I love James Franco for balancing out his mainstream movies with smaller projects that are a bit off the beaten path. In Howl, he plays controversial poet Allen Ginsberg, and while the film deals with the famous obscenity trial that was sparked by his eponymous poem, it's not your traditional courtroom drama, and instead it approaches the poem from five very different directions. It's a kind of collage, and the result is a beautiful, artistic interpretation of the poem's popularity, and the life of the man who wrote it.
Throughout the film, we jump back and forth between the trial, Ginsberg's apartment during the trial, narrated black-and-white footage of a younger Ginsberg, the first stage reading of the poem and an animated rendering of the poem's vivid imagery. The courtroom scenes are fairly straightforward, with Jon Hamm eloquently defending the book's publisher, and David Strathairn ham-fistedly attempting to prosecute, but it features some great performances by them, as well as Bob Balaban as the judge and Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams, Mary-Louise Parker and Alessandro Nivola as experts of varying opinions toward the poem.
At his apartment, Ginsberg, who is not on trial, tells the story of the poem's creation, starting with his university days and detailing his awkward attempts at relationships with other men, including Jack Kerouac. Both the low-energy color apartment footage and the black-and-white flashbacks make you feel like you're watching a documentary, especially since much of the black-and-white stock is narrated, with minimal dialogue, but it's all filmed with a very down-to-earth Franco, who sometimes seems to blend into the background, but in a good way.
The film's last element, an animated exploration of the poem as read by Franco, is amazing. Based on the artwork of illustrator and onetime Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker (if you haven't seen his wordless book Flood, please do), it's a beautiful cacophony of skyscrapers and naked bodies and penises, with bulldozers heaping skulls in front of a giant statue of Moloch, and it's interspersed with Franco, as Ginsberg, reading the poem on stage in a club, presumably for the first time. The audience reacts more and more as he continues, and he feeds off of their energy, until by the end he's shouting the words. It's powerful stuff, and it will surely give the poetry-averse a new appreciation of the poem and the man.
Did you see the movie? Let us know what you thought below, then read our seven poems to James Franco.
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