S.F. directors bring Allen Ginsbergs Howl to life

The picture most people have of the late Jewish poet Allen Ginsberg is of a bearded, hippie-ish intellectual with strong liberal views. They don’t know the half of it.

The young Ginsberg of the 1950s — an explicitly gay firebrand for whom candid confessional and political diatribe were inseparably intertwined — is brought to dynamic life in Academy Award–winning San Francisco filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s “Howl.”

The 90-minute drama embraces Ginsberg’s seminal Beat poem from a variety of angles, from its recitation in its entirety through the course of the film, to the landmark 1957 obscenity trial that followed its publication, to the re-creation of an interview with a chain-smoking, hyper-articulate Ginsberg (James Franco, in a mesmerizing performance).

The film, which opens Sept. 24 in the Bay Area and New York before expanding around the country, reclaims the poet as a gay icon and a literary lion. Ginsberg’s Jewishness isn’t emphasized to the same degree, although Epstein says that the co-directors guided Franco — whose mother is Jewish — to deliver some of his lines with a little more ethnic inflection.

On the set of “Howl,” directors Jeffrey Friedman (from left) and Rob Epstein consult with actor James Franco. photo/courtesy of oscilloscope pictures

“There are certain turns of phrase that we discussed,” Epstein says in an interview, “and it came back to kind of a Jewish humor, a Jewish outlook. So many of the elocutions come from that tradition, so [Ginsberg’s Jewishness] came up in that context — what the words meant and why they were phrased that way.”

Friedman likewise views Ginsberg as an unambiguously Jewish writer, also, but his reference point is dramatically different.

“His voice is a prophetic voice, and it’s very influenced not only by [Walt] Whitman but by the Bible. The Old Testament, the real Bible, the original, not the sequel,” Friedman says with a chuckle, “or the remake. And he comes from a very strong moral perspective, which I think is informed by his upbringing, which was a combination of Jewish and communist and humanist.”

“There is a kind of Talmudic quality to ‘Howl,’ ” Friedman muses, “in that it’s so personal and it’s also so all-knowing in its perspective.”

Epstein grew up in New Jersey, and vividly remembers Ginsberg from a teenage outing to see the Living Theater in the late ’60s.

“They were doing ‘Paradise Now’ and somehow I ended up backstage before the performance chanting with the actors,” Epstein recalls. “The chant was being led by this guy with a beard and a harmonium, and I sort of figured out at some point that it was Allen Ginsberg. He was the grandfather of the counterculture in my mind. And I was very much a child of the counterculture. So I felt there was a lineage there.”

Ginsberg’s influence on the next generation is underscored by the Bob Dylan song from “The Basement Tapes” that the filmmakers picked to play under the closing credits.

Friedman, whose father was a writer, editor and publisher of the Greenwich Village literary magazine “Venture,” first encountered Ginsberg on the page. “I grew up in New York, and it was all Jewish, and it was all radical,” he declares.

“Howl” marks the duo’s first foray into fiction after a long string of documentary successes. Epstein won his first Oscar for the 1984 doc “The Times of Harvey Milk” and took the statuette with Friedman five years later for “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt.” Their other films include “Paragraph 175,” which documents the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.

Their adaptation of “Howl” incorporates a fragmented structure and animation to illustrate the poem, which might connect with younger moviegoers who might not be immediately drawn to a poet who died in 1997.

“The whole act of speaking frankly, and creating art out of that, is something that young people relate to,” Friedman notes. “They’re used to the form of it, as it’s evolved into poetry slams and rap music and hip-hop. It’s all become part of the vernacular in a way that makes the experience of ‘Howl’ feel very fresh and contemporary.”

“Howl” opens Friday, Sept. 24 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco, the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.


Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.