James Franco’s Ginsberg

Howl, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (previously best known as the documentarians behind The Celluloid Closet [1995]), opens in limited release today, showing at Angelika, Clearview Chelsea, and Lincoln Plaza. I managed to catch a preview last Monday, part of a fundraising evening for Brooklyn College’s MFA program, where Allen Ginsberg taught for ten years before his death and where the film’s star, James Franco, just completed an MFA in creative writing last spring.  Here’s the trailer, followed by a few preliminary thoughts — preliminary because I do plan to see it again.

I can’t say that the trailer or other early clips I’d seen inspired a lot of confidence. Franco, though I was a big Freaks and Geeks fan and certainly respect his ability as an actor, seemed, well, too pretty to be Ginsberg. But I jumped at the chance to see the film early, even though the price tag was a little hefty, because he and the directors would be taking questions after and because I planned to take my 16-year-old daughter, also a big Freaks and Geeks fan, who has had a crush on Franco since the 4th grade and occasionally refers to herself as the Future Mrs. James Franco.

And I was more than pleasantly surprised. The film toggles between three primary structural sequences: a smart if celebratory reading of the poem (accompanied by animation based on Eric Drooker‘s visual collaborations with Ginsberg before he died); a compelling take on the poem’s autobiographical content, cobbled from published sources and delivered as an interview Franco gives to an unseen interviewer; and a clever use of Ferlinghetti’s trial for peddling obscenity by selling Ginsberg’s poem, the dialogue drawn entirely from court transcripts. The latter winds up doubling as a classroom setting for the audience to consider just what poetry is, how it can be read and misread, and why reading and writing poetry matters, fifty years ago and now. The filmmakers very wisely decided not to flesh out the trial’s participants as characters, a la Capote. The focus, that way, remains on the poem, large portions of which are featured two or three or maybe even four times — in Franco’s voice, in courtroom dialogue, in the interviews. Even viewers who aren’t familiar with the poem — my daughter, say — should walk away being able to identify key features. (We had a great conversation on the train home.) The film isn’t a Ginsberg biopic in any traditional sense; it puts the poem first, its place in Ginsberg’s life next (reading it as part of a coming-of-age story as well as a Bildungsroman), and its place in American culture last.

Franco himself is quite credible as Ginsberg. If he comes off as a little buttoned-down in the recurring sequence set at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, 7 October 1955, it’s a useful reminder that Allen didn’t always look like a hippie prophet wandering the streets. And Franco clearly prepared for the role: in Q&A he described taking a full year to work with the directors, prepping by reading Ginsberg bios, journals, and the myriad interviews from which much of the screenplay is drawn. He has also clearly listened to a lot of tapes and watched a decent amount of video, though the latter only exists for Ginsberg’s older incarnations. All of this for a film shot in 14 days. Franco has Ginsberg’s mannerisms and tics down so well that, especially during the interview sequences, it’s not hard to forget this is him and not AG. In Q&A he had smart things to say about the poem and the process of making the film: sounding a little like a literature grad student (which he is, as of this semester, when he begins Yale’s PhD program in English), he said that he found the autobiographical reading of the poem to be surprisingly productive, but that it was important to remember it’s just one way to read the poem, not the final word. I would agree with him on both counts: I also found the autobiographical reading to open up some portions of the poem I’d not really paid much attention to, but in the end it would be a mistake to reduce the poem to a psychological milestone in Ginsberg’s development as a poet and a person: clearly it’s resonated on a much larger scale for over half a century.

The film isn’t perfect. I was skeptical of the animated sequences, especially since they begin with a cringe-inducing visualization of “Negro streets at dawn,” but as they progress the animated parts (I use the word “parts” advisedly, since the animation features a proliferation of penises) even themselves out. The score is a bit heavy-handed, if not outright maudlin, especially at moments of key growth for Franco’s character. The Six Gallery reading seemed a little tame to me, at least tamer than Michael McClure’s famous descriptions of Kerouac chanting “GO!” in cadence with Ginsberg’s delivery, but you do get the sense from those scenes that Ginsberg’s initial audience encountered the poem as something incredibly new, a decisive moment of change, of no turning back, as McClure also described it. In its finale, with the “Footnote to Howl” the Six Gallery reading takes on a slightly anachronistic feel: we can only be as introspective about the intensely personal meaning of some of those lines from the perspective of decades passed. I wanted a more raucous and less lyrical delivery of those lines. Something more like this, but by that point the autobiographical reading has pretty much determined that references to Kerouac, Cassady, Solomon, and especially to Naomi Ginsberg, will mean that Franco’s delivery slows to an introspective, hushed conclusion. Perhaps it’s a fitting finale for this particular reading of the poem. Let me know what you think once you’ve seen it.

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