When Allen Ginsberg was a cute, soulful gay boy.

Read Fred Kaplan’s “Life and Art” about “Howl.”

Howl. Click image to expand.
Aaron Tveit and James Franco in Howl 

You may think you know what Howl (Oscilloscope) is, but you don’t. (“You” here being me before I walked into the movie.) You think it’s a conventional indie biopic of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, with an earnest but mannered lead performance by James Franco. Instead, it’s a minimalist oddity, a full-length movie devoted to the recitation, comprehension, and appreciation of a single poem—that would be “Howl,” of course, published by City Lights in 1957 and made famous in a landmark obscenity trial. *

The audience for this movie is going to be so tiny. Take the proportion of the population that knows or cares who Allen Ginsberg is—small, right? Then separate out the subset who would be willing to see a movie about Allen Ginsberg. Then subtract at least half of those people, and you have the number who would have any patience with this particular film. All right, then add in a few James Franco lovers. Howl is—and wants to be—the other Allen Ginsberg movie, a fact that in itself endears this slightly loony project to those of us who would love to see literature treated more seriously on-screen.

Good literature, of course, doesn’t always—or even often—make for good cinema. And I’m not even sure Ginsberg’s poem is good, exactly—but it’s as powerfully iconic a work of American verse as Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” or Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It’s something we’ve been quoting from for too long to really hear anymore. And the image of Ginsberg in his later years, a bald, chubby, bearded imp twirling ecstatically in a dhoti, has eclipsed his early years as a cute, soulful gay boy, back-to-back on a New York park bench with his lifelong partner Peter Orlovsky (a photo that, like a few others, is reproduced faithfully by a shot in Howl). 

To be sure, Ginsberg was never as cute as James Franco; only a sliver of the human population is. The actor’s non-resemblance to the man springs periodically to mind as you’re watching Howl, but it very soon becomes the least interesting thing about his performance. (The fact is, we wouldn’t begrudge a less attractive actor his less-than-perfect resemblance to Ginsberg. Franco’s curse is that he’s so good-looking we can’t believe he’s any good.) What’s most impressive about Franco’s turn as Ginsberg is how many chances he passes up to hot-dog it. Speaking line after line from a real-life transcript, with no visible or audible interlocutor to bounce off of, must be a confounding actorly task, but Franco somehow convinces us that he’s coming up with these ideas for the first time—and they’re pretty big ideas, about art and honesty and the pathologization of same-sex love by the midcentury medical establishment. (Ginsberg spent time in an asylum being treated for homosexuality, an experience he recounts with harrowing detail in “Howl.”)

The approach of the directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is rigorously purist. There are no scripted dramatizations of real events, no imagined inner monologues; every word spoken in the film comes either from the poem, from a real-life interview with Ginsberg (mainly one he gave to Playboy in 1969 about his homosexuality), or from the court transcripts of the San Francisco obscenity trial. There are also some re-enactment scenes in which Jon Hamm plays the lawyer who defended Ginsberg’s publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, while David Strathairn is the scandalized prosecuting attorney. Ginsberg’s fellow Beat writers Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott) appear in virtually nonspeaking parts as the two straight men who were Ginsberg’s first unrequited crushes and who encouraged him to blossom both as poet and as a gay man. “Howl” was the place where he came out flamboyantly as both.

As a project, Howl is finally a little dogged, a little inert, a little—how shall I say?—high-fiber. And the choice to illustrate parts of the poem with fruity pornographic animation sequences was a mistake. (A sample image: Forests of penis trees burst from the ground, then shoot forth spermatozoa that wriggle up into the sky and turn into stars. I think this may happen more than once.) But even these sequences do accomplish something: They allow us time to listen to the poem, sometimes even repeating sections we’ve heard earlier in the movie in other contexts. By the time this movie’s over, you’ve spent an hour and a half just working your way through the words of “Howl” and some related source material, and that turns out to be a surprisingly satisfying thing to do.

The recent spate of profiles chronicling James Franco’s current fling with all nine Muses may make him look like an eccentric dilettante in other fields, but this media overexposure does nothing to lessen my respect for him as an actor. After that unfortunate period in which Hollywood tried to make him into the next James Dean (and during which he played Dean in a TV biopic), Franco’s quietly established himself as both a gifted comedian ( Pineapple Express) and as a fine dramatic actor ( Milk). I really hope he doesn’t take the low road of accepting too many bland romantic parts like the one he played in Eat Pray Love. As he’s choosing among scripts, Franco should channel the voice of Ginsberg, that dirty-minded, resolutely honest trickster who roused the best minds of his generation by exulting, “O victory forget your underwear you’re free!”

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Correction, Sept. 24, 2010: The sentence originally misstated the publication date of “Howl” as 1955. Ginsberg first read the poem in 1955, but it wasn’t published until 1957. (Return to the corrected sentence.)