Ginsberg’s Howl finds a way onto film

A violent ghost from my past appears at the end

On 7 October 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Allen Ginsberg brought the house down with a performance of his hallucinatory new poem, Howl. Among other things, this epic work in four parts dealt with drugs, mental illness, religion, homosexuality – the fears and preoccupations of a generation.

Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were both in the audience. Ginsberg was 29 years old. Also present was the future choreographer and film-maker Yvonne Rainer. A teenager at the time, Rainer still clearly remembers that night: “Ginsberg, quite drunk, clean-shaven, in black suit and tie-less white shirt, holding a jug of rot-gut red wine, intoning and chanting the poem.” Back then, the beats were in thrall to the jazz world; Ginsberg himself explained his poem as akin to “bop refrains”.

Eight years ago, film-makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman received a call from Ginsberg’s estate asking them to make a documentary about Howl. With the 50th anniversary of the poem’s publication (and subsequent obscenity trial) approaching, the estate wanted the best. Epstein and Friedman have, between them, won Oscars and Emmys for a lifetime of work including The Times of Harvey Milk, about the first openly gay man elected to public office in California; and The Celluloid Closet, based on Vito Russo’s book about screen depictions of homosexuality. Ginsberg’s estate knew the pair could deliver an in-depth documentary on time and on budget; plus, they were queer enough to understand the social pressures that formed the poet.

Had things gone as planned, the film would have been released in 2007, and it would have been a documentary. Instead, the hybrid drama that is Howl has its world premiere…on the opening night of the Sundance film festival. Epstein and Friedman ended up overshooting their deadline by three years, losing themselves completely in what turned out to be a mad project, struggling to create something worthy of Ginsberg’s incantatory work.

RTFA. I’d want to see the movie anyway. It’s about an important period of my life. I won’t bore you with the differentiating details.

It’s as relevant today as then. After all, the political dragons haven’t changed. They have as much power over government – how we all get to live and learn – as they ever have.

I attended readings by both Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg in NYC. Powerful, outstanding, challenging to a society constipated with conformity.

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