Thus into the fray stepped Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, noted independent documentary film-makers (Epstein is best known for his Times of Harvey Milk) and now directors/writers/producers of Howl, who had their own challenge of how to convey Allen Ginsberg's battle cry to reestablish a cultural beachhead for freedom and humanity in the world. They chose to do so by focusing on Allen's actual reading at the Six Gallery itself, recreating the original setting and audience and the expectant unfolding of each line itself by James Franco, who brilliantly channels the spirit and voice of Ginsberg. But Epstein's and Friedman's added creative touch is to enhance and deepen the words and stanzas of Howl visually with animation, animation inspired by the dramatic, even apocalyptic graphic version of Howl in ILLUMINATED POEMS by Ginsberg and famed New Yorker cover artist Eric Drooker. Drooker, furthermore, became the animation designer for this film, creating stunning effects on the silver-screen.
To the reading and animation Epstein and Friedman added yet a third layer to their bold and masterful creation, the famed and widely publicized, 1957 Howl obscenity trial itself, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City lights Books against the city of San Francisco. How could they not, it is so integral to the history of Howl and the Beat Generation, that key moment in America's cultural history that would determine whether the prisons of the mind would remain locked and guarded, and literature constrained by the chains of the moralistic censors for mendacity for yet another generation and beyond?
A final, fourth element in the movie is the reenacted interviews and scenes with Franco, who had already proved himself adept at taking on cultural icons with his portrayal of James Dean in the TNT hit of the same name, now fleshing out Ginsberg's life at this pivotal point of time, interspersed with a few actual vintage film clips of Ginsberg himself.
The star-studded cast brings the equally and adroitly interspersed courtroom drama to life as the movie flows from the Six Gallery reading to animation to interview or life scene to courtroom in a languid, jazz improvisation fashion that moves toward the common denouement smoothly and inexorably.
The historically notable participants in the trial's reenactment include prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, played by David Strathairn, who played CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow in the Oscar-nominated drama Good Night, and Good Luck, indomitable defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, played by Jon Hamm, pop icon for his role as Don Draper in the hit TV series Mad Men), and Judge Clayton Horn, whose judicial decision turned the world upside down, played by Hollywood veteran Bob Balaban. The trial also focuses on the testimony of some of the key expert literary witnesses, played aptly by Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams and Alessandro Nivola. Relegated to a minor role however, one of the few failings of the movie, was the character of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, played by Andrew Rogers, whose courage in publishing Howl led to this cultural showdown. He certainly deserves more exposition.
Display from the Beat Museum, San Francisco/photo by Mac McKinney
It is normally not easy to bring poetry, which hovers on the fringes of society, into the cultural and media limelight. Steve Allen managed to do it on his Television variety show in the 1950s with Jack Kerouac reading opposite himself playing improv piano jazz. That worked, but to take such a long and complicated, metaphor-rich poem as Howl and make it successful required pulling out all the stops on creativity and skill, and Epstein and Friedman, with charismatic James Franco in the lead while backed up by rich talent on every level, have managed to pull it off. This may very well become a cult and art movie classic in America and beyond. But more importantly, they have resurrected the words of a Master Poet of an earlier, struggling generation, who, being dead, cannot serve as the Master Poet for this generation's deepest hopes and needs, but who can, through the medium of the cinematic arts, hold up the lantern to illuminate the path for the one, or ones who will.
Official Howl website HERE