Howling and Baying with James Franco

DATELINE:  Poetry in Motion


Howl—the movie– from 2010 is a depiction of the 1958 obscenity trial in San Francisco over Allen Ginsburg’s epic poem, Howl.

With Whitmanesque elan, Ginsburg presented a work of art that certainly did not encourage prurience. If you were titillated by his images, you were down in the dumps spiritually.

His ground-breaking work set the stage for later events—like gay liberation at Stonewall, adult entertainment on a broad scale, medical marijuana, ghetto rapsters, and even transgender bathrooms. As played by a prettified James Franco, Ginsburg is a cutie-pie bard of the alternative lifestyle.

Stunning in its 1950s atmospheric attitude, the film uses actual words spoken by the principals—taken from interviews with Ginsburg and the trial transcript. Time makes buffoons of many so-called experts, especially English professors who teach the young– leaving them largely uneducated.

An all-star cast supports Franco who has never found a gay role to back away from. His Ginsburg is infatuated with most of the Beat Generation writers. As he said, there was no beat generation—just a bunch of writers trying to be published.

Hollywood has certainly discovered them. The past 20 years we have seen movies about all the famous names of Dharma bums—from Burroughs to Kerouac in multiple depictions.

This film uses flashbacks of Ginsburg explaining how he came to write Howl—and intersperses this with Franco’s lively reading of the poem to a beatnik audience in 1957 as young Allen. Under the voice comes a rather interesting animation to enliven and underscore the lyrically parallel poetry.

As a lively history of 20th century angst, the film is amusing in its use of language, now free to be expressed on screen and in music, thanks to Ginsburg and his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Howl is a hoot from history.