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Something to ‘Howl’ about | an interview with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

In their latest film, award-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Times of Harvey Milk” and “The Celluloid Closet”) take a dramatic detour away from documentaries. “Howl” (Oscilloscope Laboratories) stars James Franco as gay poet Allen Ginsberg. The movie, filmed both in black-and-white and color, as well with live action and animation, is a composite of sequences involving the creation of the classic, but controversial, poem “Howl.” Ultimately it is through that poem that Ginsberg is able to express his feelings for his friend and fellow writer Jack Kerouac (played by Todd Rotondi), and Franco’s effortless portrayal of the poet is nothing short of poetic.

Gregg Shapiro: Were you readers of poetry before becoming involved in the “Howl” film project?

Jeffrey Friedman: I read a little poetry, not much. Emily Dickenson, Walt Whitman. I had read “Howl” in high school, but I wasn’t an avid poetry reader.

Rob Epstein: No. … Most of it goes over my head.

GS: What was the impetus behind the film?

RE: I think it was Allen as an artist … trying to figure out the source of his creative self, particularly with this poem. It was the “treasure hunt” aspect of this project that attracted us.

JF: It was what Allen had to go through, as a man and as an artist, to write this poem. A lot of it was a coming-out process, which we discovered doing our research on the film.

GS: What was it like working as co-directors?

RE: Like this: We kind of look at each other and say, “Are you going to do this, or am I going to do this? OK, you do this.”

JF: (Laughs)

RE: So (there is) a lot of back and forth. (Then) going off and having your own reflective time and then coming back together with new ideas and fresh approaches and hashing it out again.

GS: The film is sort of a cinematic quilt with panels representing different parts of the film’s history. Why did you decide to present it this way?

JF: We knew we were making a film about a poem, so we looked for different ways of looking at the poem. One of the ways was Allen’s story and (his creative process). We told Allen’s story using his own words in the recreated interview and with flashbacks from scenes from his life.

We wanted the poem to live on its own … in different ways. We recreated the first reading of the poem at the Six Gallery and imagined how it might have been to be there that night. We also recreated it as an imaginative ride through the poet’s mind, using art from Eric Drooker, who had collaborated with Ginsberg and had a good understanding of (him).

Then we wanted to see how the poem was received by society at large. That was what the trial represented for us. Those people were trying to make sense of it and trying to suppress it in some cases.

GS: Is “Howl” recited in its entirety?

RE: It’s about 80 percent of the poem. …That’s about as much as we thought the film could hold.

GS: James Franco has Ginsberg’s cadence down pat, as if he was born to play the part. What was involved in his process of becoming Ginsberg?

RE: James is the same age as Allen was when he wrote the poem. He grew up reading the beats and hanging out at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

JF: (James) is a poet himself.

RE: He also studied literature at UCLA. It was a whole confluence of circumstances that made him right for the part. He is also a great actor. We were really impressed by what he did with the James Dean story on television. He wasn’t afraid of taking on a living icon and personifying, rather than impersonating.

JF: We had a long time to work with James. He came on the project very early. He was very excited about it and very committed to it way before we had financing. We just had a first draft of a script. So we had several opportunities to work with James on the script and to really explore what the words meant to Allen, where these experiences came from. James had a long time to think about that.

Then we asked him to listen to Allen’s readings and we gave him an interview he did with Studs Terkel. He looked at some early film of Allen, saw how he walked, how he moved and how he used his hands.

GS: The film also has a cast of terrific actors, including Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, John Hamm and others, in much smaller supporting roles.

RE: Because those (characters) are on the screen for such a short period of time, we really wanted actors that would make an impression. For example Mary-Louise Parker, playing a 1950s English teacher who was appalled by the language in the poem, is on screen for maybe 5 minutes, but she makes such a strong impression as that character. …(The supporting parts) really help to create this composite impression of the period.

Allen Ginsberg: portrait of the gay poet as superstar

Name a poet, any poet. Now name a rock star. Picture the thousands of people who wait in line to buy tickets to Lady Gaga, Dave Matthews Band or U2. But no one imagines a poet as a superstar with the crowd-drawing power of today’s celebrity musicians.

The gay/bi/Jewish Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg, however, was an exception. A celebrity among poets, he commonly drew huge crowds to his reading, notably 7,000 people to his “International Poetry Incarnation” at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1967.

“Howl,” a feature film chronicling the life of Ginsberg as the young poet, could introduce a new generation to the electrifying Beat master. Directed by Rob Epstein (“The Times of Harvey Milk”) and Jeffry Friedman (“The Celluloid Closet”), the film stars James Franco (“Milk”) as Ginsberg, along with a supporting cast that includes Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, David Straithairn, Jeff Daniels and Treat Willism.

Milwaukee LGBT Film/Video Festival will present a special advance screening of the film on Sept. 15 as a prelude to “Banned Books Week” (Sept. 25 to Oct. 2). The screening is co-sponsored by the UWM Union Theatre and Equality Wisconsin, and co-presented by Milwaukee Film, Woodland Pattern Book Center, the Milwaukee Public Library, UWM Libraries and the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation.

Ginsberg (1926-1997) was considered by many to be a ringleader of the 1950s Beat Generation, an association he constantly denied. His work reflected his take on life in a postwar society, characterized by the aimlessness of his generation. He protested militarism, censorship, materialism, the “war on drugs,” right-wing politics, conventional thinking, and later the wars in Vietnam and the Middle East. He condemned orthodoxy of any kind – even the orthodoxy of the left.

Ginsberg was thrust into celebrity with a reading of his groundbreaking poem “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955. His opening lines are among the most famous in world poetry:

“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;

Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection

to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”

Ginsberg stunned audiences with his frank and shocking language, not expected in the medium of poetry. His open descriptions of sexual acts broke all 1950s societal conventions. His descriptions of gay sex were considered beyond obscene at a time when homosexual acts were virtually outlawed in every state.

With the publication of “Howl,” Ginsberg was charged with obscenity, sparking a world famous trial and the banning of his book. His description of those same best minds “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy” was specifically referred to in the trial.

The verdict, however, exonerated Ginsberg. The judge declared, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?”

Ever an advocate for gay rights, Ginsberg insisted that his lifelong companion Peter Orlovsky be listed as his “spouse” in “Who’s Who in America.” Prolific even at the end, Ginsberg’s heartbreaking last poem, “Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias),” was written a week before his death from liver cancer:

“No more sweet summers with lovers, teaching Blake at Naropa …

Any visits to B’nai Israel graves of Buddha, Aunt Rose, Harry Melzer and Aunt Clara, Father Louis

Not myself except in an urn of ashes.”