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,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.