The Howl directors discuss why the '50s beat generation remains such a powerful cultural force.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have been making non-fiction films together since the late '80s. Their first feature, 1989's Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 1990, adding to Epstein's Oscar win six years earlier for The Times of Harvey Milk. The pair's latest co-venture, Howl, is an ambitious cinematic incarnation of Alan Ginsberg's seminal beat poem of the same name, as well as a dramatisation of the 1957 obscenity trial that embroiled the poem. LWLies sat down with Epstein and Friedman recently to discuss how Ginsberg's legacy influenced the film.
LWLies: How did Howl come about?
Epstein: The project actually came to us from the Ginsberg estate, who wanted to do something to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Howl. They came to us with the poem and asked if we'd like to do something with it and we said 'Yes!', naturally. But then it was like, 'Well what do we do with this: how do you make a film about a poem?' So we spent several years doing other projects and thinking and talking about how we were going to approach this, doing research and what have you. We decided that the angle we wanted to take was to look at why Howl happened when it did; what was special about this moment, why this rebellious voice was released into the culture and how it went on to create this cultural movement that became like a political movement. We wanted to really focus on Alan's creative process and his emotional process to get to the point where that could happen. We were intrigued by the world this had happened in – this very conformist, controlled world of the '50s, when consumerism and the corporate culture was really just beginning. These were all things that Alan was talking about in Howl, so we wanted to go back to seeing where this voice of dissent came from.
The structure of the film echoes that of the poem. Was there ever a temptation to make any one narrative thread more prominent?
Friedman: It's really built around the poem but of course you have the courtroom aspect which is so interesting and important contextually. The courtroom has its own narrative stream as much as the interview has its own stream and worked hard on developing each of those so that they all worked in conjunction with the poem and the recital that takes place throughout the film.
Epstein: We kept the poem going in its correct order, more or less, with a few a repeats. It has its own progression that we wanted to keep to as our guiding principle.
Friedman: But you're right – the poem is in four parts and there are four very distinctive parts to our narrative interpretation. Each part has its own style and we very much looked at the poem to work out the cinematic equivalent of those parts.
Did you look at any other films for inspiration?
Epstein: We looked at several beat films from the '50s – Robert Frank's film, Pull My Daisy, especially. We wanted to see how Alan and Jack Kerouac and that whole gang interacted and that whole new wave 16mm style of shooting really influenced with us throughout making Howl, particularly the flashback and interview scenes.
Friedman: There's another film, from the '60s, called Portrait of Jason that we screened. I would say we were both very strongly affected by that; this idea of just being in a room talking for an hour-and-a-half and creating this amazingly, really personal character study. And for the obscenity trial we looked at courtroom dramas from the period and from that we made the decision to shoot things in a traditional way to match the time. Those were the stylistic influences.
How much did Howl become a personal project – in terms of what you both learned about the beat era and how it influenced your generation?
Friedman: My parents were both New York Bohemians in the '50s and, although they weren't part of that crowd, they were aware of the cultural shift at the time. My father ran a literary magazine in New York and was very lefty-progressive, so I sort of grew up in this very literary aware environment. It was all jazz clubs and dingy cafés for me growing up.
Do think Howl is relevant to today's generation?
Epstein: I think so. Ultimately it's about speaking truthfully and often quite candidly about life, and although that's not uncommon today, it resonates because it was innovative back then. There's something very authentic about the poem, not many poems of that era are considered literary classics like Howl. But thematically speaking so much of what Howl is about is still relevant – the militarism and sexual liberation and what have you. Ginsberg himself talked about the poem as a time bomb, he saw it as something that could be an incendiary device that could go off at different times in different generations. There's an attractiveness in that, I think, that's very cinematic.
Do you see Ginsberg as a contemporary gay icon as well as a literary one?
Epstein: You know we never even thought of him in that way until we got stuck into the poem. We knew that he was gay, but never really thought about how radical it was for him to make the proclamations about homosexuality that he was making in 1955. Howl is in many ways a queer manifesto and that's certainly not how we thought of it when we first approached the project.
Friedman: So much of his creative process had to do with his love for other men, and how that love was in turn received. He talks about that as being so crucial to his voice as an artist, it really released his creativity and that's something we came to understand when making this movie.
Who would you say the film is for?
Friedman: Well, we hope everyone. It's a poem pic with some great performances and I think a lot of people will be surprised because it's not a traditional movie, but there's a lot to take from it. If you go with an open mind and an open heart I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. It's a performance and James [Franco] is one of our great performance artists.