Academy Award-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are responsible for some of the most respected documentaries dealing with gay life in America.
Among the highlights:
— The Times of Harvey Milk (directed by Epstein solo), an incredibly sobering look at the political career of the titular San Francisco city councilmember who was gunned down, along with mayor George Moscone, by fellow councilmember Dan White. Milk’s trailblazing legacy as an openly gay politician in the ’70s was more recently dramatized by Gus Van Sant in the Sean Penn-starring biopic Milk.
— Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, a kaleidoscopic look at the many faces of AIDS as framed by the unveiling of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
— The Celluloid Closet, a documentary adaptation of Vito Russo’s comprehensive examination of how homosexuality was portrayed in Hollywood filmmaking from the very beginning (literally, as one of the earliest clips is also literally one of the earliest pieces of moving film ever), tracing the ebb and flow between increasing candor and the backlash of homophobia.
— Paragraph 175, a first-person account of Nazi persecution of gays under the German penal code.
With their new movie Howl, based on Allen Ginsberg’s celebrated (and demonized) epic beat poem of the same title, Epstein and Friedman have taken their cinema to a previously unexplored territory.
“This is our first scripted narrative,” Friedman told me two weeks ago when he and Epstein were in town for the premiere of Howl at the Walker Art Center. Friedman’s point was that though the format may be somewhat different, he still sees a crucial through line between his previous films and this new one. “We think of our documentaries as narrative films.”
Howl stars current pin-up dilettante extraordinaire James Franco as a fresh, young Ginsberg, who Epstein and Friedman showcase in a time-fractured mélange of first-person interviews, heated café slams, hazy flashbacks and animated digressions. All of which are underpinned with excerpts from the court battle that decided whether or not Ginsberg’s poem would be deemed obscene and thereby subject to censorship.
“We were looking for a form that would be different and fresh and challenging and surprising, because the poem is so uncompromisingly groundbreaking,” Friedman said, and indeed, the format pushes to obliterate the lockstep chronology that afflicts so many other biopics. The open-faced sandwich approach they apply makes the film appear much fleeter and freer than the likes of Capote or Ray, to say nothing of Van Sant’s respectable but less emotionally satisfying version of the Harvey Milk story.
Friedman admitted that shooting a “scripted narrative feature” required a brisker touch, which may partially account for Howl‘s nimble temporal jumps.
“The pace is much faster, the crew is much larger, but I think our documentary background prepared us in ways we didn’t realize. On set, we were very fast. We sort of were able to see that we’d gotten what we needed and move on,” Friedman said.
Holding the film together, though, is Franco’s performance as Ginsberg, which transcends the trap of mere impersonation and approaches something much closer to embodiment. Friedman said Franco carefully studied interviews of Ginsberg to achieve a verisimilitude, but it’s to both Franco and Epstein-Friedman’s credit that Franco doesn’t simply wear Ginsberg as a costume. Franco is much cannier about portraying him as a carnal but vaguely hermetic personality. He speaks from his wrists, circumnavigates his points and often appears to lose focus … until he’s required to deliver the words of his poem, at which point the intensity flicks on like a switch.
While the viewer’s mileage may vary based on how literally they prefer to interpret Ginsberg’s words and how open they are to seeing them literalized in pseudo-Fantasia form, there’s no doubt that with Howl, Epstein and Friedman seem fearless casting out in new directions. Appropriately, Friedman suggested they were looking at a few options for further work in the field of scripted drama.
Eric Henderson is a web producer and film blogger for WCCO.COM.