Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. USA. 2010.

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 “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, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…”

So begins the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg who was one of the most respected writers and acclaimed American poets of the so-called Beat Generation of the late 1950s, poets that included Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and others. The poem about sex, drugs, politics, and race shocked many people when first published with its explicit language and sexual images and became a cause célèbre leading to an obscenity trial in San Francisco that tested the limits of the First Amendment. According to Ginsberg, reflecting the culture of the fifties, “If you could write about homosexuality, you could write about anything.”

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the film Howl is a celebration not only of the poem but of the artist who, amidst the turbulence that surrounded its initial publication, sought to define his own identity. It is a non-linear work that interweaves a reading of the poem by actor James Franco as Ginsberg with animation by the graphic artist Eric Drooker, a dramatization of the obscenity trial, and an interview with Ginsberg culled from the poet's own words. The film begins with the young Ginsberg reciting “Howl” in a coffeehouse to a young and approving audience. As the poem is being read aloud, the spoken words are animated on screen. Though expertly conceived, the animation creates a literal interpretation of the poem that fails to convey its power and beauty.

According to the poet, he never planned to publish “Howl” because he thought some of the language might offend his father and thus felt free to write anything that came to mind, knowing that no one would ever read it. Consequently, “Howl” delivers a wild torrent of words filled with lines about radical politics, drugs, and homosexuality conveying images that are often erotic and sometimes scatological. The poem may not always be understandable but, especially as read aloud, is filled with a rhythmic pulse that is pure music.

The poem describes people who are in love, in pain, and in joy, people “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 a*s 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 rose gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may.”

The interviews reveal Ginsberg's mental state and how he ended up in a mental hospital, his only way out being to lie to the doctors that he would pursue heterosexuality. His friend in the institute, Carl Solomon to whom the poem is dedicated, however, had no easy way out, having to endure electro-shock therapy and a strait-jacket. Ginsberg's mother, Naomi, was also in a mental hospital for an unknown illness before she died. These troubling personal events in Ginsberg's life are integrated into the film in a way that is very moving although, because most of the poem consists of readings and conversations, the film itself is not very cinematic. One of the strong components is Ginsberg’s homosexuality and the film depicts his relationships with Neal Cassidy and Peter Orlovsky with whom he loved and lived with for most of his adult life.

Using actual court transcripts, Howl also dramatizes the courtroom drama with attorneys played by Jon Hamm and David Straithairn arguing the case before the judge (Bob Balaban). Ginsberg himself was not at the trial since it was brought against the City Lights Publishers and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The witnesses consisted of academics and literary figures either condemning the poem as worthless and without merit or praising it as an innovative and important work of art. The judge in the case eventually determined that the poem had “redeeming social importance,” a landmark decision.

Franco's performance captures the energy of Ginsberg's poetry and his feelings about his life and art in the interview but overall fails to convey his warmth and humanity, his spirituality, his playfulness, or his progressive political views. In short, it succeeds in capturing most everything about the artist except the very qualities that make him so inspiring. As the film ends, we see updated information about those mentioned in the film while, in the background, we hear Ginsberg singing “Father Death Blues,” a moving ode to the death of his father in a version by the aging poet as he nears the end of his life. “Father Breath, once more farewell. Birth you gave was no thing ill. My heart is still, as time will tell. Genius Death your art is done. Lover Death your body's gone. Father Death I'm coming home.”Though Allen Ginsberg is now home, his art will never be done.


The poem

The song (earlier version)

The song many years later (as shown in the film)

Howard Schumann

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