The best minds of his generation – “Howl” on film
In most movies, this drives me crazy by reminding me more of the boys in Wicker Park who are badly in need of a shower yet envision themselves as the most important person who’ve ever lived. I can’t actually name a movie he’s done that I’ve liked him in. And then there was that crap-tastic Oscar hosting gig he barely shuffled his way through.
Yeah, I’m not really a fan.
So, imagine my surprise to find out that Franco playing Allen Ginsberg actually works. (Admittedly you have to ignore the fact that Franco is probably too attractive to play Ginsberg, but whatever.) Ginsberg himself was a bit mumbly, and a bit into himself, and the role is actually a perfect fit for Franco.
“Howl” is a surprisingly intelligent film. Covering the 1957 trial in which Ginsberg’s epic poem was put on trial for being obscene, the film wisely doesn’t choose to create dialogue. Instead, all the words of the movie are based off three things – trial transcripts, an interview with Ginsberg, and the text of “Howl” itself. We cut back and forth from Franco’s Ginsberg talking to an off-screen interviewer, to animated sequences of the poem, to trial scenes (which feature a cool-as-can-be Jon Hamm, the awesome David Straitharn, and the always reliable Bob Balaban.) It’s artistic, yet factual – and fantastical despite being a completely true story.
Franco’s finest moments come when he’s reading “Howl” in scenes at a poetry cafe – he’s able to vocally do a good Ginsberg impression, without falling into imitation. (It reminded me a little bit of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote. Which is saying something when I compare Hoffman, my most favorite actor, to someone I generally don’t care for.)
I can’t help but think this film will get shown a lot in college and high school classes where the beat poets are studied. At 82 minutes, it’s snappy and moves along, never dragging out unnecessary scenes. We get a good look at Ginsberg as a man, as a writer, and the way the 1950’s world wasn’t entirely ready for the kind of free (and sometimes dirty) language the writers of the future would use. (David Straitharn’s prosecutor character is the very embodiment of this, trying desperately to get a series of experts – played by Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, and Jeff Bridges – to say that “Howl” has no literary merit based on it’s naughtier terms.)
Part period piece, mostly bio-pic, “Howl” is a really clever use of the film medium. Here’s hoping it triggers more smart films just like it.