Oscilloscope Laboratories,

Rob Epstein,
Jeffrey Friedman

James Franco,
Mary-Louise Parker
Jon Hamm,
Jeff Daniels,
David Strathairn,
Treat Williams,
Bob Balaban,
Alessandro Nivola,
Aaron Tveit
Jon Prescott,
Todd Rotondi,
Allen Ginsberg (archival)

Rated R, 84 minutes

Angelheaded Hipsters
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online March, 2011

Howl is one of the most celebrated (some might say notorious) poems of the 20th Century. Setting the stage for the Beat Generation writers, Howl was their first major published work, pre-dating even Jack Kerouac's seminal On The Road. Written in 1955 by Allen Ginsberg, Howl pushed a lot of envelopes and a lot of buttons. Ginsberg was one third of the trinity of authors always associated with the Beats, the other two being Kerouac and William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch, Junky, Queer). Ginsberg was openly gay and so were many passages in Howl. This offended more than a few delicate sensibilities and the poem was declared obscene. Many works of art went on trial during the last century and Howl's victory in court opened doors of free speech that reverberate to this day.

Howl, the 2010 film, was co-written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. They are the team responsible for Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt (1989), The Celluloid Closet (1995) and Paragraph 175 in 2000. (Epstein, alone, also directed The Times Of Harvey Milk in 1984.) Known primarily as documentary filmmakers, their approach to Howl is very interesting. On one level the film could be called documentary because none of the spoken words were written by the filmmakers. They come from the court transcripts, from an interview given by Ginsberg during the trial, from letters and, lastly, the words of the poem itself.

It is the way these words are presented that make watching Howl a pure pleasure. We are guests at the first reading of Howl in a small, smoke-filled coffeehouse in San Francisco. We are in Allen Ginsberg's apartment as he lights one cigarette after another and riffs about his art to an unseen interviewer. Then we are in a courtroom as Howl goes on trial and expert witnesses either praise or dismiss the offending poem. These three stories intertwine and shuffle back and forth to form a compelling narrative. Dates and names are supplied to aid the viewer. Ginsberg's recitation of Howl is filmed in black & white, as are several silent flashbacks, the rest is in color. Augmenting the readings of Howl are some very effective animated sequences that bring the images of Ginsberg's "angelheaded hipsters" to life.

Howl erupts with one of the most provocative, and well known, openings in literary history:

"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"

Much of what scandalized the McCarthy-era mainstream was undoubtedly the sex acts described in the poem - it didn't help that much (but not all) of it had a queer bent:

"who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,"

Yes, Howl was hardly Robert Frost. The "expert witnesses" at the obscenity trial have a lot to say about it. Mary Louise Parker is hilarious as a prim and proper Donna Reed-clone schoolteacher who has "rewritten Faust" (this elicits titters in the courtroom) and proclaims Howl to be worthless because it contains no rhyme or meter. As for its more provocative contents, she admits that she limited her exposure to its filth for only a few minutes. Others sing the poem's praises. Judge Clayton W. Horn (Bob Balaban) ultimately rules in favor of Howl. He acknowledges its "redeeming social importance" and further asks: "Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?" Howl opened the floodgates. Before long, Grove Press tested the new legal precedent and Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence, and the homoerotic novels of Jean Genet, were finally published in the United States. Not to mention Henry Miller's Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer.

A little more background: The lives of the Beat writers were as interesting as their writings and the lines between them were often blurred. The Beats embraced non-conformity during an era marked by the Communist witch hunts and television fodder like Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. Their writings are noted for being as spontaneous as their lives were. The Beats took big bites out of life, inspiring a generation to thumb their noses at authority and do the same. They were the forerunners of the hippies in the 1960s. The Beat Generation was also surprisingly queer. Ginsberg was openly gay, as was Burroughs, while Kerouac was one of literature's great closet cases. Both Ginsberg and Kerouac were enraptured by the charismatic womanizing hipster Neal Cassady, whom Kerouac immortalized as Dean Moriarity in On The Road. Ginsberg and Cassady's relationship sometimes entered the realm of the carnal. Kerouac never consummated the relationship with his masculine muse but Gore Vidal relates a drunken night of sex with Kerouac in his 1995 memoir, Palimpsest.

Ginsberg is forthcoming about his homosexuality during the interview sequences. His words provide a full portrait, including comical character contradictions. He may bare his soul on the page but he never expected Howl to be published and fretted about his father reading it. His poetry was one way that he tried to secure the love of the straight men around him; if they couldn't love him sexually perhaps they could love him for his art. At the very least he hoped his art would make them go to bed with him; he succeeded a few times with Neal Cassady but never with Kerouac - whom he says he wrote Howl for. During a few wordless black and white flashbacks we catch glimpses of Ginsberg's awkward sex life with Cassady and also bliss with Peter Orlovski, the man who would become his life partner. Many iconic photographs of the Beats become living tableaus in this film; fans of their literary movement will find much to recognize and to cherish. There is a nice contrast between these bohemian images and the conservatively dressed Life magazine people seen in the courtroom.

James Franco is uncanny as Ginsberg. Franco played gay before when he was cast as Harvey Milk's first lover in Gus Van Sant's Milk. The right actor in a role like this is essential and Franco delivers the goods. He is passionate as Ginsberg; he is hip to a music that he hears and he projects that persona without it becoming a cliche. He reads the words of Howl with authority, giving the viewer a sense of just how it inspired a restless generation. A who's who of fine character actors populate the courtroom segments, including David Strathairn and Mad Men's Jon Hamm as the prosecuting and defense lawyers, and Jeff Daniels and Treat Williams as witnesses.

The animation is an interesting mix of Gerald Scharf's work in Pink Floyd The Wall and the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of Disney's Fantasia with its eerie swooping ghosts leaving trails through the night sky. It is often quite inventive, subway trains predominate, piles of old books become skyscrapers. A saxophone player's instrument shoots sparks in the sky, the keys of both a piano and a typewriter convey visually the jazz rhythms that so informed these writers' works. I especially liked the words of Howl on the typewriter transforming into musical notes. The use of phallic imagery rivals even Fassbinder's Querelle. Was the animation necessary? Perhaps not, but it adds a unique visual dimension and creates its own brand of poetry for a new generation weaned on graphic novels.

As mentioned earlier, re-creating several iconic photos of the Beats was a good idea and it adds legitimacy to the enterprise. Kerouac famously described the first reading of Howl in his novel, The Dharma Bums; those who have read it willl recognize the jugs of wine being passed around the audience in the film. You know that the filmmakers at least did their research. The understated be-bop jazz score is effective. The cinematography evokes the films from the 1950s; the contrast between the oversatuated color in the courtroom and the hipper black & white photography during the flashbacks beautifully illustrates the opposite poles from that tumultuous decade. I find the film to be almost perfect. My one quibble is the fake beard that Franco wears during the interview sequences. Luckily his performance overshadows the phony whiskers. A reviewer in The Gay And Lesbian Review calls Howl a "lit-flick" and I think this is an apt description (not to mention a film genre that I would like to see more of).

The extras on the DVD are nirvana to a literature freak like me. I was into the Beats big time during the late 70s in college, and so I had quite a "naked lunch" and ate up the interviews with Ginsberg's partner, Peter Orlovsky, and with Laurence Ferlinghetti, the owner of the legendary City Lights Bookstore who wound up on trial for publishing Howl. There is footage of the real Ginsberg (as an old man) reading Howl, a good making-of doc and a commentary (that is actually interesting for a change) by the directors and their star. A lot of love went into this movie and it shows. It would please me to see this film embraced by the gay community. We can admire queer icons like Ricky Martin and Lance Bass all we want, but Allen Ginsberg was out in the 1950s when it was not fashionable. Howl, the movie, is quite welcome.


More on the Beat Writers:
Kill Your Darlings

More on Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman:
The Celluloid Closet

James Franco also appears in:

Mary Louise-Parker also appears in:
Longtime Companion
Angels in America

Bob Balaban also appears in:
Waiting For Guffmann