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Early this year, James Franco approached the production team at the television soap General Hospital about a limited role on the daily program. The young actor had never been a cast member of a daytime drama series, and reportedly wanted to experience that challenge, but with one proviso: His duties couldn’t conflict with his classes at Yale, where he was enrolled in a master’s degree program in fiction. Franco got the role, and his degree. He’s currently pursuing a Ph.D. The preternaturally versatile and industrious performer—he’s been James Dean in a biopic, a villain in the Spider-Man movies, and Harvey Milk’s lover in Gus Van Sant’s Milk—recently found the time and energy—did I mention that he’s just published a volume of short stories?—to star in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (opening locally the day before Thanksgiving) and to play Allen Ginsberg in Howl, about the Beat poet’s composition of his famous signature poem.

Franco’s performance as Ginsberg is intimately scaled, quietly resonant and biographically persuasive. For the very largest part, the actorly underpinnings and seams aren’t apparent. Franco isn’t quite the whole show, but he’s certainly its most important part.

Former documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have shaped their little film as a series of scenes of the younger Ginsberg speaking to an unseen interviewer in a virtual monologue about his life and work that’s interrupted by recreated sequences from the 1957 obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti after he published Howl. (The scenes use the trial transcript for dialogue.) There are also interspersed interludes in which the movie’s Ginsberg reads his poem in a smoky Frisco coffeehouse.

This tripartite organization gives Howl the dutiful tenor of a TV docudrama, and it can be a little difficult to stay engaged with the proceedings—particularly the fact-based legal ones—and to appreciate the significance of what’s being depicted. Although the film doesn’t indicate it, the Howl trial was the first to apply the US Supreme Court’s Roth decision enunciating the “community standards” test, delivered by Justice William Brennan Jr. a few months earlier.

The most vivid element in Howl is the sleekly lurid and Expressionist animated drawings by Eric Drooker that accompany Franco’s earnest and incisive reading of the poem; they’re filled with images of Ginsberg’s “angelheaded hipsters,” symbols of his repressed and victimized rebels against 1950s complacency and commercialization.

Poet Adrienne Rich, who has her reservations about the Beats, has commended Howl as an admirable example of the “public poem,” and the film does serve to remind us of an era, the high-water mark of Modernist confidence, when literature, including poetry, still mattered.

george sax

Watch the trailer for Howl

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