by David Downs
Meta-celebrity James Franco stars as beat poet Allen Ginsberg in a new pseudo-documentary about his famed poem Howl, officially hitting big screens in the Bay Area and select theaters nationwide September 24.
Written and directed by Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk) and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) Howl is an utter paean to the canonical piece of beat literature, which was put on trial for obscenity in 1957. The 2010 film reminds audiences that the celebrated American poet was — point in fact — a gay tea-smoker who just wanted to be left alone to live his life. And as Prop 8 wends its way to the Supreme Court and Californians consider legalizing marijuana via Prop 19, the period piece shows how far we have and have not come.
Sure, it's 2010. It's okay to be gay in some states and Weeds is a national TV show. Ours is a permissive era of sex tapes and Snooki. But compared to the world within Howl, where Ginsberg strives for a new authenticity considered obscene by 1950s standards, our age proves one can now be completely naked while still being totally fake.
“Look at reality TV. The notions of privacy have so changed, but it doesn't make for a more authentic world,” notes Epstein. “That's why Ginsberg's an evergreen. Because I think people — whatever their opinion about him — can't deny his authenticity. That was his motto as an artist.”
Funny, moving, and a bit corny, the film explores where that motto came from, and how it developed and manifested itself in the poem. Arguably the most famous poem of the era, it's a torrential, emotional lament about a world where casual sex and recreational drugs merit a frontal lobotomy. The 1957 trial of Howl's publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti acts as the spine of the film, but the story flits between Ginsberg's personal growth, the now-legendary first reading of Howl, and animated sequences meant to illustrate the text.
It's an entertaining if somewhat uncritical look at Ginsberg that Franco-philes will simply lap up. Ginsberg goes down on Neal Cassady and woos his crush Kerouac. Beat literature might be high school textbook material, but the film reminds the nation that the cool beats were often queer.
“That went completely over my head when I read it in high school,” Friedman says. “I don't know how that happened.”
“I don't think the beats have been claimed in that way,” Epstein says. “So it's, in part, looking at how that was so much a part of who he was in 1956. Just how brave that was, too.”
A huge fan of literature, Franco starts a Ph.D in creative writing this fall at Yale. He grew up in an artistic family in the Bay Area and made plenty of pilgrimages to City Lights Bookstore. After seeing Franco nail the role of James Dean, Epstein and Friedman got him on-board the seven-year-old project before it was even financed. Franco personally came up with the scene where Ginsberg reads Howl aloud.
“It wasn't even in the first pass of the script. We were doing some screen tests of film stocks in color and black-and-white. We shot him performing the poem and we were so blown away by his performance, just the power and his magnetism, that we knew it had to be part of the story,” Epstein says.
Shooting in April 2009 in New York, the film reconstructs the legendary first reading at San Francisco's Six Gallery, on October 7, 1955. “We had tears in our eyes several times,” Friedman said.
“We're saps.” Epstein adds. “It's really bad when directors just sit there crying.”
Off-camera, Franco always had a book in his hand and earbuds in his ears playing Ginsberg's voice through an iPhone. A ravenous over-achiever, Franco was simultaneously working on finishing an MFA from Brooklyn College, and a film degree from New York University.
“The only time he slept was in the make-up chair,” Friedman says.
While Ginsberg believed in marijuana legalization, the Pineapple Express star told The Advocate this September that he doesn't drink or do drugs, because he simply lacks the time. Franco implied at Sundance that weed was on the set, though, and that Friedman found it “essential” to the project. “I was looking for new experiences and I found them,” Franco joked.
Audiences will probably find a new experience in what's become the most divisive part of the film: its animated sequences. The directors say they included them to attract a younger audience, and help unpack the dense imagery of the poem. But the slick, commercial animation style doesn't mesh with cool black-and-white film or the gauzy color film. The literal representation of the poem seems too direct and can be downright corny.
“I hope that it's something that, once everybody gets over staking their opinions on, people can go back and just have fun with seeing some of the ideas,” Epstein says.
Either way, it's delightful to watch Mad Men's Jon Hamm do pretty much anything as defense attorney Jake Erlich. Ironically, Weeds star Mary-Louise Parker plays a bewitching witness for the prosecution, arguing that the masterpiece has no literary merit. Based on actual trial transcripts, Hamm eviscerates the People's argument that Howl was too obscene to publish.
“There's so much about the trial that continues to resonate,” Epstein says. “Jon Hamm's closing speech about 'Let's stop running from nonexistent destroyers of morals.' That's the essence of what the trial was about: scapegoatism and looking for one. That's an evergreen theme we see played out time and again in American society.”
Ginsberg has said the poem was a metaphorical time bomb for another age, one that the directors say is still exploding. The poem's lament over the rise of “Moloch,” or what we would call global capitalism, seems like prophecy. In the context of oil wars and the death cult of consumerism, Howl still feels like a primal scream for another mode of living. Fifty years hence, the possibility of such a mode seems more remote, though. One wonders if Moloch hasn't already won.
“Moloch's winning right now,” Epstein says. “But I don't think we can completely give up.”