Thursday, September 30, 2010
James Franco is a genius. Say it with me. James Franco is a genius.
Have you read Howl? Do you know who Allen Ginsberg is? If the answer to either of those questions is “no,” get up, do research, watch footage, fall in love, and then watch this movie. James Franco is a genius. The extent to which he sinks into his “character,” the author of this gorgeous controversial poem, is shocking. I was shocked. I was moved to tears.
Most images of Ginsberg that people are familiar with right now are those from the 60s, post-Howl trial, during his long-bearded, wild-haired days. Ginsberg himself holding up cue cards in the Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, or David Cross’ vision of Ginsberg in I’m Not There, crazed on the back of a motorcycle, shouting. The Ginsberg of Howl, this sparkling biopic, is a young man, clean-shaven and soft, finding his place in the world, in writing, and in love.
Howl is split into four distinct pieces: an interview with Ginsberg; the obscenity trial against the book Howl and Other Poems, which pitted the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, against the state; Ginsberg reading Howl aloud to an audience pre-publication; and an animated sequence with a voiceover of the poem. Each piece is a different color, a different mood, but they are blended together nearly seamlessly by the co-directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.
Though Ginsberg tells us there is no Beat Generation, all the players are there, though almost none have any lines to speak. We see Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, both objects of Ginsberg’s affection, both of whom broke his heart. We meet Peter Orlovsky, the man who finally loved Ginsberg back and continued to love him for his whole life. We listen to Ginsberg speak about his mother, Naomi, lost to madness, and for whom he wrote the beautiful and heart-wrenching poem, Kaddish.
The major players in this film could not have been better-chosen. There are Jon Hamm and David Strathairn as the dueling lawyers, Bob Balaban as a put-upon judge, and numerous witnesses on both sides of the obscenity argument, including Treat Williams and Alessandro Nivola. But the real treat here is Franco, who never fails to impress, but who I had not seen in full glory before, I realize. His voice, cadence, and movements are Ginsberg’s, and they are glorious.