of the book squared off
against the censors, who charged that the poem had no real value and
was simply smut. Its publishers would ultimately win on First
Amendment grounds, effectively drawing more attention to Ginsberg's
Taking a multifaceted approach in their new film, which shares the
poem's title, the filmmakers leap between dramatic re-enactments of
the trial, an imagined interview with Ginsberg by a Time magazine
reporter at the time, grainy verité footage of Ginsberg's spirited
readings of "Howl" and animated interpretations of the poem itself.
(And being gay directors, they've imagined a universe where Ginsberg
looks just like James Franco.)
It's an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach, one that
somehow works. The fact that it's so seamless is all the more amazing
when one considers it's the first dramatic feature for Epstein and
Friedman, famous for their documentary work. In 1985, Epstein won an
Oscar for The Times of Harvey Milk, his moving biopic about the slain
gay civil rights leader; in 1990, both Epstein and Friedman collected
Oscars for their collaboration Common Threads, another powerful
documentary about how a group of Americans were dealing with having
AIDS. They also made The Celluloid Closet (1995), their adaptation of
Vito Russo's book about Hollywood's litany of big-screen queer
KEEPING IT REALISTIC
The idea for Howl came when the Ginsberg Estate contacted Epstein and
Friedman, and asked them to make a film to celebrate the poem's 50th
anniversary. "Form was never actually discussed," recalls Friedman.
"Though I think they probably thought we'd go with a documentary."
And so they began, doing extensive research and interviewing any of
the key players and witnesses who were still alive.
"It just seemed like a standard documentary approach wouldn't do the
poem justice. We felt like we needed a new form to do this. We needed
to break down barriers of form. In a sense, we'd already done that
with our documentary work, because even our documentaries are narrative films."
In order to arrive at their diverse treatment, they looked at a
number of films that had mixed things up effectively. "We watched
films in which the filmmakers had taken risks with borders," says
Friedman. "Todd Haynes's Poison was a big inspiration, as was
American Splendor and Warren Beatty's Reds. We also looked at the
concert footage in Lenny [the Lenny Bruce biopic]."
But while the San Francisco-based filmmaking team explored new
dramatic and experimental options, their documentary pedigree was
never far behind. "That led to us being able to keep things very
realistic," says Friedman. "We've always done a lot of research. We
looked at photos that Allen had taken at the time, and at photos that
had been taken of him. This gave us a grounding in historical
reality. That helped the actors to feel comfortable in that world.
The set that we created for Ginsberg to be interviewed in, for
examplethat was somewhere James Franco felt comfortable in. He was
at home on that set."
"In many ways, we approached it like a documentary," says Epstein.
"We wanted to remain faithful to the actual language of the time. All
of the trial scenes come directly from the actual transcripts. For
the interview, we used actual phrases Ginsberg himself had used."
Epstein says their digging deep under the skin of Ginsberg led to
various revelations. "It's difficult to fully understand just how
much influence he had. He was such an intensely creative person, and
opened the doors for so many artists and writers. I was also
surprised by what a queer declaration 'Howl' is. It's all there in
the language. Ginsberg had also pushed Kerouac to publish On the
Road, another hugely influential book." (Which, incidentally, is
being adapted into a film by The Motorcycle Diaries director Walter
Salles, and shooting partly in Montreal.)
"The publishing of 'Howl,' and the subsequent furore, were crucial
moments in the evolution of American culture," notes Epstein. "It was
imperative for us to bring the poem to life while illustrating the
reality of the resistance Ginsberg faced for creating it."
by MATTHEW HAYS
October 21, 2010
In March of 1994, Allen Ginsberg descended upon Montreal to give a
reading at Concordia's Hall Building, where campus security became
overwhelmed. Not surprisingly, the poet's rock-star status meant
there was no more room, and devastated fans were being told they'd
missed their chance to hear Ginsberg read, chant and sing. In a
typically gracious gesture, Ginsberg invited some of the overflow
onto the stage with him, so they wouldn't miss out. There was
something religious about hearing the 67-year-old avowed Buddhist
read his work, while pumping an accompanying organ.
I was lucky enough to get a chance to interview him about a broad
range of subjects. He was then taking some heat for having done a Gap
ad, helping the clothing chain to hock khakis. "I don't know if you
noticed," a clearly defensive Ginsberg pointed out, "but [the ad]
said that all fees for Mr. Ginsberg's image go to the Jack Kerouac
School of Poets and Poetry at Naropa Institute… So that was fine. So
what's the question?" He later conceded, "No I'm not sure it was such
a good idea, but I think the karma will be all right."
In the Howl film adaptation, they imagine an extensive interview
Ginsberg might have given to Time magazine during the '57 trial. I
found this amusing, given Ginsberg's notorious hatred for the
mainstream publication. In fact, he argued that the magazine's
position on the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) was
part of his reasoning for joining the hugely controversial
organization. "I joined when I read in Time magazine that NAMBLA was
an organization in which people of authority were manipulating people
of weaker sensibilities. That reminded me of Time magazine itself."
Ginsberg chimed in on a series of issues, defending Prozac ("If it
saves people from depression, then it can't be so bad"), trashing
Andrea Dworkin ("The problem is, she was molested when she was young,
and she hasn't recovered from the trauma") and arguing that "Howl"
was even more pertinent in the age of AIDS. "What I was interested in
was candourwhich would actually be very useful in the age of AIDS
so that people could actually discuss what it is they do to each
other sexually and what their status is."
And the conspiracy theory that AIDS was cooked up by the U.S.
government? "I wouldn't put it past themyou know, some
fundamentalist saying we've got to get rid of these cocksucking double agents."
Then, after the interview was done, I stood before Ginsberg feeling
like a starstruck poetry geek. He could see my face redden. He
reached out and caressed the side of my face.
It was one of those strange, rare moments that don't leave you.