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Howl

“Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America…” —Michael McClure on Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” on October 7, 1955, at the 6 Gallery, San Francisco

In 2003, the Allen Ginsberg estate contacted documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, The Celluloid Closet) to make a film about Ginsberg’s incantatory poem, a key work of the Beat Generation, as well as the lesser-known obscenity trial its publication sparked. Once the filmmakers began researching Ginsberg’s early life and how he poured it into ”Howl,” they realized that this poem and the furor it caused in 1950s America merited a more complex treatment than a straight documentary. Part of the problem was portraying the youthful Ginsberg, when scant film footage exists of the poet in his early thirties.

As a result, Howl is not strictly a documentary or a narrative feature, but a film that intersperses a range of styles and techniques, including animation and archival footage, to tell various elements of the story. With actor James Franco as Ginsberg, Howl reimagines the memorable 1955 reading as well as various interviews with the writer as a way to portray him defending his position with respect to the obscenity case. (It was poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of the City Lights Press and bookstore, who actually went to trial as the poem’s publisher.) Epstein and Friedman sought verisimilitude in scenes from the obscenity trial, using court transcripts virtually to the word as the script; they took the opposite approach in accompanying a recital of the poem with animated illustrations by Eric Drooker, who collaborated with Ginsberg on a poetry collection.

Howl premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, which lauded the film as echoing “the startling originality of the poem itself…a genre-bending hybrid that brilliantly captures a pivotal moment—the birth of a counterculture.” The Walker’s area premiere is complemented by its screenings of several other films featuring Ginsberg: Pull My Daisy, another Beat-era milestone that was part of Friedman’s and Epstein’s research, and which features some of the only known footage of the poet from the late 1950s; the award-winning documentary The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg; and Stockhausen’s Originale: Doubletakes (part of the exhibition 1964), in which Ginsberg plays “The Poet,” participating in a performance that dissolves boundaries between artistic disciplines, just as Howl does with film genres some 45 years later. 2010, 35mm, 90 minutes.

Oscilloscope Laboratories will release the film in Minneapolis on October 15th at the Landmark Lagoon.