You may think you’re already in James Franco overload, and he hasn’t even hosted the Oscars yet. And here’s a link to what he just told Entertainment Weekly about his plans for directing Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Those ambitious projects might seem a stretch, but watch him as Allen Ginsberg in Howl (just released on DVD) and you’ll see his deep literary instincts at work.
The film, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is a wonder in itself. Whether or not you’re a huge fan of the poem, the film is one of the finest immersions into a writer’s mind ever put on screen. It’s the story of Ginsberg writing the classic Beat poem Howl in the 50’s, and of the obscenity trial against his publisher. The approach is completely fresh, with a screenplay built from new and archival interviews, court transcripts and the poem itself. Franco is thoroughly convincing, as the young Ginsberg (in black-and-white flashbacks) discovering his poet’s voice, and as the slightly older Ginsberg giving a long interview about his work (in the photo above). The great supporting cast in the trial scenes includes Jon Hamm, David Strathairn and Mary-Louise Parker.
Howl isn’t a perfect film. The poetry and trial scenes are interwoven with animated sequences that seem too literal-minded, even if they were inspired by work Ginsberg did in collaboration with Eric Drooker. But it is an exciting work of art.
The rich DVD features include commentary with the directors and Franco, behind-the-scenes looks at the film’s creation, new interviews the directors did with friends of Ginsberg’s and even a much older Ginsberg reading Howl. I have to say, I prefer Franco’s reading.