Can James Franco Make a Movie Stuffed With Poetry Readings Worth Watching? [Howl Reviewed]

You’ve probably heard about the groundbreaking gay documentaries The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet, even if you’ve never heard of their directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Considering their reputation for making important socially progressive films, it’s no wonder that their new work, Howl has generated so much buzz with its Sundance premiere.

Starring James Franco as gay beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Howl seems particularly apropos; a film about Ginsberg’s controversial anti-war poem just fits right in with two Middle East conflicts and our ongoing battle for gay rights. But it seems Epstein and Friedman have put Howl‘s counter-culture poetry on over-the-counter drugs. The film packs a light buzz but lacks the punch to blow anyone’s mind, man.

But it’s not an entirely bad cinematic trip. Equal parts documentary, courtroom drama, and visceral animation, the film ambitiously plays on form—it cuts between a fictionalized re-imagining of the poem’s 1957 obscenity trial, black-and white-footage of Franco’s Ginsberg reading Howl in a San Francisco night spot, and a tripped-out animation interpretation of the poem itself.

Franco convincingly plays a young Ginsberg as homosexual rebel, urban exile, and pretty posterboy of the Beat Generation. He’s supported by a talented cast that includes David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, and Jeff Daniels. But the film’s slow, almost academic textbook pace is hard to shake off. There are plenty of close-up shots of vintage typewriters. If you like poetry readings — like, really,</em< like poetry readings — Howl will have you crying at the moon all night.

Still, stay awake; this film deserves our attention. Epstein and Friedman are capable directors of emotionally-effective films blossoming from politically-charged fodder. After Epstein won a Best Documentary Oscar for The Times of Harvey Milk (which made its debut at Sundance in 1985), he and Friedman won another one for Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt—a film that, while weaving together the heart-rending tales of five different individuals whose names ended up AIDS Memorial Quilt, exposed the U.S. government’s failure to respond to the AIDS epidemic.

Further, ever since his turn as Harvey Milk’s boyfriend in Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Franco has become the youngest talent most comfortable with playing gay roles. His intensely homoerotic NYU student film (based on the poem “The Feast of Stephen”) shows that the young actor’s not afraid to tackle gay political content either.

Howl definitely screams and yells and sings that homosexuality is normal, that sexuality (like poetry) is an expression of feeling, just one part of a truly complex person. Yet the film’s unabashed gay content doesn’t overwhelm the work at the heart of the story. Straight Sundance viewers have enthusiastically related to the film because of the poem’s pervasive influence and reach moreso that the sexuality of its author. Yet, as Howl’s plot twists forward through a laborious maze of interviews that may or may not have happened between Ginsberg and Time magazine, the unfolding of a 1957 obscenity trial involving poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg’s love affairs, and one poem that redefined a nation of “angel headed hipsters,” one leaves the film with a hazy side-effects of a vexing narrative.

Creative writing majors beware: More is more, but less is also more. The documentary directors might have done better to remake Howl into a documentary only, sans animation and courtroom reenactments. Epstein and Friedman would have been able to keep the material fresh and relevant in a modern context better than most. My advice on preventing the overdose they exhibit in Howl: Just say no. Sometimes.

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  • Taylor Siluwé

    Well, its not anything you’d need to see in IMAX, but with Franco and that guy who plays Don Draper in Mad Men, I’ll accept the slight buzz it delivers. How many times can our minds be blown anyway?

  • Ol' 333

    @Taylor: I can tell you must be young. The question eventually becomes, can it be patched anymore?

  • Taylor Siluwé

    @ Ol’ 333

    I like to ‘feel’ I’m young at least. ;-)

  • Rick

    Not to take anything away from James Franco or his performance, I hate anything that celebrates Allen Ginsberg. I met the man when he visited my English lit class back in the mid-1980’s. He read some of his “poetry” which was crap then as it is now. And before the poetry pansies jump on me with smarmy attitudes presuming I didn’t like it because it didn’t rhyme, the truth is that it’s not poetry. It’s not even good commentary. Ginsberg’s writing is merely the rambling dream journal of a self-loathing, predatory, alcoholic who used a thesaurus because he was incapable of cohesive thought.

  • Taylor Siluwé

    Wow, Rick, now tell us what you really think about Ginsberg. ;-)

  • romeo

    I’ve read that Ginsberg went in to a tailspin in his later years. Got a little loony. But “Howl” uses a list technique that was I think an homage to Whitman. It’s poetical. It’s lost a lot of its power now because it’s been copied so much, but in its day it must have been like a lightning bolt. I’ve read that Ginsberg suffered greatly when his long-time partner dumped him.

  • McShane

    When I was young I was priveleged to listen to Ginsburg read; poeople were there all night nearly. He was doing Blakes Songs of Innocence & Experience. Very good! I am delighted that Americans are , at some place given a sense that we have a cultural heritage, but just keep forgeting important people like the Beat Generation, who al spoke in a voice and style unique in History. I was never impressed so much by Ginsbergs poetry as by what he represented.and who he was. Ginsberg was never anything like a prety poster boy, nor did he pretend to be. If Franco’s what we need to give people some culture then so be it.

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  • onCloud9

    whose alan ginsbur?

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  • Spiderman

    Franco always looks dirty.

  • Dr.Bombay

    @terrwill: r u having a seizure?

  • McShane

    No. 6 · romeo Yes, Ginsberg was follower of Walt Whitman, as he was of William Blake. He was of course one of the priests of the counterculture which gave us the first visceral awareness of thedestructive effects of conformity and materialism,. He led many demonstrations for free speach and against the Vietnamese War. The Beats then especially because of Burroughs intellect & background were aware of the ongong danger of Corporate takover.

    For marriage advocates it shoud be noted that Ginsberg was one of the veruy first persons to make public reference to GAY MARRIAGE he called Peter Orlovsky, his life time mate , his ‘spouse”. He was definitely one of the most outspoken advocates of Gay Rights, at a time when that was far from popular, claiming to find within himself Mountains of homosexuality.

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