Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 8, 2010


Filed under: beatniks,literature — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Like François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl mixes fact and fiction in a recreation of the 1957 obscenity trial against Allen Ginsberg’s poem. Starring James Franco as the young poet, it is an ambitious attempt to evoke the social and political climate of the country at a time when challenges to the Cold War mindset were being mounted by the leaders of the beat generation.

In a clever casting move, two actors who have played major roles in dramas set in this period have been cast as the prosecution and defense attorneys, but in a kind of reversal. The prosecutor Ralph McIntosh is played by David Strathairn, who was memorable as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, a film that celebrated resistance to McCarthyism. The defense attorney is played by Jon Hamm, the actor who plays the iconic advertising executive Don Draper on Mad Men, the celebrated television drama about the 1950s. Throughout the film, we see herds of white collar workers marching off to work accompanied to Ginsberg’s words from Howl:

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

Ginsberg is played by James Franco, who was cast as Harvey Milk’s lover in Gus Van Sant’s movie. Franco is an exceptionally intelligent actor who will be entering the Yale PhD program in English literature this fall while simultaneously studying at the Rhode Island School of Design. Throughout the film, he is seen in a reenactment of Ginsberg reading “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955. Franco had hopes for a number of years to do a project involving the beats, so this role was a natural for him.

Among those in attendance that evening was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights bookstore and publishing who decided to publish the book that would land him on trial for obscenity charges in two years. Ferlinghetti is 91 years old and still going strong.

The movie dramatizes Ginsberg’s friendship and intimacy with both Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassidy, although largely without dialog. Except for the reenactment of the obscenity trial, Franco’s performance of Howl, and an interview with him that runs throughout the film using Ginsberg’s actual words from various sources, the film is mostly wordless. This works particularly well with the animation of images from Howl based on the work of Eric Drooker who illustrated a recent volume of Ginsberg’s poetry, including Howl. Drooker’s images are particularly powerful, reminiscent in some ways of William Blake’s engravings.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were obviously motivated to explore Ginsberg’s ideas about art, which challenged conventional expectations about art in the 1950s. The prosecution witnesses appear absolutely clueless, especially an utterly clueless English professor named David Kirk, played ably by Jeff Daniels (Dumb, Dumber and now Dumbest) who tells the court that Howl was not genuine literature because it imitated the form of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. When the defense attorney asks him who Whitman imitated, he could not answer.

But the most interesting aspect of Howl has to do with its treatment of Ginsberg’s sexuality. After Ginsberg got kicked out of Columbia University, he moved out to San Francisco and took a job in advertising just like Don Draper, still not sure whether he would live the life of a gay man or not. After going into psychotherapy with a remarkably open-minded shrink, he was asked what he really wanted to do with his life. He replied that he wanted to live with Peter Orlovsky, his lover, and write. “Well, go ahead and do that”, the psychiatrist said and the rest is history.

Howl now joins the documentary on high fashion designer Valentino as one of the few movies that depicts blissfully happy and professionally fulfilled homosexual men. As opposed to the weepy fiction films from Philadelphia to Brokeback Mountain, it is a testimony to the potential for a fully realized life, something that all gay people could enjoy if they didn’t have to put up with the insane repression that was deepest in the 1950s but persists today.

Howl will open September 24 in New York, and October 1 in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with a national roll-out to follow.


  1. One small correction, the series Mad Men actually takes place in the early 60’s. It begins in 1959 and now in it’s 4th season the time period is 1965. This is my all-time favorite series, with the possible exception of “The Wire”.

    I enjoy your reviews and sometimes wish you would also have a go at TV. I’d love to see your take on Mad Men.

    Comment by haensgen — September 9, 2010 @ 2:24 am

  2. Uh, yeah, if you were gay and a published poet and lived in San Francisco in the 50’s, you could make a go of leading a “fully realized life.” So? Always amused how intellectuals project their little, isolated realities on everybody else.

    Comment by redacter — September 10, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

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