When Beat poet and philosopher Allen Ginsburg was 29 he wrote Howl, his first epic poem. He performed his work in what was arguably one of the first poetry slams on record. That was 1955 and Ginsberg’s electric poem was an expression of homosexual joy, a declarative queer manifesto that debuted in the closeted 1950s.
Two years later Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg’s publisher and owner of the landmark San Francisco bookstore, City Lights, was on trial for obscenity. The trial shone a spotlight on Ginsberg’s work and then on a generation that came to be known as the Beats.
Fifty years later, Howl endures as both literature and a clarion call. To commemorate the anniversary, executors of Ginsberg’s estate approached filmmakers Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein to make a documentary about Ginsberg, the poem and the obscenity trial that made him famous. The two men, who have been business and creative partners for over 20 years, have won Academy Awards for documentaries about Harvey Milk and the making of the AIDS quilt.
The result is a film that evolved into a wholly original and layered movie that was six years in the making. Finding a form to contain the poem, the resulting obscenity trial and Ginsberg’s point of view led Friedman and Epstein to treat the project as a “hybrid. We were making a movie out of a poem. This wasn’t a biopic it was really a poempic.”
Epstein and Friedman shaped the reality of Ginsberg’s creative process as well as fallout from the poem’s publication by “capturing truthful moments—taking actual text from the trial, interviews and the poem itself—and telling the story of how the poem was created.”
The filmmakers weave disparate strands that include accompanying animation by Eric Druker, an artist who collaborated with Ginsberg in the 1980s as well as James Franco’s portrayal of Ginsberg as the artist as a young man.
Friedman and Epstein also felt that the film needed to be told in the present tense. Flashbacks to events and relationships alluded to in the poem are thematic rather than chronological. For example, in the poem Ginsberg talks about his time in a mental institution through his relationship with Carl Solomon, a fellow patient. He confronts racism through brutal images:
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
“This is the poem gone live as cinema,” Epstein said. “It’s also a film about language. What are the acceptable limits of free speech? What does it mean to be an artist?”
“And of course,” added Friedman, “the subtext is homosexuality—the love that dare not speak its name. Jake Ehrlich [Ferlinghetti’s defense lawyer played by Jon Hamm, who brought a Mad Men sensibility to his performance] addresses that subject head on when he says we have to stop running for non-existent morals.”
One of the more enduring ideas in the movie relates to the nature of prophecy. “Prophecy,” said Friedman, “is something that the future will hear and understand while creating something in the present. We had that ambition for Howl. The poem itself has stood the test of time. The obscenity trial was just an artifact, something that contextualized Ginsberg’s work. Howl [the poem] is a time bomb that will continue to go off in future generations.”
Howl opens October 1 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.