James Franco may not be the most obvious choice to play poet Allen Ginsberg given his filmography, but he’s an inspired one. Sporting enough of a resemblance thanks to his dark hair and glasses, Franco is captivating, especially when reading excerpts from Ginsberg’s collection of poems, Howl.
These sequences are shot in black and white, and have an improvised, jazzy feel to them – not, one feels, by accident. Ginsberg’s poetry has a frank lyricism to it, and its stream of consciousness creativity is like the improv of a sensitive musician or dancer. “Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls…” and so it goes.
The overt sexuality of his writing was the subject of a 1957 “obscenity” trial brought against the poem’s domestic publisher, the manager of the City Lights Bookstore in San Fran, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. That farcical court-room drama is the throughline of the film, with the always great David Strathain as the prosecutor, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm as the more articulate leader of the defence, and Jeff Daniels as one of the many academic witnesses called to testify. These scenes, drawn, unbelievably, from the court transcripts revolve around the issue of Ginsberg’s (implicit) homosexuality, censorship and the role of art and drew frequent chuckles from the packed State Theatre audience.
Otherwise, co-directors/writers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have us flipping between the aforementioned readings (accompanied by some quite brilliant and surreal animation), Franco’s take on Ginsberg’s interviews regarding on his life and his art, and dramatised sequences of his love affairs, especially, with life-long partner, Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit). Like Ginsberg’s work, Howl, the film, is itself a poem; a muse on creativity, improvisation and freedom of expression. [JB]
NB – Producer Christine K Walker was on hand to introduce the film. She also features on the June 5 midday panel regarding Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, which she also produced.