In October 1955, poet Allen Ginsberg intoned his poem Howl at a gathering at Six Gallery in San Francisco. He seemed, some listeners reported, rather drunk, but his reading mesmerized his audience. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was in the audience, and later published the poem as part of his Pocket Poets series, which brought out first editions of serious literature and sold them at the City Lights bookstore. In 1957, undercover police purchased the copy of the hallucinatory ode to the beat generation, and promptly arrested Ferlinghetti and the bookstore manager on the grounds of obscenity. The store manager’s charges were later dropped, but Ferlinghetti, one of the foremost poets of that era, was put on trial.
This became one of the most famous obscenity trials in U.S. history, as beat poets squared off in legal fisticuffs against conservative prosecutors before an admitted conservative judge.
In 2002, as the 50th anniversary of the poem’s publication approached, award-winning documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were contacted by the Ginsberg estate and asked to make a documentary about Howl. It became an eight-year endeavor, in which different approaches to the documentary just did not resonate with the youth of today.
“I showed [the footage] to my students,” Epstein said in an interview. “And they just didn’t respond.” Their goal had been to introduce new generation to the work, and even as the documentary’s creators, they weren’t excited.
So they ditched their years of work in favor of creating a film dramatizing Ginsberg’s early life and the obscenity trial. James Franco (Milk) plays the young Ginsberg, Jon Hamm (Mad Men) plays the defense attorney and Bob Balavan plays Judge Clayton Horn. Ginsberg is seen in archival footage and sections of his poem are accompanied by animation. Much of the poet’s own interviews are used as dialog as a way of introducing Ginsberg to a new generation of youth.
Howl aired the opening night of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, in a slot often filled by larger-budget works, because says festival director John Cooper, “It’s time to talk about art in America again, not just healthcare — because art really can change everything. We owe so much to Ginsberg.”
Mary-Louise Parker, who — along with Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams and David Strathairn — puts in an appearance in the film, says she did the cameo because the poem holds fond memories for her. “My brother came to the hospital the day my son was born and read him Howl,” she says.
“Howl” premieres in some theaters today, but you can check it out in the comfort of your own home, too, as it also premieres today on Video On Demand. Check your cable system for availability.