Illuminated tenement roofs
Novels become films every day, but poems -- how many poems have become films? There have been some biographical films about poets – TS Eliot (Tom and Viv), Verlaine and Rimbaud (Total Eclipse), Keats (Bright Star), Sylvia Plath (Sylvia), Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries), Dylan Thomas (The Edge of Love), Miguel Pinero (Pinero), Stevie Smith (Stevie), Pablo Neruda (Il Postino), William Blake, very loosely (Dead Man) – but poems? A film is coming of Paradise Lost (with, reportedly, Crow auteur Alex Proyas directing Hangover star Bradley Cooper as Satan). Films have been based on The Raven and Beowulf – and The Iliad. But Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film Howl must be unique in the way it which it simultaneously illustrates a poem, sets out the context of the poem’s creation and also outlines its reception – unique partly because few poems have had the kind of reception that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl did.
Epstein and Freidman’s backgrounds are in documentary. Epstein made The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and the pair made Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), The Celluloid Closet (1995) and Paragraph 175 (2000). These were stories of gay history and, in the case of Harvey Milk, a gay hero. The Howl project began in the same way: in 2002, the Allen Ginsberg estate approached the pair about making a documentary to mark 50 years of Howl. Ginsberg’s poem was written and first performed in 1955. Howl and Other Poems was published by City Lights Books in 1956. The book was put on trial – or, more precisely, publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was put on trial –for obscenity in San Francisco in 1957.
The resulting film – which missed all three possible anniversaries – evolved from a routine documentary idea into something else. The 1955 debut reading of the poem – in the Six Gallery, San Francisco – was reconstructed, with James Franco as Ginsberg reading his new text aloud and actors playing Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Peter Orlovsky et al hoisting their flagons aloft at key moments. A Life magazine interview was restaged, with Franco delivering the now bearded Ginsberg’s words – autobiographical background, the poem’s genesis – at the camera or some unknown journalist in New York in 1957, while over in San Francisco, a judge, lawyers and expert witnesses discuss the literary merits and/or obscenity of Howl within a deliberately dry and borderline absurd courtroom drama (the straight-faced, white-bread prosecutor: “What are angelheaded hipsters?”). Then, a fourth strand, which may be the most controversial, arguably even superfluous: the poem is illustrated via animation by Eric Drooker, who worked with Ginsberg on a book called Illuminated Poems. In the animated Howl, you see plenty of angels, hipsters, jazz, sex, the skyscrapers standing in the long streets (“Moloch!”), the highway across America, the western night …
James Franco came to the project via Gus Van Sant, who was onboard as executive producer. Van Sant had cast Franco in Milk, which partly drew on Epstein’s Harvey Milk doco. With Franco attached, the thing was becoming bankable. Franco set about teaching himself to reproduce Ginsberg’s fast, slightly anxious speech patterns and his physical mannerisms in both the nervous first reading and the more relaxed interview setting – and he does a pretty good job.
So, it can feel a little like an interactive educational resource – here’s some text, now some context, now some history, all fact-checked and as close as possible to how the actual moments looked – but another comparison might be a British TV drama called The Chatterley Affair (2006), which dramatised the 1960 obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and – how to put this delicately? – explored the book’s themes within a (fictional) relationship between two jurors. There is an earnestness to Howl, too – not a bad thing – in claiming the victory of the book over the censors and squares as historically important because the poetry itself, as the film tells us, was the result of Ginsberg overcoming his internal and external obstacles and censors (“The beginning of the fear for me is, what would my father think of something I would write?”). He resisted the asylum and enforced heterosexuality and the soul-deadening world of work. Now he’s another cultural hero – one whose story panned out more happily than that of Harvey Milk.
The film is relatively short at 1 hour, 20 minutes. Ginsberg singing “Father Death Blues” in his old age appears on both the DVD menu and over the closing credits. The first scene is that San Francisco venue on October 7, 1955. Imagine being in the crowd that heard this for the first time: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness …” When Ginsberg gets to the angelheaded hipsters contemplating jazz, Epstein and Friedman cut – a little obvious, this – to some jazz, and then the opening credits and some scene-setting: “In 1955, an unpublished 29-year-old poet presented his vision of the world as a poem in four parts.”
Things get more complex. As well as the four strands, there are flashbacks within the restaged interview: Ginsberg writing, Ginsberg in trouble with the law and being sent to the madhouse, where he meets Carl Solomon (“He was thinking about the void also”). The solemn David Straithairn as the prosecutor is light relief – “All these books are published in heaven. I don’t quite understand that but anyway … ” – while Mad Men’s Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is counsel for the defence, perhaps just for added period resonance when we get to that bit in the story when Ginsberg put on a suit and went to work in an advertising agency. In the animation, there are crowds of workers in formation on Madison Avenue, like Eliot’s “I had not thought death had undone so many …” while Moloch – modelled on the same in Metropolis – chews them up and spits them out.
In the courtroom scenes, there are expert witnesses for and experts against. Luther Nicholls (Alessandro Nivola), literary critic at the San Francisco Examiner is for: “I think it is a howl of pain.” Another expert, played loftily by Jeff Daniels, argues that Howl fails on form, as a weak imitation of the form of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Yes, such matters really were discussed in court. You could almost screen this to your high school English class except that the lines about being “fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and scream[ing] with joy” have not only stayed in but lead to Franco as Ginsberg telling us why it was important that he said joy and not pain.
You know what happened next: the book got off. Along the way, Howl becomes an unconventional Ginsberg biopic – which is a vast improvement over the conventional biopic. In its reworking or resetting of the text to say something bigger about the author, it actually resembles David Cronenberg’s imaginative, clammy Naked Lunch – although that was a relative downer where this is about, in the end, joy. Or at least self-acceptance. Once, he was in love with Jack Kerouac, as the gay man in love with the straight man – Kerouac helped him to break out of his body and confess “the secret tenderness of his soul”. That’s life experience as the shaping of the writer. By the time he has written and performed Howl, he has met Peter Orlovsky, and the film tells us they were together until the end. Along the way, the figure of Carl Solomon is made central again too (“I’m with you in Rockland”). Most forget that the poem’s full title is Howl for Carl Solomon. Of all the whatever-happened-to freeze frames at the end of Howl, the one telling us that Solomon lived to 64 might be among the happiest. But I was always fond of the bit about the guy “who jumped off Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer” – that was Tuli Kupferberg, later with the Fugs, and he only died last year, aged 86.
Last words, anyworld
In Slate this month, Bill Wyman – the critic not the Rolling Stone – coined the word “schlockumentary”, specifically to have a long-winded go at Martin Scorsese’s new George Harrison documentary Living in the Material World (plus, glacingly, Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam film PJ20): “They aren't real documentaries: There's never anything in them that any of the interested parties (stars, director, the producers, the studio) don't want in them — and in the end, they're being used to sell product.”
It’s that air of being authorised and approved, of accentuating the positive, of presenting the official version, of acting as the publicity arm of the artist and his or her estate. The Howl film mostly avoids this by becoming a different kind of movie, even though there is nothing in it that might potentially embarrass Ginsberg fans – like, say, his later association with Nambla.
Such schlockumentaries tend to take artists at their word and present a redemptive view of the relationship between art and life (making the likes of Walk the Line a dramatic cshlockumentary, and the proposed Elton John one possibly the same). The new William Burroughs doco A Man Within has aspects of this. It began as a project by art student Yony Leyser, but once Burroughs’ former secretary and literary executor, James Grauerholz, got wind of it, it became closer to an official project. Leyser got access to unseen home movies and celebrity friends and followers who were happy to say a few words about Burroughs and what he meant to them – Patti Smith, John Waters, Laurie Anderson, John Giorno, Iggy Pop, Victor Bockris, Genesis P-Orridge, Gus Van Sant, Peter Weller. Some of these voices do complicate the picture – P-Orridge saw Burroughs as inspirational but also registered the deep sadness and loneliness in him. But Waters retails the usual story that the 1950s were horribly conformist until the likes of Burroughs – and Ginsberg, and the rest – blew everything wide open (or was that the plot of Hairspray?). That’s to reduce Burroughs to just a player in social history. His personality and his writing – sarcastic, pessimistic, anarchic, occult, even extraterrestrial – was that much weirder and further out than the other anti-suburban, anti-conformist Beats. When Victor Bockris says that Burroughs “stood up for what he believed in”, it makes him sound like a politician. Burroughs doesn’t exactly fit the standard biopic model.
Punk rock pioneer? They try to pin that one on Burroughs too. But it doesn’t really stick. Iggy Pop: “I think he thought rock’n’roll was bullshit. Which it mostly is. But so are most novels.” Speaking of rock’n’roll bullshit, Sting is in one still photo and U2’s The Edge is in footage but Bono is absent (one of the most reliable schlockumentary tests is whether Bono makes an appearance talking about how much whoever-it-is meant to him).
Maybe Leyser is just focusing on the wrong Burroughs. I never liked the gun-love stuff – it has the air of Hunter S Thompson survivalism about it. I didn’t rate the painting – and if you look at the DVD extras, you get Wayne Propst deflating the art era in a sequence not included in the main film. Another extra gives you a 50th anniversary of Naked Lunch party in Chicago. It’s a little cringeworthy. Peter Weller reads and performs part of the novel; Bill Ayers – formerly of the Weather Underground and friend of Barack Obama – says that Naked Lunch “invites us to wake up, pay attention and do something”.
John Waters sees Burroughs lasting as a saint for outcasts and rebels – but there is no equivalent literary assessment. Mostly, A Man Within treats the writing as just an artefact of the more famous life. At least Howl gives us the text. A Man Within is one for the completists, but there are better places to start.
It has been reported that Grauerholz was keen on A Man Within partly because he felt he was unfairly treated in an earlier doco, Howard Brookner’s Burroughs (1983), in which it appeared he was competing with the author’s troubled and doomed son, Billy Burroughs, for the affections of the old man (watching the footage, I thought more of Mr Burns and Smithers).
You can find the Brookner doco on You Tube, split into eight parts. If you watch it via Dangerous Minds, you get it with the intro that the BBC put on in 1997 after Burroughs died – “a revolutionary both in his life and in his writing”. Ah, yes, the writing: Burroughs reading from the then-new The Place of Dead Roads and exploring the streets of St Louis, where he grew up, showing how the nostalgia and fantasy of the amazing late trilogy – Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, The Western Lands – connected with his memories. Of course, you get Burroughs alive and surprisingly open in interviews. You get his brother, Mortimer (not a big fan of Naked Lunch, it turns out). You get the close and comic relationship with Allen Ginsberg. You get versions of Patti Smith and John Giorno, 25 years younger than in A Man Within. You get the sad son Billy Burroughs and even some Brion Gysin. You get Grauerholz as an example of influence in that John Waters sense – a 14-year-old kid whose life was changed by William Burroughs. The writing and the life are well-integrated, and Burroughs features the A-team of those who knew him not the B-team.
Curse go back
For me, the most fascinating part of the Burroughs mythos was the early 60s era, working with Brion Gysin and Antony Balch on the dream machines, cut-ups and experimental films. Things like Towers Open Fire from 1963. The cut-up and looped film, the grey 60s London streets, the notion of their curses affecting the world, their anarchism – sonic warfare, hieroglyphs, dream machines – presented as though it was serious and secret research into unknown or magickal forces. This was the condensed vision, expanded in the disorientating, 18-minute-long The Cut Ups and the even longer Ghost at No 9, which have the same sense of Gysin and Burroughs engaged in something secretive and revolutionary (“guerrilla conditions”, terror plans, espionage language and phone booths). The colour Bill and Tony, from the early 1970s, is weirder and creepier, its identity switches and repeated phrases running like an excerpt from a cult indoctrination video, working on breaking down the subject’s defences. It gives you a strong sense of what he was up to in his fiction.
That was seen by few at the time, but more now than it’s all moved out of the underground video-swapping era and gone online (this ubu web page has a full selection; this piece at Bright Lights is a good overview of the experimental films). But in terms of the mainstream, I still remember the shock of sitting in a Washington DC movie theatre in about 1990 and seeing William S Burroughs turn up here (Drugstore Cowboy) …
Howl might be the closest thing so far to an Allen Ginsberg biopic but Ginsberg has been a character in other people’s stories. David Cross plays him – bearded, beatific – in Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan film I’m Not There. Tim Hickey played him, same era, in the Edie Sedgwick biopic Factory Girl (where Hayden Christensen was – unbelievably – a version of Bob Dylan). In films about political action in late 60s Chicago, he has been played by Hank Azaria and others, and in a recent movie about Neal Cassady – “secret hero” of Howl (poem and film) – by Yehuda Duenyas. There was also an appearance as Martin (played by Michael Zelniker) in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, where Kerouac was called Hank and the pair were just a couple of New York goofballs before Peter Weller’s Bill Lee headed into Interzone – actually, that movie had me wondering about a Paul and Jane Bowles biopic; in Naked Lunch, they were Tom and Joan Frost, played memorably by Ian Holm and Judy Davis.
There will be new versions of most of these guys next year when Walter Salles’ film of On the Road appears. If Naked Lunch, Howl and On the Road were the three Beat texts, who would have predicted that the least accessible – Naked Lunch – would be a movie first and the most accessible and best-known, On the Road, would go last? For whatever reason, there have been delays – Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights back in 1979, although as far back as 1957, Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando, suggesting that the pair star in their own version, “with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak”. Brando never answered.
Where Cronenberg’s hallucinatory and heavily metaphorical treatment of Naked Lunch was less about fidelity than interpretation, and only partly for artistic reasons (Cronenberg famously said that if he had filmed the book faithfully, it would have cost $400-$500 million and been banned everywhere), Salles seems to be about fidelity – remember, he made the not dissimilar Motorcycle Diaries, where it was the journey of discovery, self-awareness, politicisation. Also, it appears that the pseudonyms are staying, so to your movie Kerouacs you can add Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, to your movie Ginsbergs you can add Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx, and to your movie Burroughs you can soon add Viggo Mortensen – now there’s good casting -- as Old Bull Lee.
By the way, I’m pretty sure it’s this version of “Father Death Blues”.