Howl

With “Howl,” a thematically riveting but artistically flawed chronicle of the life and times of the seminal gay poet Allen Ginsberg, the gifted documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman add another significant panel to their impressive body of work about gay culture and America politics, which also includes Epstein’s superb Oscar-winning “The Time of Harvey Milk,” and their partnership on “The Celluloid Closet.” 
The endlessly versatile James Franco, who is emerging as the most talented actor of his generation, gives an astounding performance as Allen Ginsberg, manifest in his impassioned readings of the poet’s seminal work, “Howl” and reenactments of selective episodes of Ginsberg’s life circa the crucial years of 1955-1957.
World-premiering at the Sundance Film Fest, in January, and later serving as opening night of the 2010 OutFest in July, “Howl” is released by the entrepreneurial distributor Oscilloscope on September 24. 
With all my enthusiasm for the relevance and magnitude of the project, however, I have to start with some reservations about the specific format chosen for conveying this unusual life on the big screen, a format that strenuously blends historical footage, reenactments of various chapters from Allen’s rich life, one lengthy interview, courtroom proceedings and testimonies, and least successful of all, animated illustrations that accompany the readings of “Howl.”
 
Essentially, “Howl” relates the story of how the young poet’s original work broke down both literary and societal barriers in the face of an infamous public obscenity trial in San Francisco. About one third of the narrative is set inside a court, presided by judge (Bob Balaban) and with Davis Strathairn (Oscar nominee for the liberal film “Good Night and Good Luck”) and Jon Hamm ( of TV’s fame “Mad Men”) serving as prosecutor and defense attorney, respectively.
 
In his famously subjective and “notoriously” confessional style, Ginsberg, in his multiple functions as poet-artist, counter-culture icon, and chronicler of the Beat Generation, recounts the road trips, love affairs, and search for personal liberation that led to HOWL, the most enduring work of his career, which, as predicted by some, has survived the test to time. (the most crucial criterion of any work of art). In fact, Ginsberg’s impact on American culture was so profound that Ginsberg remains to this day a household name, even among those who have never read a single line of poetry. 
 
Structurally, “Howl” interweaves three stories: the unfolding of the landmark 1957 obscenity trial; an uneven animated ride through the prophetic poem; and a unique portrait of a man who found new ways to express himself, and in doing so, changed his own life and galvanized not one but at least two generations of gay artists.
 
Some background is in order: Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1926. His father, Louis Ginsberg, was an English teacher, political activist and a poet in his own right. But Ginsberg’s childhood was marked by his mother’s severe mental illness and repeated bouts of psychosis and institutionalization, which led him to more deeply explore the interplay of society, madness and consciousness. At the age of 21, Ginsberg, under the urging of his mother’s doctors, signed the permission forms for her lobotomy. 
 
He attended Columbia University in the late 1940s, intending to become a lawyer, but it was there that Ginsberg met a group that included Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Lucien Carr and the charismatic former car thief, Neal Cassady, who would collectively kick off what became dubbed the “Beat Generation.” 
 
Steeped in jazz music, in search of the most direct forms of experience and expression, these young artists each began to rock the boat in their own way. Later, Ginsberg would sum up their ideological motto as: “You don’t have to be right. All you have to do is be candid.” 
 
Kicked out of Columbia, Ginsberg became Cassady’s lover and began exploring new ways of direct, more authentic writing than was the norm. Arrested for harboring the hustler Herbert Huncke, he was forced to spend eight months in a psychiatric hospital after pleading psychological disability. 
 
Afterward, he set out to live a “straight” lifestyle, getting a job at a N.Y. advertising agency, donning a gray flannel suit, and dating women. Yet, doubt and depression haunted him, and led him to break free from his phony lifestyle.
 
By the mid 1950s, he returned to writing poetry and openly living as a gay man. He began promoting the works of Kerouac and Burroughs and traveled to San Francisco, where he met Kenneth Rexroth, the leader of a rebellious youth poetry movement, and Peter Orlovsky, who would become his lifelong companion. 
 
In 1955, Ginsberg first read HOWL publicly. Casually erotic, self-conscious and confessional, it broke open the floodgates of American literature. In a time characterized by conformity and intolerance, it rang out as an exuberant, unflinching call to self-liberation for many. 
 
Ginsberg published a second major work with City Lights in 1961, “Kaddish,” an elegy for his mother, which confronted her shattering story. In the 1960s, he became a central figure in the sexual and civil revolutions, and an inspiration to millions seeking to expand their own consciousnesses. (He is credited by some with coining the phrase “Flower Power”).
 
As a result of the HOWL obscenity trial, Ginsberg became a passionate defender of First Amendment rights, speaking out in several other censorship cases, and raising his voice against the Vietnam War and in support of gay rights and legalization of drugs. He was arrested numerous times, including at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and testified at the infamous trial of the “Chicago Seven.” 
 
End Note
 
By 1970, both Cassady and Kerouac were deceased, one of a drug overdose, the other of alcoholism. Yet, Ginsberg’s journey was still accelerating. In 1973, Ginsberg co-founded (with poet Anne Waldman) the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Colorado’s Naropa Institute in Colorado. By this time, Ginsberg had become a devoted student of Tibetan Buddhism, and had begun traveling, living at various times in Mexico, South America, Europe and India. He was ousted from Cuba after calling Che Guevara “cute”! He also chanted “Hare Krishna” on conservative commentator William F. Buckley’s talk show. 
 
He continued to produce poems, such as “America,” “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” “Wales Visitation,” “The Fall of America” cycle and “White Shroud,” winning numerous awards, including the National Book Award, the Robert Frost Medal and an American Book Award. 
 
As a musician, he and Phillip Glass set part of HOWL to music, and he joined in projects with a number of leading artists, ranging from Bob Dylan to The Clash. Shortly before his death, he recorded “Ballad of the Skeletons” with a group that included Glass, Lenny Kaye and Paul McCartney (Gus Van Sant shot the music video.) 
 
Ginsberg died of liver cancer in 1997, in his EastVillage apartment in New York at the age of 70, but he continued to write regularly up to the very end. At the time of his death, HOWL had sold more than 800,000 copies and been translated into 25 languages. The poem continues to be taught in literature courses around the world. Its stanzas have been uttered in pop songs (They Might Be Giants’ “I Should Be Allowed To Think”) and echoed by Lisa Simpson on “The Simpsons” (in the episode “Bart Vs. Thanksgiving”).
 
The effect of HOWL also continues to resonate in the evolution of American literature, which has, since 1955, grown increasingly confessional, emotional and open to diverse experiences.