by Vera von Kreutzbruck
- Germany -
Howl, a biopic centered on beatnik Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem and the resulting obscenity trial, was the most moving and intellectually engaging film presented at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
In the fall of 1955, in a shabby art gallery in San Francisco, 29-year-old Allen Ginsberg read his poem Howl for the first time to an avid audience who cheered him on verse after verse. This night marked the birth of a budding counter-culture which rebelled against America’s conservative mainstream values.
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…
Howl, a thought-provoking poem about sex, drugs, and race gives insight into the zeitgeist of the 1950s young generation – a generation desperately longing to break social taboos.
Yet the poem’s content was too explicit for the bourgeois sensibilities of the time. Its portrayals of drug use, sex, homosexuality – subject matter forbidden for the most part – captured the public’s attention and led to the seizure of copies of Howl by U.S. Customs and ultimately an obscenity trial against the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The victory of the trial was the judge’s declaration that Howl had “redeeming social importance.” In the movie – that victory was even broader. It was a victory for writing openly about homosexuality, or as the directors stated, “the first public coming out manifesto.”
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman approach the legendary Ginsberg with a nonlinear narrative. The story is told through three interwoven threads: courtroom scenes from the trial of 1957, re-enactments with the young writer, and the poem animated by the poet’s collaborator Eric Drooker.
The trial touches on themes that are still relevant today: definitions of obscenity, the limits of free expression, and the nature of art. In an imaginary interview Ginsberg reflects on the creative process, his struggles, and the liberation he went to through to write Howl.
Actor James Franco portrays the beat poet and delivers an authentic performance of Ginsberg’s journey to find his artistic voice without any typical tortured artist clichés.
Epstein and Friedman are acclaimed documentary filmmakers, holding two Academy awards and five Emmy awards among other distinctions. Their pictures explore the United States’ unwillingness to accept homosexuals in society. Paragraph 175 (2000) is about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. The Celluloid Closet (1995) narrates 100 years of gay and lesbian history in Hollywood movies. But The Times of Harvey Milk, made by Epstein in 1984, is perhaps the documentary that received the highest critical acclaim.
During this year’s Berlinale I talked with the directors about the counter-culture, the significance of the obscenity trial, and Ginsberg.
Tell us about the structure of the film. It has three threads: Allen Ginsberg, the obscenity trial, and the animated poem.
Friedman: The idea was to approach the subject from several different angles. We wanted to get at the creative process of making Howl and what Allen had to go through personally and creatively to get to the point where he could produce the poem. And that is what we did through the interviews. The poem lives in the film through the animation and also through the performance. The performance of the poem is very important. It was the first poetry slam. Everybody in the room knew that something special had happened.
Epstein: The challenge was finding a narrative thread with all those elements that would carry an audience through the film, giving them the feeling of having been through a unified journey. What we came to discover is that it was the first public coming out manifesto, something we did not quite get in reading it but in working with the actor James Franco.
Friedman: We saw the trial as society’s reaction to the poem.
What would you like people to walk away with after watching this movie?
Epstein: I find it very hard to distill it to a singular message, but I hope that people will be inspired by Ginsberg, people who otherwise might not have known about him. I think the film is very cerebral. For example: his whole speech about prophecy. What is prophecy? It is not predicting what will happen tomorrow, it’s making a statement that will have meaning of some sort in a hundred years. That is why we invested in this film, in this particular work because it was so prophetic. There are so many themes within the film that resonate today.
Your work very much feels as if you’re documenting gay history.
Friedman: That is completely unconscious on our part. I would say it’s instinctual. But looking back it’s pretty obvious that we have done many gay-themed films.
Epstein: We see the whole literary movement that formed around the poem as the beginning of a broader counterculture wave of creative and revolutionary thought that swept across our country and the whole world in the sixties and seventies — all the liberation and protest movements and the anti-war movements— many of which Ginsberg himself was involved in. The seeds of those movements can be found in the themes of this poem.
Friedman: I think that is something we came to discover. Howl and Ginsberg at this golden moment really represent the opening salvo to everything that followed in counterculture. It was such a buttoned-up, black-and-white society back then. Ginsberg metaphorically opened up the people to color. It was opening up a window to a series of movements that were to follow.
…who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and in the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen to whomever come who may, who hiccupped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword…
Do you see the obscenity trial as a landmark trial?
Friedman: In that decade it was. There are a number of court trials that continued to interpret the Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity. One of them was used in this trial. It said that the work of art cannot be considered obscene if it has redeeming social importance.
Epstein: The significance of the trial in this movie was to show that what was being discussed overtly were the dirty words. Now the dirty words mean nothing to us because they are so much a part of our everyday usage, but there are still so many themes within the poem that in the trial were avoided. There is so much subtext to that trial like homosexuality. The trial was very much about homosexuality but that could not be the overt text of what was going on in the trial.
Friedman: The closest they come is when John Hamm says that what they are censoring is the description of sexual acts. I think that is a euphemism for homosexual acts, something that still makes people uncomfortable and causes censorship.
What improvements do you see in U.S. society regarding this matter?
Friedman: Well, it’s spoken about that is the big change.
Epstein: Gay people were not yet at a point where they could self-declare. That is what happened in the seventies. Once we could step forth, be honest and truthful about who we are, then society could begin to work with that and that is what we are still working through.
Friedman: One of the most amazing things about this poem is that Allen was doing that in 1955.
Epstein: One phenomena of this poem is that he was able to make that self-declaration and manifesto in a time where nobody else was. It really was not for twenty years for that to start happening on a one-on-one basis, which then became this massive social movement that we ourselves could come out. Society was only going to reflect the negative imagery because that was all that was out there until gay people began to take responsibility to make it otherwise. Then society could begin to catch up. It’s not a simple question of the oppressed and the oppressors. There is a symbiotic relationship there that has to be broken through in order for change to happen.
Friedman: None of us ever thought of Howl as a gay manifesto. Of course it’s not just that, it’s so much more than that. But it is indeed that as well. It’s incredibly brave and courageous.
…In my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vera von Kreutzbruck was born in Argentina. She started her career in journalism at the English language newspaper, Buenos Aires Herald. After a fellowship in Germany, she decided to settle in Berlin. She currently works as a freelance journalist contributing to media in Europe and Latin America. Her articles focus on international news and culture in Germany and the European Union.