Yes, you read that correctly. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl has been made into a movie.
Along with On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Howl stands as one of the greatest works of the 1950s Beat Generation. It features the same sort of stream of consciousness writing and themes (drugs, sexuality, jazz, alcohol) and beautiful hallucinatory imagery as On the Road does. There’s one particular reading by Ginsberg of Howl that is especially noteworthy, namely that in the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. Here, a lot of Beat poets and writers were gathered, and the evening has been memorialized by Kerouac in On the Road.
Here’s the famous opening fragment (entire poem here):
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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,
The beatniks are frequently seen as the proto-hippies, setting the stage for the 1960s countercultural revolution with their scene and publications in the decade before. While any such historical causation suffers from being too simple, it is kinda true that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters (the original hippies) later on thrived in the bohemian atmosphere in the San Francisco area created by the beat poets, and in their liberating, drug-fueled self-expression followed in their footsteps. Also, Allen Ginsberg (too old to be a baby boomer, like the hippies were) continued to hang out with Kesey and the Pranksters, and exerted a great influence on them (Kerouac rejected the hippies, however). This cross pollution is most evident in the character of Neal Cassady, who was a model for Dean Moriarty in On the Road, had a (sexual) relationship with Ginsberg, and was the one who drove the original Prankster bus from California to New York.
Anyway – pardon the digression, I love this stuff and it was great for me to visit the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco a few years ago, where all of this pretty much started – now Howl has been made into a movie. Definitively looking forward to it!
Howl may be the unlikeliest movie ever to come out of Sundance with national distribution: a translation of a poem—the substance, spirit, and cultural heft of a poem—into film.
The poem is Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”—written in 1955, published in ’57—and it’s probably hard for anyone born long after those years to grasp just what a cataclysmic impact that poem made (or perhaps any poem could make) not just on the literary world but on the broader society and culture.
Even many of those who have never read the whole poem know its white-heat opening lines: “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. …”
It was an anguished protest, literally a howl, against the era’s soul-crushing conformism and a hymn to the holiness of everything about the human body and mind, splashed in verse that breaks free from standard meter but speaks instead in the long lines and jangling rhythm of natural breath and conversation, a style inspired by the expressive poets who went ignored in the ivory towers of high modernism—Whitman, Blake, Rimbaud*—fused with the urban syncopation of the bebop jazz that Ginsberg and his pal, Jack Kerouac, went to hear in the clubs of Harlem while they were students at Columbia in the mid-1940s.
Howl the movie doesn’t capture this entire milieu. Probably no 90-minute movie, shot in 14 days on a shoestring budget, could. But, as far as the film reaches, it’s an evocative, at times compelling portrait of an era and of the radical changes that some of the era’s spokesmen—Ginsberg included—foresaw, and to some degree galvanized.
Ginsberg gave his first reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in the North Beach district of San Francisco the night of Oct. 7, 1955, with what he later described as “a strange, ecstatic intensity”—his friend and literary soul mate, Jack Kerouac, who was passing around the jugs of wine, would refer to the event as that “mad night”—and the film re-creates it with a properly hushed thrill. James Franco, as Ginsberg, is stunningly spot-on. Not only does he look quite a bit like the young Ginsberg (before he went bald and grew the shaman’s beard), but he has his clipped mannerisms down perfectly and, more remarkable still, he reads poetry like a poet (something few actors do at all successfully), so much so that I wish the filmmakers would have just shown Franco reading during those scenes and not cut away now and then to a cartoon dramatization of the poem; the animation is too literal and distracts from Ginsberg’s language. (For more on the re-enactment of the reading, click here. For more on the animation, click here.) In real life, the reading caused a sensation—the image of the San Francisco Renaissance, a.k.a. the Beat movement, was pretty much created on the spot, and this part of the film lets you see why.