Magazine article Artforum International

A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich: STEVEN WATSON ON ROB EPSTEIN AND JEFFREY FRIEDMAN'S HOWL

Magazine article Artforum International

A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich: STEVEN WATSON ON ROB EPSTEIN AND JEFFREY FRIEDMAN'S HOWL

Article excerpt

PROBABLY NO WORK of American literature of the mid-twentieth century has taken on so many identities as Allen Ginsberg's 1955 poem "Howl": Beat anthem, First Amendment cause celebre, Lower East Side fringe festival. It's safe to say that even those who have never read the poem would recognize its haunting opening lines: "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." It's even safer to say that few of its admirers would have considered "Howl" a likely subject for a motion picture. Who would make a poem into a movie anyway? That's even more unlikely than Ginsberg appearing in a Gap ad!

Nevertheless, with their new film Howl, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have managed to do just that--forging a highly original solution to the thorny problems inherent in the task. The approach they take is at once minimal and maximal, stretching far beyond the directors' documentary roots. (They are perhaps best known for their 1995 collaboration The Celluloid Closet; Epstein won an Academy Award in 1985 for his direction of The Times of Harvey Milk.) By dividing their focus between this iconic poem in performance and the scandalous 1957 First Amendment-rights trial in the San Francisco Municipal Court (City Lights cofounder Lawrence Ferlinghetti was brought up on obscenity charges for publishing "Howl"), Epstein and Friedman have created a credible historical account of a seminal American literary event and an ode to free expression in our still censorious age.

To borrow another of Ginsberg's titles, I can only think of Howl the movie as a "reality sandwich": Words are the reality, lifted from interviews with Ginsberg and from the transcripts of the San Francisco court, combined in a multilevel form that suggests an extravagant club sandwich, stuffed with dramatic reenactments and scenes from the life, and heavily flavored with documentary sauce (not to mention an extravagant dollop of fantasy animation). Even the (few) minimal sets are precise re-creations, right down to the postcards of Baudelaire and Poe on Ginsberg's refrigerator and the Dinah Washington record (Dinah Jams) sticking out of a box in his living room.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The sandwich's first layer is a reenactment by actor James Franco of Ginsberg's legendary reading of "Howl" at San Francisco's Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, with such Beat icons as Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Peter Orlovsky in the audience. The second layer is a dramatization of Ginsberg (Franco) recording an interview with an unseen and unheard interviewer. The third layer, a reenactment of the 1957 obscenity trial, overtly connects the personal, the literary, and the political. The final layer, overlaid with Franco's reading of "Howl," is an extended animation sequence by graphic novelist and illustrator Eric Drooker.

In the material that constitutes the first two layers, Franco is the only person who speaks, portraying Ginsberg publicly, as a performer, and intimately, in his heymisher mensch mode. I was deeply skeptical of the decision to cast a heartthrob like Franco in the lead role, because it threatened to turn the film into yet another Hollywood version of the counterculture (though I'm sure Ginsberg creamed in his grave at the thought of looking like the General Hospital star, who has also played such gay icons as James Dean and Harvey Milk's boyfriend). Incredibly, Franco both looks and sounds like Ginsberg. Not a matter of an elaborate makeover--a pair of heavy horn-rimmed black glasses and a beard do the trick. Franco inhabits Ginsberg so completely that even those who knew the poet well are taken aback by this remarkable performance. Plainly, Franco not only absorbed countless recordings of Ginsberg and studied archival footage--few people have been so abundantly documented as Ginsberg--but immersed himself in the poet's spirit as well. …

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