Howl with James Franco
The movie begins with a recitation of the poem as it might have been delivered in a dark subterranean coffee shop in San Francisco in 1955, shortly after it was written. James Franco wears the thick black horn rimmed glasses, the white t shirt under the buttoned down white shirt, just the way that Ginsberg wore these things. Franco’s voice takes on that raspy incantatory drone that was Ginsberg’s performance persona. The voice, and the juicy words that run on and on return us to 1955 – but do these lines speak to us now as they did in 1955? Perhaps we do not need them now as we did then.
The opening titles show glimpses of the animation to come. Armies of men carry identical brief cases, wear identical hats, march across an unknown grey city. Photographs of Ginsberg and Orlovsky, his lifelong partner, actual photographs, look a bit scruffier than the cleaned up actors who play their counterparts. The cold war is represented by missiles pointing ominously toward us the viewers. In this context, the beat poets were railing against conformity, against war, against restrictions of all kinds.
Franco plays Ginsberg especially well when he is full of longing. He speaks to an unseen interviewer (the script comes almost entirely from transcripts, interviews, and the poetry itself) about his journey from a young poet wannabe in the shadow of his straight traditional poet father. His sexuality he hid from his parents. He was put in an insane asylum when he was 21 ostensibly because of his homosexuality, and was released when he agreed to become straight. After two years of working in advertising and rejecting his true nature, his therapist encouraged him to do what he wanted, and the rest is history.
The animations in the movie are distracting. The images of star bursts that denote orgasms, the explicit sexual couplings, detract from the power of the words. But this is a movie. I can see why the filmmakers thought so much time with just the words-- staring at the screen, listening to Franco recite, might be boring without some action.
How gratifying to hear a poet's words treated with the seriousness of a love affair, or a war, or a heist, or some other common subjects of movies. I remember when the movie came out about Sylvia Plath. They had everything in that movie except the poetry. This movie has the poetry front and center and I am grateful.