“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” reads the famous first line of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
The 1955 stream-of-consciousness poem has now landed a lead role in its own film.
“Howl,” a “poem pic” starring James Franco (“Pineapple Express,” “Milk”) as onetime Boulder resident Ginsberg, takes viewers for an “entertaining ride,” said Oscar-winning documentary director Rob Epstein.
What: Colorado premiere of “Howl”
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St.
Etc. CU’s International Film Series also screens “Howl” on Oct. 21 and 22
In a fresh and unique form, directors Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman laced together a three-part experience about a poem that has been construed as one big run-on sentence.
The Boulder Theater hosts the Colorado premiere of “Howl” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, an event hosted by Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which Ginsberg co-founded. (The film also screens Oct. 21 and 22 at the University of Colorado’s International Film Series.)
The controversial poem drew national attention when San Francisco’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti published “Howl and Other Poems.” Police seized copies of the book and the publisher was arrested and put on trial for obscenity charges in 1957.
The three-part poem takes readers on a graphic ride of Ginsberg’s life of homosexuality, drugs, insane asylums and jazz.
The innovative film gives viewers a journey through the trial via Franco’s stunning portrayal of the poet, interspersed with an astonishing animated sequence of “Howl” imagery to create a cinematic experience of the poem.
“It was a real challenge because the poem itself had so much life and power,” Friedman said. “It’s still very startling to read — even today, when nothing shocks us. The things he’s talking about in the contexts of poetry — there’s something very astonishing about it. So we were challenged to come up with some original form that we thought would be suitable.”
Many critics say the poem was an inspiration for the subculture of the 1960s and has its place in modern society.
“The poem is still relevant,” Epstein said. “It speaks of so many themes that we still debate in our society today.”
Epstein said the directors put focus into capturing the context of time in the film.
“The trial shows how people received the poem in the 1950s and what the cultural temperament was at that point,” Epstein said. “We felt like it was really rich material and the actual dialogue of the trial helps set that up.”
The animated sequence, by graphic novelist and illustrator Eric Drooker, features imagery such as a forest of penises and books morphing into “angelic bombs.” Drooker collaborated with Ginsberg for the poet’s 1996 book, “Illuminated Poems.”
Epstein said the film shouldn’t intimidate those who don’t read poetry.
“I’ll use myself as a prime example,” Epstein said. “I consider myself completely ignorant with poetry so I think it was important for us to present the film as both intellectually challenging and very accessible.”
Friedman said that since the directors were given the poem by Ginsberg’s estate, they wanted to pay homage to the epic.
“We wanted to create a way to understand it, explain it and honor it,” Friedman said. “We wanted to pass it on to a younger generation. We wanted to make it immediate and exciting.”
Friedman and Epstein, who directed such documentaries as “The Times of Harvey Milk” and “The Celluloid Closet,” said they were influenced by the counterculture of the Beat generation’s works — just as many in Boulder have been.
“Ginsberg asked the question, ‘Where is the difference between your soul and the soul of the nation?'” said Lisa Birman, director of the Kerouac School’s Summer Writing Program .”And he answered that question through his poetry and his activism. I think we can call on poets and activists to answer that same question today.”