Opens today in D.C.
West End Cinema
2301 M St., N.W.
It’s San Francisco in 1957. An American masterpiece is on trial. And a world not busy being born is busy dying.
Smack dab in the middle of a decade known for conformity and complacency came a howl of pain and rage, and also a cry of ecstasy. On Oct. 7, 1955, the young poet Allen Ginsberg finally summoned the nerve to go public with the poem he had been writing — graphic and subversive in its openness about same-sex desire — known as “Howl,” a story dramatized in the new film of the same name.
“Howl” is about the young Ginsberg, before he had become the bearded Pied Piper of the counter-culture and gay activism, famous not only as a poet but also for his lifestyle (gay) and his politics (anti-capitalist and anti-war). The film dramatizes in semi-documentary style how Ginsberg, portrayed brilliantly by James Franco as a middle-class intellectual still uncertain of his gayness, struggled with whether to publish the poem and the obscenity trial that followed.
Ginsberg later said he nearly refused to see the poem printed for fear of what his father would think of its honesty about gay sex: “I assumed it wouldn’t be published so I could write what I wanted to.”
“Really, I wrote ‘Howl’ for Jack,” said Ginsberg, referring to the novelist, the very straight Jack Kerouac, author of the novel “On The Road,” and with whom Ginsberg had a sexually unrequited romance. Kerouac was, according to Ginsberg, “the first person I really ever opened up to that I was a homosexual.” For a time, Ginsberg had sex with women, and when committed for eight months to what he called “the looney bin” (Rockland State Hospital), he managed to avoid electro-shock treatment because, he says, “I promised the doctor I would be heterosexual, and that’s how I got out.”
His mother Naomi was also hospitalized for schizophrenia, and was lobotomized (her son signed the order approving it) and she died still hospitalized. He later claimed that at the core of “Howl” were his unresolved emotions about his mother, though his later poem “Kaddish” (1961), written after her death, more explicitly addresses these feelings.
The film is a genre-bending hybrid, shot in just 14 days, mixing archival footage and re-enactments, framed by a reading of the poem and a recreation of the trial. Written and co-directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, it is a tapestry composed of three interwoven threads — the life of the young Ginsberg, seeking and finding his true voice as a poet and also coming to terms with being gay; society’s reaction to the poem (the obscenity trial); and sequences of psychedelic animation riffing on the startling originality of the poem itself, which was published by fellow beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was actually the defendant on trial, not Ginsberg.
Ginsberg admittedly pulled no punches in describing gay sex, writing in “Howl” of unnamed protagonists who “let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,” though no gay sex is depicted in the film.
The co-directors know gay issues — witness their earlier documentaries: the Academy-Award-winning “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt” (1989) and “The Trial of Harvey Milk” (1984), in many ways the precursor to gay director Gus Van Sant’s 2008 bio-pic “Milk.” They considered producing the Ginsberg film as pure documentary but later decided to use actors to portray all the characters, first signing Franco (known to most audiences for his role in the three “Spiderman” movies as Harry Osborne), who also played Milk’s lover Scott Smith in the Van Sant film. They met Franco at a dinner party at Van Sant’s house.
The directors picked actors to play all the roles, including two (mostly) straight men Ginsberg fell for — Kerouac, Neal Cassady (inspiration for the Dean Moriarity character in “On The Road”) and the younger man, Peter Orlovsky, who became Ginsberg’s partner. These three never speak at all in the film, but their audition nevertheless included what the directors say was “a very fun two days when the actors were told to go about seducing each other.”
Crucial to the film’s success in bringing the poem to life on the screen are the animated segments designed by Eric Drooker, who also collaborated with Ginsberg himself for the illustrations in the book “Illuminated Poems.” Drooker, working with a team of Thai animators, creates sweeping, soaring anime to echo images from the poem – robot-like armies of marching men in suits, seraphic naked bodies entwined and whirling through the sky, smokestack phalluses in hellish industrial settings and a huge demon depicting the poem’s evil force of capitalist technology “Moloch.”