“Howl” at the Movies

February 3, 2010

Actor James Franco as poet Allen Ginsberg in the new film "Howl."

As the 2010 Sundance Film Festival wrapped up last weekend, word about one film in particular came echoing down the Utah mountainside to catch the ear of the literary community.  With a Grand Jury Prize nomination to its credit, the experimental biopic “Howl” has the book world buzzing.  Based on the life of poet Allen Ginsberg and the 1957 obscenity charges that brought his book Howl and Other Poems to trial, the film stars James Franco as Ginsberg and also features Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, and Jeff Daniels.  A project eight years in the making, the original intent of Oscar and Emmy-winning directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman was to shoot a straight documentary honoring the iconic Beat poet and his landmark publication.  However, as filming progressed, the directors dropped any semblance of a traditional documentary in favor of an adventurously creative dramatic style in the spirit of the poem itself.  The film’s final version consists of the following four interwoven threads: a black and white reinactment of Franco’s Ginsberg reading “Howl” to an inspired coffeehouse crowd, a dramatization of the obscenity trial in San Francisco, a re-creation of a later Ginsberg interview in which he explains his craft, and an eye-popping, surrealistic animated sequence set to a reading of the poem.  To preview all but the animated segment, visit the following link:  “Howl” Movie Clips.

Although dates for the film’s widespread theatrical release have yet to be announced, there are plenty of great books, DVD’s, and CD’s already available to tide you over.  Whether you’re interested in diving deeper into the poem, learning the life story of an American icon, or examining a pivotal moment for free expression, check out the following titles for a “Howl”-related fix:

Howl: Original Draft Facsimile by Allen Ginsberg – Immerse yourself in the landmark poem itself with this fascinating book.  Included with a reproduction of the original draft of “Howl” are variant versions of the poem, annotations by Ginsberg, and an account of the first public reading.


Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression by Bill Morgan and Nancy J. Peters – This book by Ginsberg’s archivist and a City Lights publisher offers a treasure trove of material related to the obscenity trial.  Included are court transcripts, newspaper accounts, photographs, and never-before-published letters between Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady.

The Allen Ginsberg Audio Collection – This 3-CD set presents the iconic American poet reading a collection of his poems including “Howl.”

I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg by Bill Morgan – Using interviews with friends along with journals and letters, Ginsberg’s archivist presents an absorbing look into the poet’s professional and personal life in this definitive biography.

The Life & Times of Allen Ginsberg – This 2-DVD documentary from Oscar-nominated director Jerry Aronson examines Ginsberg’s life using home movies and clips from televised interviews.  Also includes public figures such as Timothy Leary and Johnny Depp sharing how Ginsberg influenced their individual careers.

Russell J.


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