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Animating "Howl"

I first met painter and graphic novelist Eric Drooker when we were both impressionable teens at a co-ed Quaker summer camp in Vermont under the sway of left-wing influences.  I have followed his trajectory from protest poster artist on the streets of Lower Manhattan, to freelance illustrator for The Nation, The New York Times, and Newsweek. Over the years, Drooker created over twenty cover paintings for The New Yorker magazine, some of which wound up in the book Illuminated Poems, which paired his paintings with poems by Allen Ginsberg.

With the release of the new film Howl, Drooker has taken his first leap into the world of big screen animation.  The movie looks at the early years of Beat icon Ginsberg (played by James Franco), and the titular poem which made his reputation.

In the early stages of preparing material for the film, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (who also co-directed Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt and The Celluloid Closet), interviewed poet Tuli Kupferberg about his friendship with Ginsberg.  Kupferberg, whom Drooker calls “the closest thing I’ve had to a rabbi,” famously attempted suicide as a youth, inspiring a section of “Howl”:

“who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually
happened and walked away unknown and
forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown
. . .”

The filmmakers noticed Kupferberg’s copy of Illuminated Poems, the 1996 book which paired Ginsberg poems with Drooker paintings. Impressed, Epstein and Friedman contacted Drooker about producing animation for use in their film.

Drooker recently gave a talk at City Lights Books in San Francisco discussing, among other things, his maiden voyage as an animator.  He spoke, and played a bit of banjo, along with a slideshow of images taken from Howl: A Graphic Novel(just out from Harper Perennial), which includes Ginsberg’s entire poem and Drooker’s art from the film, including  some that didn’t make the final cut. Drooker was quick to credit the entire creative team he collaborated with, including Friedman, Epstein, animation producer John Hays, and a crew of Thai animators who followed his storyboard and character designs to make Drooker’s art come to life.

The bookstore was an appropriate venue for discussion of Ginsberg and his most famous poem:  The obscenity lawsuit “Howl” inspired was directed against City Lights Books publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti and bookstore employee Shigeyoshi Murao (after an undercover cop bought a copy of Howl and Other Poems from Murao).  Drooker pointed out the historic importance of Ferlinghetti’s defence of the First Amendment, both as a bookstore owner and a publisher, and his support for the dissent that was Ginsberg’s lifeblood as an out gay man and (like Ferlinghetti) a lifelong pacifist.

As a photo of a young Ginsberg appeared onscreen, Drooker quipped, “That’s James Franco on a bad day.”  He recalled how when he was a youngster on Manhattan’s lower East Side, his mother pointed out Ginsberg walking around the neighborhood and said “he’s a famous poet.”  When Drooker was in his twenties and pasting political posters (denouncing police violence, opposing U.S. wars, among other causes), he eventually discovered that Ginsberg had been collecting his work.  “I usually got pissed off when people did this, but I figured I’d make an exception with Allen.”

On the inner flap to Howl: A Graphic Novel are quotes from Ginsberg on his younger friend’s art.  He writes, “To me, the megalopolis landscapes are the most interesting ? that gigantic skyscraper vision.  He really captured that sense of Moloch I was going for in the second section of ‘Howl’ ? ‘Moloch whose buildings are judgement!’”

Ginsberg continues, “Drooker illustrated the the city’s infrastructural stress, housing decay, homelessness, garbage-hunger, and bitter suffering of marginalized families, Blacks and youth, with such vivid detail that the authoritarian reality horror of our contemporary dog-eat-dog Malthusian technocratic class-war became immediately visible.”

Drooker told the capacity crowd crammed into the bookstore’s top floor poetry room that he thought “Howl” was taken to court for reasons other than just its alleged obscenities.  He pointed to the “Moloch” section of the poem (Drooker described his painting of the Moloch character as a “a bull’s head on a Schwarzenegger body”) as especially ahead of its time in its critique of U.S. society.  Ginsberg was singling out the dangers posed by the U.S. “military-industrial complex,” Drooker said, six years before Dwight Eisenhower used that phrase to warn of the dangers posed by the Pentagon’s Cold War machinery.

I called Drooker at his Berkeley studio after the event and asked him to elaborate on his feelings about Ginsberg and the new film.

“Allen’s work was prophetic in many ways,” he told me.  “‘Howl’ defeated censorship?it was found ‘not obscene’ in court?and went on to become one of the most widely read poems of the century. It was translated into dozens of languages, a model for younger generations of poets from East to West.”

Drooker said he hoped the film will remind viewers, especially younger viewers, how transformative poetry can be.

I asked him for an example of lines from the poem that he felt were still relevant today.

He responded,

“These lines still creep up on me today, with their vivid description of our capitalist society on a violent downward spiral:

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! . . . Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!

Moloch is an ancient war god, breathing fire into the twenty-first century.”

While Ginsberg is now a more respectable poet than he was as a young man, Drooker stressed, “In 2010, fifty-five years after the poem’s first public performance, the FCC continues to ban ‘Howl’ from public broadcast, by levying heavy fines.” He continued, “The Pentagon budget is currently at an all time high?even higher under Obama than under Bush. Wall Street bankers are bailed out, school programs are axed . . . and that’s what I see as the real obscenity — the culmination of tendencies Allen was going after in the 1950s.”

BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com