There were so many films of Jewish interest at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, that it was nearly impossible to view them all given ticket availability and timing. One of the most prominent films was:

James Franco channels Allen Ginsberg

James Franco channels Allen Ginsberg

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;
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.


Howl was one of the three opening night films at Sundance. It was written and directed by Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk, Celluloid Closet) and Jeffrey Friedman (Celluloid Closet), and it began as a documentary about the beat movement poet, Allen Ginsberg, and the fiftieth anniversary of the publishing of his groundbreaking poem, “HOWL.” But while making the documentary, the directors felt they should break new ground, just as the poem had. They decided to turn it into a feature with three stories. Epstein recalled, “We’d been given this treasure, but now we were faced with how in the world do we actually do this? We started out with a traditional documentary approach, but it soon became clear we weren’t getting to the essence of Ginsberg. We had to find a way to bring together all these different element – the text of the poem, Ginsberg’s life and ideas, this landmark trial – to create a multi-faceted picture of “Howl’s” creation and the world’s response. The thrilling part was that we were inventing the form as we went along.”

The three stories in the film are: the landmark 1957 obscenity trial in San Francisco which sought to determine if the publication of the poem was obscene and whether it should be banned and censored; an animated exploration of the poem, including some (frightingly) large genitalia; and the story of Allen Ginsberg at a time when America was changing, a man was finding his prophetic voice. and Ginsberg was discovering a way to perform his masterpiece. (The end credits include the voiceover of Ginsberg playing an instrument and performing one of his works, which reminded me that I had seen him perform that same work with the organ at a Jewish book fair two decades ago.)

013James Franco (Milk, Spider Man) plays Allen Ginsberg at 29. Franco, whose mother is of the Jewish faith, said he was not raised Jewish. He once noted that he felt deprived because he never had a bar mitzvah. Maybe playing Ginsberg made him a man? Raised in the San Francisco Bar Area, Franco became enamoured of the beat poets at the age of 14. He recalled, “… we were all so taken with the whole idea of ‘live, live, live.’ We were into “HOWL,” “On The Road,” “Naked Lunch,” and we would go up to City Lights (bookstore) to see where it all started.” He continued, “I always envisioned himself playing someone like Jack Kerouac.”

As a teen, Franco also went to Palo Alto‘s Aquarius Theatre to see Epstein’s and Friedman‘s “The Celluloid Closet” when it was first theatrically released. Familiar with the directors’ works, when Franco was approached about the film, a combination of Friedman, Epstein, and Ginsberg, Franco knew it was not the name of a California law firm, but it was the name of a new passion project for him.

Franco, having acted in the roles of the actor, James Dean; Harvey Milk’s boyfriend, Scott Smith; the poet, Allen Ginsberg, and next, Aron Ralston, the man who cut off his own arm, he related that, “I enjoy playing real character,s since the roles present difficult challenges and I feel compelled to work harder to give them their due on screen.”

026One third of the film focuses on the 1957 San Francisco obscenity trial, The People v. Ferlinghetti, that the publication of “HOWL” initiated. David Strathairn plays the conservative prosecutor, Ralph McIntosh, who is out to protect the man in the street from filth and sets out to officially and legally censor and ban the book. Jon Hamm, who Americans know as the star of MAD MEN and the uncredited phone voice from A SINGLE MAN, is the Jake Ehrlich, the defense attorney who argued the case for the promotion of the freedom of expression. The case was argued before Judge Clayton Horn, who is played by Bob Balaban. Balaban, wh plays the conservative judge, actually faced censorship in one of his first feature film roles. “Midnight Cowboy” actually received an “X” rating from the MPAA as a result of a blowjob scene involving Bob Balaban’s student and Jon Voight’s cowpoke characters. The rating was later changed to a “R” rating, after the film received several outstanding reviews and, later, award nominations.

VMI cadets reading HOWL which was critical of the military

VMI cadets reading HOWL which was critical of the military

In a process that was new to Sundance this year, it seemed that many audience members at the world premiere, were more interesting in being the first to Twitter and blog about the film, even before the end credits were rolling.

I saw the best bloggers of my generation destroyed by madness, trying to twitter hysterically,
dragging themselves through the Sundance streets before the end credits looking for a WiFi fix;

I thought this was rather rude, or perhaps I am just jealous that I had not WiFi or twittering capabilities. Where was the time to digest the film? As in eating and swimming, one should wait a few hours before jumping into the Twitter pool. HOWL has received mixed positive reviews from the offical press, but I would give it even more positive reviews. Jeffrey Freidman said, “As a film, “Howl,” is a lot of things, but I hope audiences will relate to it as the story of a man finding a way to be true to himself. Allen Ginsberg was searching for a way to express fully who he was – and, in doing so, he changed himself and the culture.

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  • Larry
    Great points about Twitter. I often find myself wanting to reach for my iphone to update FourSquare or Twitter in a mtg or social gathering (and sometimes I give in.) This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that Tweeple are going there during movies, but its kind of a sad statement about our priorities. Maybe they were tweeting great reviews, maybe not, but how long was the movie. I mean, really.

  • I was in West Hollywood at some fancy dance bar and it seemed as if half the people there, even while dancing, were on twitter and facebook letting everyone they knew how bad ass they were. I’m sorry but that’s just NOT cool. The difference between documenting fun and actually having fun is massive. I mean its as if it hasn’t been twittered, did it really happen? Sheesh.

    But yeah… great post Larry!

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