Q + A with Jeffrey Friedman by Discosalt
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, Where are We?, The Celluloid Closet and Paragraph 175) collaborated to create their cinematic take on Allen Ginsberg’s famously confessional, provocative poem in their most recent film, Howl. James Franco stars as the young Allen Ginsberg — poet, counter-culture adventurer, and chronicler of the Beat Generation — as he recollects road trips, and love affairs in his search for personal liberation. The result is a immensely engaging and visually stunning film that is part Beat documentary, part courtroom drama, and part hipster Fantasia meets Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Discosalt spoke with independent filmmaker /director Jeffrey Friedman about making the film, growing up in a Bohemian, Upper West Side, left-wing intellectual family, meeting Ginsberg for the first time, and both the personal and cultural impact of the poem.
DISCOSALT: When did you first discover the poem and what kind of impact did it have on you ?
JEFFREY FRIEDMAN: I read it in high school. I went to a lefty-progressive high school in lower Manhattan, and I spent most of my junior year cutting classes and getting high in the park on the corner or tripping on acid in Central Park. Howl was an anthem of our counter-culture rebellion, passed to me by radical seniors who talked about “Moloch” when referring to “the Man.” I have no idea what I made of the poem, except I knew it was cool, and I knew it was speaking uncompromising and mind-dazzling truth. (Somehow I missed all the queer stuff at that age—amazing what the mind is capable of!)
I was aware of Ginsberg himself, of course: he was a kind of far-off guru figure to me. I encountered him once in person. I was dating a young teenage girl, I was very young myself, maybe 16, bursting at the seams, and my girlfriend came from an esteemed off-off-Broadway theater family. She took me backstage before a performance of Paradise Now, an event featuring Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s troupe of naked or near-naked actors—collectively known as The Living Theater—tripping and high and (as I recall it) running through the audience primally screaming. We joined the cast as they gathered to prepare backstage in a large circle meditating and chanting, led by big-bearded Allen in white Indian attire, Ommmming and chanting and droning his squeezebox. Allen too seemed to be bursting with life. It is startling to think of Allen as the slim, attractive, charismatic young man of 29 who produced “Howl” and hurled it into the world as “an emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in U.S. consciousness.” He seemed to embody youthful rebellion infused with intellectual rigor, social consciousness, and a loving generosity of spirit—all qualities we worked on with James to capture in his character.
D: What sparked you to revisit the poem and make this film together?
JF: Howl spoke eloquently and passionately about what Allen saw as the dehumanizing militarization of the culture, the rape of the planet, the colonization of our minds by corporate advertising, and the marginalization of dissidence by the psychiatric establishment—among many other themes! Allen responded with “angelic bombs” of verse, joyfully celebrating this precious world into which we have been briefly brought to consciousness, insisting that “everything is holy.”
This time rereading it in conceptualizing the film, I got the queer stuff. (Duh.) Allen’s frank discussion of sexuality—including his own queerness—was revolutionary in 1955 and is still startling today. All the counter-culture movements from the 1960s onwards were foreshadowed in “Howl.”
The counter-culture was my culture. I grew up in a Bohemian upper west side left-wing intellectual family. My father had started a writer’s workshop in Chelsea in the early 1950s, which evolved into a literary magazine called Venture that he edited and published from the time I was 3 until I was 9. (The last issue featured what turned out to be the last interview given by Albert Camus before his untimely death.) My brothers and I lived uptown with my mother, who took classes at Columbia and acted in off-off-Broadway productions, notably at Ellen Stewart’s La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. Weekends my parents ran the coat-check concession at the Village Gate on Bleecker Street, and I would go down there and hear jazz, and especially the new musical revue O, Oysters! (which would evolve into the off-Broadway hit Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.) There was a diva in that show named Elly Stone who transported me to dizzy heights every time she sang a song translated as Carousel (“We’re on a carousel! / A crazy carousel! / And now we go around / Again we go around / And now we spin around / We’re high above the ground / And down again around! / And up again around! / So high above the ground / We feel we’ve got to yell! / We’re on a carousel! / A crazy carousel!…”)
So somehow it made sense to me when Rob and I found ourselves 40+ years later in the SoHo loft of Tuli Kupferberg. Tuli was 82—the age my father would have been if he had lived another 13 years, and, in his own way, as radical. His politics and my father’s would have been pretty close; I suspect it took my father a little longer to get over his romanticized vision of the Soviet Union, but maybe I think that just because I’m his son and I know about this soft spot. Certainy Tuli embraced the romance of extroverted sexuality as a political tactic in a way my Pop wouldn’t have been altogether comfortable with.
Tuli’s loft was an impressive life-sized maze of makeshift wooden bookshelves, crammed to bursting with books and manuscripts and vinyl records. (Somewhat randomly, Tuli’s friend Thelma Blitz was there, a kindred spirit who had translated the liner notes of Infiniment, a newly released Jacques Brel box set.) Tuli had been mentioned in Howl as one “who jumped off the 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.” Tuli later become a founding member of The Fugs, a radical rock band featuring poet Ed Sanders. (I read in Tuli’s recent obit that the name of the band was derived from Norman Mailer’s euphemistic spelling of “fuck” in his novel The Naked and the Dead. I saw them perform live once, possibly in Tompkins Square Park, singing their country-rock ballad “I Feel Like Homemade Shit.”) We videotaped Tuli as part of our research for HOWL. He read for us the piece he had written, at Allen’s request, about Tuli’s suicide attempt, which Allen included in the annotated edition of the poem. Tuli also entertained us with his song Go Fuck Yourself With Your Atom Bomb—inspired by a line from Ginsberg’s poem America. (A lot of this stuff will be on the DVD.)
Tuli also introduced us to the work of Eric Drooker, whose New Yorker covers we were familiar with, and whose graphic novels Flood! And Blood Song are wordless poems themselves. Tuli showed us a copy of Illuminated Poems, a Ginsberg-Drooker collaboration featuring Allen’s poems and Eric’s artwork. As Rob and I leaned over the book and turned the pages and came upon a section of Howl, a sudden lightbulb switched on over our heads.
What was the question?
D: Did filming this movie give either of you a better, changed or different understanding of the poem itself?
JF: Absolutely, every day. I’m still discovering new things in the poem. (As in life, thankfully!)
I grew up on the verse of Dr. Seuss (And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street) and A.A. Milne (“Christopher Robin had wheezles and sneezles, they bundled him into his bed. They gave him what goes with a cold in the nose, and some more for a cold in the head….”) and could recite Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky by heart. I discovered the magic of Shakespeare when I was nine, acting in a children’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But poetry wasn’t my first language; I was far more comfortable with prose. As a teenager I was reading a lot of Zen by way of Alan Watts, and some of the first poems to speak to me deeply were Zen haiku (“Old pond / frog jumps in / splash!” – Basho).
Allen’s Howl seemed to bridge the gap for me between prose and poetry—he was able to play in both worlds, and to find ways of using the energy generated from this back-and-forth to create sparks of feeling and insight. As the language has become more familiar, I’m able to lose myself in the images, meanings have blossomed and become richer. Phrases from the poem float through my consciousness like “winter midnight streetlight smalltown rain.”
D: Why did you choose to make the film focused on the poem and not film a more traditional biopic on Allen Ginsberg’s life?
JF: That felt too boring and predictable. The poem Howl was—and still is— startling, fresh and liberating: the way it mixes language sacred and profane, the mashup of sexuality and politics and visionary prophecy—how could we approach this with a conventional treatment? It wouldn’t feel right. The poem challenged us to find an audacious approach in the filmmaking. We chose to mix a variety of cinematic styles to build a narrative that would feed into and branch out of the poem itself.
D: There is a line in the film:“You can’t translate a poem into prose”. But the film attempts to translate, although abstractly, the visual elements of the poem through animation. Were you at all conscious or worried that this choice might receive criticism or detract from an individuals personal experience with the poem?
JF: It’s weird how many people jump on that quote from the trial and try to corner us with it. Honestly, it seems like apples and oranges: we’re not “translating” the poem, we’re interpreting it, or better, adapting it, as we might adapt a novel. In any film adaptation, the filmmakers must make specific concrete choices about events, characters, ambience—everything, really, that readers of a book (or poem) construct in their minds. When we discovered Illuminated Poems, the book that Ginsberg had published in collaboration with artist Eric Drooker, we realized that Allen himself was confident enough in the power of his words that they would only be enhanced by Eric’s striking images. Our concept with Eric was to imagine a dream ride through the poet’s imagination. Obviously, this is our imagined trip, no one else’s. But we wanted to create a cinematic experience, using words and music and images, and invite the audience to drift along with the music of the imagery and experience the poetry in a new and different way. We wanted to offer this as a way to experience the poem from the inside, as it were. Our goal was to view the poem from a multitude of angles: from the perspective of the poet, struggling to make sense of his life by transforming it into art (the “lost” interview); from that of his intended hipster audience (the first presentation of the poem as spoken-word performance in 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco); as well as from that of the Establishment (the obscenity trial, where the poetry is parsed as evidence in a San Francisco courtroom).
D: The film looks at three different aspects of the poem which are all separated stylistically. What prompted your decision to break the film down this way and which sequences did you film first?
JF: In the re-created interview with Allen (played by James Franco), we wanted to evoke the sense of intimacy and honesty we try for in our documentary interviews. Our models were traditional documentary films from the last half-century, and specifically Portrait of Jason, by Beat filmmaker Shirley Clarke. The framing of these scenes was inspired by the photographs of Ginsberg and his contemporary Robert Frank. These photos were also inspirations for the flashback sequences of scenes from Allen’s earlier life that fed into the writing of HOWL, as was Frank’s invaluable Beat film Pull My Daisy. We were also inspired by jazz—and the free-form jazz-like structure of the Frank film—to use improvisation as a technique in creating the flashbacks. The obscenity trial represented for us the world in which the poem was born, and how that world responded and tried to make sense of it. This was the conformist, conservative world of the 1950s, and we chose to film it in the style of a traditional courtroom drama.
We shot the film in 14 days in New York City in April, 2009. The shooting order is a blur.
D: Is the poem still relevant or shocking today? What do you think is the poems legacy?
JF: It is still relevant (and shocking) to me. We wanted to introduce the poem and Allen to a new generation, and it seems to us they are responding eagerly. But our film is out there, as is the poem—in its original City Lights collection, as well as a gorgeous new HarperCollins graphic edition featuring Eric Drooker’s artwork from the film—and it’s now up to the audience, and the reader, to experience, interpret and re-imagine.
Howl is currently playing in theaters. Check www.howlthemovie.com for locations near you.