A 'Howl' for today

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in "Howl"
Image courtesy Oscilloscope Films

Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" shook both the literary and legal world back in the 1950s. Fans hailed it as a new style of poetry. The authorities condemned it as obscene.

The team behind a new film about Howl, which opens in the Twin Cities this weekend, says it's every bit as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

He demurs at first but when prodded, Jeffrey Friedman is ready to give Howl a spin.

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"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..."

He eventually gives up with a smile.

Jeffrey Friedman
Howl co-director Jeffrey Friedman
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Friedman who is co-director of Howl, admits he is no Allen Ginsberg, nor James Franco portraying the famous beat poet as he read "Howl" to a cheering crowd in a California coffee house.

"...they've come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse..." he roars as the audience hoots and claps.

"It has real power," Friedman said, "and it still has power to shock, which is kind of astonishing to me."

Howl -- the movie -- came together a few years back after the Ginsberg Foundation approached Friedman and his directing partner Rob Epstein with a proposal to make a film to examine the poem and its impact.

Friedman says they were excited about the prospect of chronicling the time.

"It was this amazing moment when this group of writers got together and decided that they were going to create a new way of talking about the world," Friedman said.

Yet they were perhaps more interested in how Howl is still relevant today.

"It's a real howl of protest, really, against a dehumanizing corporate culture that was just emerging at the time that Allen wrote it, and now has really taken over," Friedman said.

At the time it was published, the culture did not approve of Howl, nor its portrayal of American life. The poem, published by the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, became the center of an obscenity case.

Howl in the courtroom
A courtroom scene from "Howl"
Image courtesy Oscilloscope Films

The story plays out in several ways in the film. It combines dramatic scenes with material taken directly from interviews and even courtroom transcripts, where the confusion of a prosecutor talking to a literature professor is clear.

"Do you understand what 'Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night' means?" he asks.

"Sir, you can't translate poetry into prose. That's why it's poetry," the professor replies.

"What are angel-headed hipsters?"

In what was a pivotal free speech case, the judge ruled Howl was not obscene.

The film becomes a portrait of a time, a place and the poem itself, which is articulated though animation.

Producer Christine Walker said as filmmakers they were conscious of the dangers of interpreting the poem for an audience, which can be a very personal experience. But she said they decided they had to take the risk.

"It's a difficult poem in some ways and it's stream of consciousness, and I think in order to totally understand the relevance of the trial and the relevance of the poem, we did have to interpret the poem through the animation in some way for the audience," she said.

Redleaf and Walker
Elizabeth Redleaf and Christine Walker of Minneapolis-based Werk Werc Works.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Walker is a veteran of movies about writers, having produced "Factotum" about Charles Bukowski, and "American Splendor" about comic book writer Harvey Pekar. That film was also a hybrid of drama, documentary and animation.

Walker is one of the founders of Werc Werk Works, the Minneapolis based independent film production company.

Jeffrey Friedman said the company was vital to the creation of "Howl" because no other producers would take on the film.

"And we found very adventurous, creative and fearless producers right here in Minneapolis, and now we are bring it back home," he said.

Howl was the opening night screening at Sundance, and has been drawing adoration at festivals around the world. Even as Howl arrives in Minnesota Christine Walker and her business partner Elizabeth Redleaf are in Utah making a film with "Big Chill" director Laurence Kasdan.

On the phone from the set, Redleaf said as word spreads about Werc Werk Works through their films, they keep getting offered better and better material.

"We do see really top-drawer screenplays, which is the starting point for what our company is able to do," she said.

Next up is finding a distributor for another Werc Werk Works film "The Convincer" shot earlier this year in Minnesota.