Visualizing Madness: The Art of “Howl”

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On a hot August night on the Lower East Side in 1988, poet Allen Ginsberg stepped out of a cab and into a riot. Tensions simmering between police and squatters in Tompkins Square Park had been brought to a boil by a curfew. The author of “Howl” — an epic lament for the “best minds” of the poet’s generation — was no stranger to street protest. But after being away from New York for the summer, teaching poetry in Colorado, he needed to get up to speed on neighborhood politics fast.

Thankfully, a young painter and graphic novelist named Eric Drooker recognized the 62-year-old poet and offered to clue him in. Drooker’s passionate street art was wheat-pasted all over the East Village. He told the poet about the latest developments in the struggle between local bohemians and the forces of gentrification while the two dodged cops on horseback.

Drooker street art

"People vs. Military Industry" (1991)

Ginsberg crossed Drooker’s path again a year later and told him he’d been collecting his art by peeling it from walls and lampposts. These scratch-board tableaux captured the humanity and chutzpah of the Lower East Side in such vivid detail, the poet observed, “that the authoritarian reality horror of our contemporary dog-eat-dog Malthusian technoeconomic class war became immediately visible.” Ginsberg compared the young artist to Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, whose graphic novels cast light on the injustices of their own era. In 1995, Drooker and Ginsberg collaborated on a selection of the poet’s work called Illuminated Poems, and they looked forward to doing more shared projects together. But a couple of years later, Ginsberg was diagnosed with liver cancer, and died shortly thereafter.

Now, more than a decade after that, Drooker’s most ambitious contribution to the poet’s legacy is going to be seen by the public for the first time. This weekend, Howl — a feature film directed by the Oscar-winning documentary team Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman — will debut in New York, San Francisco, and Berkeley, with more openings to follow in other cities. Starring actor James Franco in a pitch-perfect, nearly uncanny portrayal of the young poet, the film’s live-action sequences focus mainly on the poem’s legendary first reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and the battle with censorious authorities over whether “Howl” should be banned as obscene literature — or whether it was literature at all. (The trial ended with the judge finding the poem not obscene, a landmark decision that made Ginsberg and the Beat Generation famous.)

One of the most creative things about the film is its use of digital animation, based on Drooker’s art, to visually represent the surreal, incantatory language of the poem. These images have been collected in Drooker’s latest book, Howl: A Graphic Novel. The interview that follows is the artist’s first in-depth Q&A about his experiences working on the film.

As a former teaching assistant of the poet’s, I’ve seen Howl-the-movie twice — once at a private screening and once at home. Despite the fact that I’ve been immersed in the language of the poem for most of my adult life, and I was skeptical about the directors’ use of animation, both times I saw the film, I was moved to tears. Drooker and a team of animators have managed to pull off something I would not have thought possible: illuminating the poem’s astonishingly fresh and expressive language without vulgarizing it, in images that have their own visionary intensity.

The most compelling passages of Howl — both the poem and the film — depict Moloch, an ancient beast-god appeased by human sacrifice, which Ginsberg employed as an icon of the greed and soul-crushing forces at work in a militarized capitalist society. For the poet, however, Moloch also represented something much more personal. Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, was schizophrenic, and his upbringing was haunted by her paranoid delusions, rages, and hallucinations — a wrenching tale told at length in a poem called “Kaddish.”

When he was still just a teenager, the young Ginsberg was asked to sign the papers authorizing his mother’s lobotomy, a discredited form of psychosurgery that severed the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain, often performed with the equivalent of an ice-pick in a doctor’s office. (By the mid-1950s, tens of thousands of these operations had been performed in the U.S. alone.) Naomi’s operation was botched, and she died, years later, of a cerebral hemorrhage in a hellhole of a mental asylum called Pilgrim State Hospital. For Ginsberg, who later spent several months in an asylum himself — where he met a man called Carl Solomon, to whom “Howl” was dedicated — Moloch was a symbol of the forces that drove his mother mad.

Moloch

Moloch

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!

Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and choke in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!

Visually recreating the poem’s flashing chains of images was not easy. (As Drooker explains here, there were times that he would joke to Epstein and Friedman, “Why don’t we animate Dante’s Inferno while we’re at it?”) But Drooker is happy with the end result, boosted by Franco’s sublime performance. Now 51, the painter and graphic novelist lives in Berkeley. His art is regularly featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other publications.

Eric Drooker in his studio, 2010

Eric Drooker in his Berkeley studio, 2010

Silberman:  What was the Lower East Side like when you were growing up?

Drooker:  It was very different from how it is now. It was clearly a working-class, immigrant neighborhood. While it was still heavily Jewish, it was no longer the Jewish ghetto it had been at the turn of the century. By the ’60s it had also become a Puerto Rican, Polish, and Chinese neighborhood. It was the most multicultural neighborhood in the United States, if not on the planet. To this day, dozens of languages are spoken there: Greek, Japanese, Korean, Yiddish, Spanish, and Cantonese.

In a way, feeling overwhelmed by all of those languages may have pushed me in the direction of visual art. I felt overwhelmed by words; even English was difficult for me as a kid. It took me a long time to learn to read. Words are not my native tongue, but pictures are.

Silberman: When did you become aware that this well-known poet named Allen Ginsberg lived in the neighborhood?

Drooker: I was 9 years old. My mother pointed Allen out to me when some guy with a big beard and horn-rimmed glasses sat down in front of us on the crosstown bus. There were lots of guys with beards around — this was the Lower East Side! — but my mother whispered in my ear, “That man is a famous poet. ” I didn’t know what to make of that. What does a “famous poet” do all day — sit around writing poems? But he was on my radar from then on.

Then I noticed that my parents had a LP of Allen reading “Kaddish” with that really striking photo that Richard Avedon took of him. I put it on the phonograph right away, thinking it was going to be something really far out, freakier than Zappa and Captain Beefheart. But then it was just some guy talking on both sides of the record. He sounded like he could be in my family, with this world-weary East Coast Jewish intellectual accent. I didn’t bother to listen to it all the way through, but I kept coming back to it. Every six months, I would listen to it again because there was something about it that seemed worthy of investigation. And the cover photo was so amazing. By the time I was 14, I had listened to it all, and by then I was hooked — particularly at the end when he gets into that rhythmic thing with crows hovering above his mother’s grave going, “Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord Lord Lord.” I thought, “This is good shit.”

From Howl

From "Howl: A Graphic Novel"

So I was aware of Allen in high school. I liked that he looked so weird. He was ubiquitous in the culture, particularly that Fred McDarrah photo of him wearing the Uncle Sam hat — like Walt Whitman on acid. That photo was so amazing I had a postcard of it tacked up on the wall next to my bed by the time I was 15, even though I wasn’t reading Ginsberg’s work. Even just the expression on his face seemed significant to me. Nobody else looked that off the hook. There are always people trying to do it — David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Lady Gaga — but it’s obviously contrived. They’re trying too hard. With Allen you could tell right away: This is real. This is just the way the guy is. For whatever reason, he decided early on, fuck it, I’m going to proceed as if I can get away with it, and maybe they won’t lynch me.

Silberman: When did you start to think of yourself as an artist?

Drooker: I had picked up a crayon by the time I was two or three. I was drawing pictures before I knew how to read and write. It’s a natural human activity — kids don’t need to be taught to draw. They like the colors and it’s part of their emotional palette. By the time most of us are 10, we drop it, because we feel like we suck or we don’t have parents or teachers who encourage us.

Drooker at work in his studio

Drooker at work

Silberman: How did you get involved in the film?

Drooker: When I was in my 20s, I got friendly with a local guy named Tuli Kupferberg, who was one of the founders of the Fugs. Like Allen, he was just some old Jewish guy schlepping around the neighborhood. But he still had this real youthful stride as he walked around the Lower East Side, which is where he was born. We would spend hours just talking. Tuli was born on the lower Lower East Side, right next to the Williamsburg Bridge. But by the time Tuli was in his 20s, he got very lonely and depressed, and he tried to commit suicide by jumping off the Manhattan Bridge. Allen wrote about this in “Howl,” though he changed it to the Brooklyn Bridge because it sounded more poetic.

…who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways and firetrucks, not even one free beer…

So, 50 years after the poem is published, Ginsberg’s secretary Bob Rosenthal contacts Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman to direct a documentary about “Howl.” They start compiling a list of who they want to interview — but almost everybody on the list is dead, including Allen. Tuli was on the list and he was in his 80s.  Even before they know what angle they’re going to take with their documentary, they come to New York, and do a nice long interview with Tuli in his loft on 6th Avenue. And while they’re there, Tuli says, “By the way, have you ever seen this book before?” It’s Illuminated Poems — the book I did with Allen, which was one of the last projects Allen worked on before he died. What jumped out at them was, here were visuals to go with Allen’s poetry.

GInsberg and Drooker, 1996

Ginsberg and Drooker, 1996 (Photo by Denise Kiem)

So they emailed me, but I didn’t even have the courtesy to respond, because people are always emailing me: “I just wrote a script, I just wrote a graphic novel, I just recorded a CD with my punk band, but I need an artist.” Every day, I’m besieged by these emails. So I’ve learned over the years — life is too short. I don’t even reply unless it’s someone I’ve heard of, they’re offering money, or I really dig their politics. So I didn’t respond. But then the poet Elliot Katz, a good friend of both mine and Allen’s, asked me, “Did you hear from Rob Epstein, the filmmaker?” And he said, “Eric, you should at least write back to these guys. They did The Times of Harvey Milk.” And that was really excellent. So I finally answered the email.

The next thing I know, Epstein and Friedman are walking into this room, and I show them Flood and Blood Song, two of my graphic novels. To the eyes of a filmmaker, these books look like storyboards. The next thing I know, Epstein is calling me back and asking sort of nervously, “Would it be OK if we used some of your images, and maybe even animated them a little?”

Now that shopping malls around the country are showing documentaries, a lot of documentaries have maybe three or four minutes of animation in them, just to break up the talking heads a bit and be a little artistic — usually not to very good effect. I was thinking that’s what Epstein and Friedman had in mind.  But suddenly they’re suggesting that we animate the entire poem! So I said to them, “That’s really ambitious. Animation is an extremely tedious art form, and this is a long poem.” And they said, “We know, we know — but let’s say we hired a whole team of animators to bring your pictures to life, would you be open to the idea?” And I said, “I think you guys are high on crack for even suggesting such a thing.”  But what got to me was the fact that Tuli — one of the characters right smack in the middle of the poem — was the connection between me and the filmmakers, 50 years after the poem was written. It was nearly mystical.

I cried when Tuli died. He was the closest thing that I ever had to having a rabbi. He would’ve laughed his ass off if he heard that. But Tuli was right there in the neighborhood. I could always call him up and go to his place and seek his advice about heavy things like monogamy — is it possible over the long haul? And he would give me an honest opinion. Now it can be told that the central character in the animation was really based on Tuli — Tuli in his 20s, when he jumped off the bridge.

Silberman: So you agreed to do the film.

Drooker: Yes. I started feeding them concept art, which was like storyboards, but then they needed hundreds of key frames from me, basically finished art that indicates the color palette and overall look of everything. So you’re showing them the level of detail, the texture, the lighting, the mood — the cinematography of the film.

When I realized that the animation studio was going to be using the kind of computer-generated 3D software that Pixar uses, I was nervous that everything was going to look so digital. That’s fine for Toy Story — fun for the whole family — but if it’s trying to be some inner-city tenement from the ’50s… I ended up saying hundreds of times, “Make everything really gritty. Smoke, mist, haze — more TV antennas, more texture, more fog, more filth, more chimneys, more smokestacks, more rust! Is there a digital filter that can make everything look really fucked up?”

I started looking at Cézanne paintings where the surface of everything was fractured and broken. And it just so happened that Allen himself really dug Cézanne.

Silberman: Right. He would get high, go to museums, and look at Cézanne paintings for what he called “eyeball kicks.”

Drooker: Yes. I never understood exactly what the Ginsberg/Cézanne connection was until I was reading a book called Howl: The Poem That Changed America. And one of the essays in that book, by Lewis Hyde, talks about the fact that Cézanne fracturing the picture plane influenced Allen’s use of grammar and syntax in “Howl.”

Silberman: “The crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox.” If you put it under a microscope, what’s he even talking about? Yet it makes perfect intuitive sense.

Drooker: If you called Allen at his place on 12th street, his answering machine would go, “Not here now, often not available till noon, if you care to leave message…”

Silberman: Yes, that’s funny. You can tell who knew Allen personally because they slip into that hyper-compressed syntax. It’s like a virus.

Drooker: I remember hearing Allen talking about how he was in that tradition of Gertrude Stein and all those modernists who were playing around with grammar and syntax to remind you that art isn’t just a simulation of reality. Bertolt Brecht did this too — reminding you that you’re watching a play rather than allowing you to be seduced into the drama, having this vicarious thrill. Modernists were no longer concerned with having art be merely beautiful. They wanted to shock people out of their bourgeois complacency.

From Howl

Silberman: What’s your favorite moment in the film?

Drooker: I like the moment where we zoom into James Franco’s face, typing at his Underwood typewriter, and the words morph into musical notes, and then they morph into saxophone player in an urban landscape — and that’s how we enter the animated world. I thought that was a really powerful moment. Ginsberg was so influenced by bebop. He was very consciously trying to write something that would have the rhythm of bebop. He was just a Jewish guy in horn-rimmed glasses at a typewriter — but he was still wailing away. So I was trying to communicate that.

There are many moments where James Franco, all by himself, is very powerful. There’s a moment where the interviewer is talking to him about how he met Carl Solomon — the guy “Howl” is dedicated to — in the mental hospital, and then the interviewer says, “And your mother was in the mental hospital too, right?” And Franco just doesn’t say anything. Silence. It’s very powerful.

I kept stressing to the directors how guilty Allen felt about his mother’s death. I wrote a whole letter to James Franco before he started filming. Allen could be funny and all, but there was always an element of tragedy in his face and the way he carried himself. Much of his humor was informed by tragedy. I tried to articulate this to Franco, that the way of expressing this would be to have it in Allen’s posture — as if he was carrying the whole world on his shoulders, this heavy burden, this guilt about signing the papers to have his mother lobotomized. I don’t think he ever forgave himself. He always had this heartbroken expression on his face.

Silberman: What was the hardest thing about trying to do justice to the poem?

Drooker: My running gag, when I felt overwhelmed by how much work the animation required, was “Why don’t we animate Dante’s Inferno while we’re at it?” But the joke was on me, because a couple months into it, it dawned on me that Dante’s Inferno would have been easier to animate than “Howl,” because at least the Inferno had a linear narrative. It’s horrifying and there’s all of this pathos, but there’s a linear narrative about Virgil leading Dante on a tour of the nine circles of Hell.

It was challenging to come up with imagery that would be somehow equivalent to the poem. One of the methods I used to psych myself up was something Allen did when he started writing “Howl.” Whenever I feel nervous or get stage fright, I tell myself, “Don’t worry — you can’t fuck up because you’re already fucked up. Everything is already broken. We’ve already lost. They’ve already ruined my life. It’s hopeless.”

That was the common denominator between Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. That’s why they called themselves beat. “Everything is already so horrifying, I really have nothing to lose. So I might as well say what’s on my mind.”

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