The red carpet for a movie about a poem is small, but it's still red. Here at the IFC Center in New York for the premiere of Howl the press people are complaining that yeah, it's red, but it's too crowded, and there isn't enough room for the camera equipment and the reporters with their microphones and tote bags and, when they arrive, the celebrities.
US Weekly, OK! magazine, People, Style.com, Variety -- they complain that there isn't room for everything. A few of them look me up and down. "Who are you?" one asks, and I answer (first thought, best thought?) "I'm here for poetry." Oh. I've made a weird statement worth a second look but then, hey, there isn't enough room, so... I try to make myself small. I am a press person here, which might preclude me from also being a poetry person. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, Allen Ginsberg took a breath and out came this poem that over the last half century has become this scene that blurs worlds.
I only know about how this blurry world came about second hand. Ginsberg died when I was in high school, and I was sad about it, true, but more because Thurston Moore seemed sad than because I understood the loss. I didn't know what the world was like before him, so I couldn't really know what it would be like without him. My step-dad tells a story about going to a party after a reading Ginsberg did in Ames, Iowa. Ginsberg sat there at the party playing the harmonium while the college kids hung out and drank. "Howl" is the most famous American poem of the last hundred years and now it has a movie and a red carpet and press. They had that version of Ginsberg. We have this one.
I feel an elbow in my back, turn and see that some serious candlepower is being directed at a good-looking actor in a light gray suit. It is, my publicity sheet tells me, Jack Kerouac. The Jack Kerouac of the film Howl. He has on a teal open-colored shirt. I listen as he talks about working with James Franco, about the Beats, about what he's got in the works for the fall. This Kerouac seems oddly proud of not having read "Howl" the poem before being cast in Howl the movie. "I'm actually a conservative," he tells a reporter before being tapped on the shoulder by his minder.
Allen Ginsberg wanted to be famous, and he was. He went and played his harmonium to college kids in Iowa, and wowed the dreamy kids of Memphis, and he got to do it because he was famous, and from all accounts those kids were grateful that his fame allowed them that, but it's hard to say if Ginsberg would recognize or covet the kind of fame on display tonight. Salman Rushdie is posing by a movie poster while Rosie Perez dodges a question about Franco kissing other guys. Young women with skin like marzipan pose in front of the theater while photographers flutter through their shots.
The candlepower increases exponentially when James Franco, the film's Allen Ginsberg, arrives. His eyes crinkle up. He smiles with his whole face and his teeth and his gums.
"Isn't it amazing that this all came from a poem?" Franco asks me with that whole face smile when he gets to me in the line. I nod like a moron. Another reporter leans in front of me and asks what he's reading. He thinks. More flashes light up the marzipan women behind him. Franco looks up at the white tent over the red carpet.
"For school," he says, "we've been reading the various editions of Leaves of Grass, the 1850 edition, and the 1860 edition. We read a play by Mark Ravenhill called Shopping and Fucking, and the Man of Mode ..."
Another reporter shouts as Franco ducks into the theater, "Were you ever offered a role in Breaking Dawn?"
The red carpet lights dim. The generator turns off. A man on the sidewalk outside the theater yells "James! James! James!" while holding up a Yorkshire terrier.
"Did you get anything?" a press guy asks me, "Did you?"
Later, at the Trump SoHo after-party, T.Rex is thumping through the dark bar. The room smells like Red Bull and haircare. A woman in a cocktail dress walks up to me. "Spare rib sandwich?"
She has five brown balls each about the size of a Cocoa Puff on a plate. I take one and hold it in my hand.
The people at the bar are looking past the people they are talking to. It's a party, not totally unlike a party after a poetry reading. Is that the reader? Is that the star? Who are you? A few people look up at me as I walk past them to get a glass of water. I smile because, well, I don't know. "Hi," I say to the one guy who smiles back. He turns out to be Jack McBrayer, and nice. I check each famous person in the room off in my head. I avoid talking to a few people who look desperate to talk to someone, anyone. Kerouac is chatting up a woman in a super-tight white dress. He is flexing and unflexing his foot while drinking a tall glass of something.
Ginsberg and the Beats are having another moment, as they periodically do, though this one doesn't seem to be in much more than name. This is not an era that embraces flower power or spontaneous bop prosody in any cosmic sense. We're practical and lawyerly, heads down with the hopes of keeping our jobs (not unlike Ginsberg at the ad agency in the early 50s). Compared to Ginsberg -- from what I can gather from his poems, letters, and lectures -- we're a pretty stingy lot.
In the movie, Franco captures Ginsberg's humor and kindness and generosity, mostly in the scenes where he's being interviewed. He's not some firebrand Def Poetry Jam prototype. He's nervous and empathetic and real. He's a curious and open person, slightly befuddled by humanity but having as good of a time as he can while he's in it. In the dark Trump SoHo bar, I look around at all the people -- trying to be seen, to network, to get their quotes -- and I think that what this party needs, what it really needs, is a little more harmonium.
Follow Travis Nichols on Twitter: www.twitter.com/travisjnichols