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Documentary makers Epstein and Friedman cut their dramatic teeth on Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’
With one insanely long run-on sentence, 78 lines and a complete section of an epic poem before the first period, Allen Ginsberg shook the world.
The 1956 publication of Howl and Other Poems brought together homosexuality and poetry in a way that had never before occurred, introducing another corner of American subculture to the glaring, harsh light of popular attention.
“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,” he wrote, and in their palaces and places of power, the mighty trembled and shook and wailed and gnashed their teeth and rent their hair.
Okay, perhaps not. Lovers of modern poetry took note, as did Ginsberg’s friends and, unfortunately, so did City Lights Bookstore’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher and poet, as he was charged with obscenity as the domestic publisher of the poem.
Now, over half a century later, the poem, the people in it, and those involved with it are on the silver screen with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film entitled, appropriately enough, Howl.
There are three intertwining skeins in the movie: Allen Ginsberg (portrayed by James Franco in his second major gay role in three years, after Milk) performing Howl in a nightclub setting, Ginsberg being interviewed about poetry and the poem itself, and Ferlinghetti’s obscenity trial.
The sheer volume of talented actors in the film defies belief, especially considering that it is art-house fare. Ferlinghetti, who does not speak in the movie, is portrayed by relative unknown Andrew Rogers, but Bob Balaban plays Judge Clayton Horn, David Strathairn portrays prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm is defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, and the various experts called upon to testify are played by Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, Alessandro Nivola and Treat Williams.
Of course, no film about Ginsberg could be complete without Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Ginsberg’s partner Peter Orlovsky, portrayed by Todd Rotondi, Jon Prescott and Aaron Tveit, respectively.
Seeing the genesis of the poem, hearing Ginsberg’s own words (coming out of Franco’s beautiful mouth though they were), is an incredibly moving experience. There is deep emotion in the film, and it runs through every minute of it.
The court scenes are absolutely fascinating, the duel between Ehrlich and McIntosh a deadly, dreadful melee of words clashing together like swords. Watching Ehrlich hanging Jeff Daniels’ Prof. David Kirk with his own definitions of what constitutes artistic merit brings a sense of exultation so intense, one could almost believe that the trial was going on today.
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary facets of the film is not that Franco is playing gay so often it almost seems like he’s teasing us, or that someone who could have been a simple teen idol has such depth of character, but rather that the writer-directors put forward such an excellent sally into the realm of narrative filmmaking.
Epstein and Friedman are familiar names, having directed The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175 and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, among others, but all of their work has been in documentaries. This is their first foray into films with actors portraying historical figures, instead of stock footage and interviews with the people themselves.
That background comes to the forefront at the very end of the film, with a recording of Allen Ginsberg himself singing, which is sure to bring at the very least a wistful smile or a happy tear to any audience member.
The film opens at the Cedar-Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights on October 22, as well as one of the Drexel theaters in Columbus.
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