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Allen Ginsberg's "Howl": The movie


The true art of storytelling is in bringing stories to life, either as comedy, a compelling radio piece, or a movie. But what happens when what you want to bring to life is a piece of art in itself? Like making a movie about a poem?

[Clip from "Howl" (2010)]: Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...

And about freedom of expression?

[Clip from "Howl" (2010)]: Who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats, floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz...

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of San Francisco's City Lights Books published Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl" in 1956. The seminal poem broke social taboos by talking about drugs and race.

ALLEN GINSBERG [Clip from "Howl" (2010)]: 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...

In an era characterized by conformity, "Howl" was a call to self-expression. But history notes that "Howl" became more.

ACTOR [Reading from the poem "Howl" (1956)]: Who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,who let themselves be f----d in the a$$ by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy...

In 1957, Ferlinghetti was put on trial for publishing obscene materials.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI [web video from poetry reading (2007)]: Pity the nation whose people are sheep, and whose shepherds mislead them. Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced, and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.

So how do you make a movie about a poem and freedom of expression? Emily Wilson has the story.

EMILY WILSON: When you’re making a movie, you begin with images.

ACTOR [Reading from the poem "Howl" (1956)]: Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of tea head…

Allen Ginsberg draws a landscape in words.

ACTOR [Reading from the poem "Howl" (1956)]: Joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn...

Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman wanted to capture that in "Howl" through animation.

ACTOR [Reading from the poem "Howl" (1956)]: Illuminating all the motionless world of time between.

So they made a movie that’s as much of an abstract work of art as the poem itself.

JEFFREY FRIEDMAN [Clip from "Howl" (2010)]: If we had made a documentary we would have been talking to a lot of old timers, remembering back 50 years to something that happened when they were young. But we really wanted to try to capture that youthful, rebellious spirit that gave birth to the poem. ACTOR [Reading from the poem "Howl" (1956)]: Yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars...

Ginsberg collected underground political posters made by Eric Drooker. He’s an artist – draws covers for the New Yorker magazine. Writes graphic novels. Vivid, kinetic images. Epstein and Friedman told Drooker they wanted him to animate "Howl."

ERIC DROOKER: ...animate "Howl." So I thought they were completely nuts. What are you high on crack? Are you crazy? Animate "Howl?" Sure, why don’t we, let’s animate Dante’s "Inferno" while we’re at it, fellas. Give me a break. ACTOR [Reading from the poem "Howl" (1956)]: Who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night, with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares...

The language in "Howl" is like cubism, like jazz.

DROOKER: I guess I would call it kaleidoscopic in its form. It was written in the mid-50s, and it’s kind of the tail end of high modernism. What Picasso was doing in painting, what Miles Davis and Charlie Parker were doing with music on the horn, Ginsberg was attempting to do really for the first time with words, which was just to have a series of very intense, very vivid, very concrete images. JAMES FRANCO [Clip from "Howl" (2010)]: Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog... DROOKER: This was written 55 years ago... JAMES FRANCO [Clip from "Howl" (2010)]: Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone. DROOKER: And he’s talking about Moloch who’s blood is running money, oil and stone.
KEITH OLBERMAN [clip from MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olberman"]: The Republican party candidate for president of the United States today directly tied the Iraq war and the prospects of further American bloodshed in the Middle East to the price and availability of oil...

The characters in "Howl" took shape in Drooker’s imagination.

DROOKER: So this is how I portray Moloch: Almost a Minotaur-like creature with the head of a bull and kind of a human body, kind of a Schwarzenegger’s body. Head of a bull. In fact, the face even looks a little like Arnold’s, now that I look at it again. ACTOR [Reading from the poem "Howl" (1956)]: Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks, Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius, Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen, Moloch whose name is the mind.

"Howl" is art, and it’s history.

ACTOR [Reading from the poem "Howl" (1956)]: The three old shrews of fate. The one-eyed shrew of a heterosexual doll. The one-eyed shrew that winks out of the womb, and the one-eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her a$$ and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman's loom...

In 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books in San Francisco faced jail time for publishing obscene material.

ACTOR [Reading from the poem "Howl" (1956)]: Who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of bear, a sweethear, a package pf cigarettes and candle and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate c--t and come eluding the last g----m of consciousness... [Clip from "Howl" (2010)]: What I want to show is on the first page inside of "Howl." It says, "All these books are published in Heaven." I don’t quite understand that, but anyway, let the record show, your Honor, it’s published by the City Lights pocket bookshop. FRIEDMAN: The issues that are raised are still being debated, you know, the limits of free speech, if any, the role of the artist in society and what’s acceptable for an artist to do or say. DAVID STRAITHERN [Clip from "Howl" (2010)]: Do you understand what "angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night" means? TREAT WILLIAMS [Clip from "Howl" (2010)]: Sir, you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it is poetry.
GINSBERG [Clip from "Howl" (2010)]: Holy forgiveness! Mercy! Charity! Faith! Holy! Ours! Bodies! Suffering! Magnanimity! Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!

Allen Ginsberg’s voice joins with Eric Drooker’s animation in Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein’s “Howl." A new chapter of an American history.

For Crosscurrents, I’m Emily Wilson.

This story originally aired on September 30, 2010.