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Howl (2010) – How to Adapt a Beat Classic

Howl Poster

By Michelle Rudolf

From Beatdom #14

 

 

The 2010 movie, Howl, an adaptation of Allen Ginsberg’s classic Beat poem, by Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein was largely successful because it involved approaches to adapting an artistic work that are uncommon in filmmaking. The directors had studied Ginsberg’s life, the process of writing the poem, and what happened in the aftermath of its publication, and ultimately succeeded in creating a unique and satisfying adaptation based upon a hybridization of the above elements, rather than a straight cinematic telling of the poem’s story or message. Additionally, heavy research resulted in an accuracy that made this Beat movie a more faithful representation than others. As a result, their interpretation has been better received than adaptations of the work of Ginsberg’s peers, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.

It began about nine years ago, when Ginsberg’s estate called the two filmmakers to ask them if they could do a documentary about the poem, because the fiftieth anniversary of its publication was approaching. The estate deliberately chose the pair because of their reputation as in-depth documentary producers who had received many awards for their sensitive and intelligent approaches to the subject matter of their movies. Moreover, in this case their own homosexuality allowed them to understand the social pressures Ginsberg had to suffer. Friedman and Epstein are famous for their lifetime’s work, which includes films about homosexual characters, including Epstein’s groundbreaking documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.

Howl is centered on the poem both representationally and factually. In different sequences the viewer is presented with both historical context and biographical details about Ginsberg’s life at the time of the poem’s composition. Throughout, James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg in a role that features the poet as an adventurer of the counterculture and chronicler of the Beat Generation. Franco had always been a huge fan of Ginsberg, and even though he knew certain things about the counterculture and Ginsberg, he renewed his interest and embarked upon a period of private research in order to find out about Ginsberg’s gestures, his mannerism, and his rhythm of speech at the time of the publication of Howl. Though some argue that Franco does not look like Ginsberg, in the movie he talks and moves and delivers the content just like Ginsberg did.

Right at the start of the project their plan was to do only a documentary on Ginsberg, but after they recorded several interviews with the poet’s friends and lovers, they realized that everyone talked about Ginsberg as he was in his 40s and 50s. It seemed to them as if no one remembered who he really was at the time he wrote Howl. That is why they changed their plan and deliberately fused the documentary style of filmmaking together with a reenactment of the past events in Ginsberg’s life, including animated sequences. The result was a film that was practically its own new genre.

The film consists of five different sections. One section is the trial of the poem’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was indicted for distributing and publishing obscene work. The trial sequences of the film are based on the actual transcript of the trial, and so, although the scene is played out with actors, it retains its historical accuracy. For this section, they took the actual words spoken in court and, although it was edited and rearranged somewhat, the trial is faithfully depicted. Another section of the film produces a nostalgic image showing Ginsberg writing the poem on his old black typewriter, writing with his confessional, leave-nothing-out style, recounting his road trips and love affairs in search of liberation. The third section of the film is animated by Eric Drooker and Russell Barnes. Drooker’s work was collected by Ginsberg for over a decade, and so the producers thought Ginsberg would approve of Drooker’s animation style.

This animated section, which was both daring and effective in capturing the spirit of Ginsberg’s generation-defining cry, was included as there was a lack of footage of Ginsberg during that period. To a great degree, the animation lives in the film as a kind of modernized retelling of the poem, as it is the interpretation of the poem through imagery. The animation department did not want to literally illustrate what Ginsberg was talking about in the poem, even though it is obvious at times. According to John Hays, the head of animation, they tried to replicate the feeling of the fifties and what musicians, painters, sculptures, and writers were trying to do at that time.

In the fourth section of the film, Ginsberg is shown at his first public reading of the poem. Of course, this is the famous Six Gallery Reading, which turned Ginsberg into a celebrity overnight. His reading of Howl caused a sensation and earned its place in literary history. A modern audience had never before reacted so passionately. The filmmakers created this sequence as truthfully as they could by using the information they gathered from interviews they conducted with eyewitnesses, and also from the works of people like Jack Kerouac, who were in attendance and had previously described the evening. For this section, accurate research was imperative. James Franco wears the same kind of clothes in it as Ginsberg did and the people in the audience drink out of the same kind of bottle as the audience had done.

The final section of the film is a kind of flashback, an interview about Howl and the monologue Ginsberg gave to answer the question, “What makes good poetry?” In fact, this interview, which they used as the basis of the frame, is a fabled Time magazine interview. Time magazine had once flown Ginsberg from Tangiers to Rome, where a reporter recorded the interview in a hotel room. The interview was never published and so it proved the perfect device to drive the film. Friedman and Epstein let Ginsberg speak for himself to the audience out of the past, as they put together their favorite excerpts from this and other interviews from that period of time into a long defense of him, his generation, and his work.

Throughout the movie, the filmmakers, as documentarians, were concerned with accurately telling Ginsberg’s story, and so despite their unique blend of devices as described above for each section of the movie, Epstein and Friedman made sure that they didn’t just tell the story of Howl, but that they passed along its feeling and message, and took the audience back to the 1950s. The production designer, Thérèse DePrez, decorated Ginsberg’s room in the film with pictures of his close friends, and with furniture pieces of the thirties and forties that he owned. She even used the same desk lamp he owned, and wallpaper that matched with the photographs she found of his old apartment. In the courtroom sequence DePrez used the same light bulbs used back then.

Howl had its world premiere at the opening night of the Sundance film festival after the producers had gone through the struggle of making a film that would create something worthy of Ginsberg’s almost magical work. As with the recent release of On the Road, fans largely waited for a disastrous end product. They were, however, shocked to encounter a genuinely entertaining and informative movie. Through the right combination of filmmakers, and a delicate and unique balance of approaches, the movie version of Howl has become its own masterpiece – capturing the spirit and factual tidbits surrounding the poem that inspired it, yet at the same time decidedly different.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Bengan, John. http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/01/11/howl-the-poem-as-movie/.

Date accessed: 10.10.2011

Epstein, Rob and Friedman, Jeffrey. Howl film. Making of Featurette. Soda Pictures Ltd. Artwork 2011

Fish, Stanley. ‘‘Literary Criticism Comes to the Movies’’. The New York Times (October 4, 2010)

Ginsberg, Allen. ‘’This is the Abomination’’. Columbia Review vol. 26 (May 1946), p. 162.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl And Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1956.

http://howlthemovie.com/poem/. Date accessed: 10.10.2011

Kramer, Jane. Allen Ginsberg in America. New York, Random House, 1970.

Sandhu, Sukhdev. ‘‘Howl, review’’. The Daily Telegraph (February 24, 2011).

Simpson, Louis. Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. London, Macmillan, 1978.

Ritch, Ruby. ‘‘Ginsberg’s Howl resounds on film’’. The Guardian (January 19, 2010).

Homophobia in the Media’s Treatment of New Ginsberg Movie

So Daniel Radcliffe is going to play Allen Ginsberg in a new movie, called Kill Your Darlings. The movie is about the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr, a story which is part of Beat lore.

Yet for some reason, when you search for news about this announcement on the internet, it seems that there is a varying level of interest in the subject matter. More high-brow publications are fascinated by the story of Boy-Wizard-Turns-Beat-Poet, whereas at the other end of the scale, there is astonishment that this wholesome young man is portray – gasp! – a homosexual.

Ok, so Allen Ginsberg was gay and was not shy of making that fact known. David Kammerer was also a homosexual, and as the victim of the murder central to the movie’s plot, it is not homophobic at all to mention that the movie will likely contain some references to homosexuality. Indeed, Radcliffe himself mentioned to the French media that he would be playing “a gay character” in his next movie. Yet, the media seems disproportionately interested in this fact, as though there is something seedy or twisted about him (apparently inseparable from his most famous role) playing a gay man.

Let’s take a look at some of the media coverage.

The news appears to have been broken by Twitch, which – along with a few other publications – reported the story responsibly, mentioning that Radcliffe had claimed he was playing a “gay character” in his next movie (although mistakenly refers to Carr as Kammerer’s lover). We also have an announcement from the UK Press Association. It also does not play up the gay angle, and only mentions that his character is a homosexual in relation to what Radcliffe told the French press.

Daniel Radcliffe is apparently going to play beat poet Allen Ginsberg in his next film.

The Harry Potter star was quoted in the French press last week saying that he would very likely be playing a gay character in a film to be released in 2012.

Now movie blog Twitch.com reports he has been cast in Kill Your Darlings, a thriller based on actual events, and centred around the relationship between Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr.

Carr is credited for connecting writers Ginsberg, Kerouac and William S Burroughs but is best known for being found guilty of the murder of his lover David Kammerer in 1944.

The film is to be directed by script writer John Krokidas and previously began production in 2009 with Captain America’s Chris Evans, Jesse Eisenberg and I’m Not There’s Ben Whishaw attached to play Kerouac, Ginsberg and Carr, respectively.

It is not known if any of these actors are still attached to the project.

James Franco recently played Ginsberg in biopic Howl, released last year.

There is some more responsible reporting from The Guardian, which only mentions that the movie involves a “gay stalker”, which is true and central to the plot of the film. NME mentions the “gay stalker” and also references Radcliffe’s hint at a “gay character”.

At the other end of the spectrum there is The Sun, which unsurprisingly revels in playing up the gay angle. The sensationalist title reads, “Potter’s Dan Radcliffe to Play Gay Poet”. The article then focuses almost entirely on the fact that Radcliffe is playing a homosexual character, implying that there is something wrong with this, and something wrong with homosexuals. It mentions that Ginsberg was “openly gay” as though this is something we should still be shocked by, and even sinks as low as to dredge up rumours that Radcliffe himself is a homosexual. The language used to describe is “battle” against being thought of as gay, and the fact that they think it is worth mentioning that he supports tolerance towards homosexuals is appalling.

His new role is a brave move for the star, who has battled rumours that he is homosexual.

He has also donated cash to a US charity that promotes tolerance towards gay men, lesbians and bisexuals.

In March 2010 he denied being gay following internet speculation about his sexuality.

That this is even worth mentioning shows a worrying degree of prejudice on the part of the writers and editors… although given the history of the “news”paper, it is hardly a surprise.

We also have some shoddy reporting AceShowBiz, who deem the gay element of the film so important that they place it firmly in the title of their article. The article then focuses on the fact that Ginsberg was a homosexual, implying – as did The Sun – that this makes him an unwholesome, undesirable character to play. But how much stock can you put in an article written by someone who fails to realise that Ginsberg has been dead for more than a decade (“…is a gay rights activist…”) and stated that Kammerer and Carr were “lovers”, when in fact Kammerer’s obsession with Carr was entirely one-sided.

The HuffPo also falls into the trap of referring to Kammerer and Carr as “lovers”, and also calls the movie, “gay-themed”. I can’t say that I’ve seen the screenplay, but I’d be surprised if it was gay-themed, whatever that means. More likely it’s a movie about a pivotal event in literary history, focused on a murder. I doubt that they’d refer to any other thriller as, “straight-themed” or play up the sexuality of a couple of heterosexuals.

Towleroad quite likely has the best headline relating to the Radcliffe/Ginsberg story, saying: “Daniel Radcliffe to Play Allen Ginsburg (sic) in Gay-Themed Thriller”. So not only have they fallen into the trap of assuming this movie is all about homosexuality, just because it features a gay character, but they have misspelled that gay character’s name!

A website called Fansshare evidently seems set on claiming that worst title award, with: “Daniel Radcliffe to Star in Gay Movie”. That seems a little misleading, as though Radcliffe were starring in a gay porno. The article then says that he “has to portray a gay man,” which is just awful phrasing, and then has a whole paragraph devoted to whether or not he will have to kiss another male. One can almost hear the editors tittering in the background.

The website FilmSchoolRejects sadly states that it’s wrong for actors to play gay characters at the risk of setting a bad example for kids: “…now he’s playing a homosexual drug addict. That’s a little much for someone who, just a few months ago, was an idol to little kids. How about we dial it down a notch Daniel?”

Overall, coverage of this breaking story has been embarrassing. If you search Google News for “Daniel Radcliffe Allen Ginsberg”, you will be hard-pressed to find a source that doesn’t play up the gay angle. More worryingly is the number that includes “gay” in the title or subtitle of the article, highlighting the importance it holds to the author or editor of that publication. That sexuality is such a big deal in 2011 is a damning indictment of our society, and media outlets do us no favours by displaying their shock when a young man – a hero to children! – decides to play a homosexual character, or jumps to the conclusion that a movie featuring a gay character will inevitably be “gay-themed” or just plain “gay”.

Then again, look at these articles. They basically plagiarise one another, contain numerous glaring factual inaccuracies, refer to “Ginsburg” as a “beatnik” (a derogatory term), and often refer to Radcliffe as Harry Potter. Are these professional journalists that are writing? Are they responsible, intelligent bloggers? Does it appear that anyone has cast any form of editorial eye over these pieces of shoddy reporting? No. Perhaps Google “News” should have more stringent criteria for the reporting that cluttering my feed.

Daniel Radcliffe to Play Allen Ginsberg

Apparently Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe, has agreed to play the role of Allen Ginsberg in John Krokidas’ new movie, Kill Your Darlings. The movie is said to revolve around the 1944 New York world of the Beats, focusing on the fallout from the murder of David Kammerer.

Radcliffe takes over from Jesse Eisenberg, who was originally slated to play Ginsberg, and joins Chris Evans and Ben Wishaw in the line-up. The usual movie news websites seem to enjoy playing up the fact that this is a “gay” movie.

It seems that the Beats are firmly back in film fashion, with Howl, On the Road, Big Sur, and Queer all attracting attention recently. Let’s just hope Radcliffe does as good a job as James Franco.

Big Sur: The Movie

This past year has been kind to fans of the Beat Generation. First there was “Howl”, the movie about Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, starring James Franco and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Then came “On the Road”, adapted from Jack Kerouac’s classic novel, and starring Sam Reilly and Kristen Stewart. As it hasn’t reached the cinema yet, it remains to be seen whether it will enthrall Beat fans like “Howl”.

Now there is “Big Sur”, based upon another Kerouac classic. According to the day’s news, the movie will be directed by Michael Polish and starring Jean-Marc Barr, Josh Lucas and Kate Bosworth.

Also coming up this year is the long, long, long awaited movie based on Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp and directed by Bruce Robinson.

Banned Books Week & the Beats

A look at this year’s Banned Books Week and its relation to the Beat Generation.

Continue Reading...

James Franco on Allen Ginsberg

James Franco has an essay in the new Vanity Fair about what it’s like to play Allen Ginsberg in the upcoming movie, Howl.

The essay is called “Finding the Beat“… which happens to be the title of another upcoming Beat movie, which you can read more about here. Continue Reading…

The Howl Interview

Perhaps the most exciting movie of 2010 for Beatdom readers is ‘Howl’, a 1950s era feature film about Allen Ginsberg’s obscenity trial for his epic, generation-defining poem of the same name.

The movie will star James Franco as a young Ginsberg, with Alan Alda as Judge Clayton Horn, Jeff Daniels as prosecution witness Prof. David Kirk, Mary-Louise Park as prosecution witness Gail Potter, David Strathairn as prosecution attorney Ralph MacIntosh and Paul Rudd as defense witness Luther Nichols.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are both Academy Award winners as documentarians, and the Allen Ginsberg Trust asked them to director the movie to celebrate the 50th anniversary of ‘Howl’. Gus Van Sant is the producer.

‘Howl’ is appearing at an important moment in time. When Ginsberg wrote his masterpiece in 1955, America was in a difficult place. His poem changed literature by tackling this weird world with an autobiographical, highly personal eulogy for his friends.

Now we are once again in an intimidating world. America’s military mistakes are costing the people, while freedom is speech is being assaulted. Now more than ever the world needs to remember Allen Ginsberg.

Just as ‘Howl’ was a groundbreaking poem, the movie is certain to defy expectations. Trying to pin down just what it will look like is no walk in the park. Eric Drooker has animated long tracts of the movie, which is partly based on the poem itself, and partly based on the obscenity trial. There is documentary footage spliced with the acting of some of Hollywood’s finest contemporary talent.

To learn more about this exciting project, Beatdom sat down with the Oscar winning directors…

I read that the Allen Ginsberg Trust actually contacted the two of you with the idea of creating a film to commemorate the 50th anniversary of ‘Howl’… That’s a huge compliment on your work. Did they explain why they believed you were the right directors for the project?

No, but we were honored to take on the challenge.

In Beatdom, we try and tie the Beats to the modern world as much as possible… So, how relevant do you think the themes of the poem, as well as the results of the trial, are in today’s society?

The poem is a cri de coeur against an increasingly militarized, consumeristic, dehumanized society that was born out of World War II. Those trends are still very much a part of the fabric of our lives today. We’re still at war, our economy is still based on more and more consumption and devastation of the environment. It could have been written today—and it would still be shocking.

The world of contemporary art and entertainment owes more to the Beats than most people would admit. How significant do you think the ‘Howl’ obscenity trial was to subsequent artists?

That’s hard to assess. Just knowing that it was judged “not obscene” and that it continues to be published, widely read and taught in high schools and colleges, has got to have had an impact. Allen described the poem as promoting “frankness,” and set an example for subsequent generations of artists.

Now, let’s talk about the movie… Allen Ginsberg is a one-off, ridiculously unique character. How did you go about trying to capture him and present him on film?

Through his own words and ideas, as best we could. As documentarians, it was natural for us to start with existing documents. We learned about an interview that he gave to a Time Magazine reporter while the obscenity trial was happening, but that Time never published. That inspired us to reconstruct this “missing interview” using transcripts of existing interviews with Allen that he had given over the years. To illustrate the important relationships in his life—with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Peter Orlovsky—we worked with our cinematographer Ed Lachman to adapt the black-and-white style of photographs and 16mm movies of the period to evoke the mood of the time. And we worked extensively with James Franco to bring texture and substance to the role—he’s an amazing actor.

What exactly will the movie focus on? It’s called ‘Howl’, and said to revolve around the trial, but how much of Ginsberg’s life, the influence of the Beat Generation, and the actually poem itself, have you managed to capture in the movie?

Our goal was to try to convey the personal and artistic transformation that Allen had to go through in order for him to get to the point where he could create this totally unprecedented masterpiece. We use the central relationships in his life at the time—the guys he loved—as the focus of his journey. The immediate effects, and the most virulent, was the arrest of the publisher on obscenity charges. The trial itself is an absurd exercise in defining socially acceptable art and sexuality; at the same time, it helps elucidate aspects of the poetry.

What made you cast James Franco as Ginsberg? What do you think he will bring to such a challenging role?

James didn’t seem like an obvious choice at first, but Gus Van Sant, our executive producer, encouraged us to consider James. Then, as we learned about his serious commitment to art and literature—the guy is in three masters programs!—and after meeting with him and seeing some of his work, we realized he could bring something really interesting to the role. The film is about the poet as a young man—Allen was 29 when he wrote “Howl.” We had been looking at photos of young Allen, who was quite adorable, so the casting seemed less outlandish than it might appear. James is even half-Jewish!

James worked really hard to make Allen’s words his own, and to embody his vocal and physical mannerisms. Rob and I worked with him several times over the course of the year it took us to raise the financing—so this was totally speculative on James’s part, and demonstrated a real commitment to the project. By the time we went into production, we felt he was truly channeling Allen.

I heard that Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker will be involved in the movie… What exactly is his role in ‘Howl’?

We struggled for several years trying to come up with a cinematic form that would be formally groundbreaking in a way that would do justice to “Howl”—a work that broke rules, developed and helped create new forms of artistic expression, and changed the way we think about poetry and literature. It was daunting. The first glimmer of an idea came when we discovered “Illuminated Poems,” the book of Allen’s poetry that Eric illustrated. We met with Eric to talk about his collaboration with Allen, and gradually came up with the idea of creating an animated interpretation of the poem. That mushroomed into a bigger collaboration with John Hays, a very talented animation director, and eventually with Juck Somsaman and his crew in Bangkok, where the images are coming to life.