Franco fascinating as Ginsberg in convoluted ‘Howl’

Arnold Wayne Jones | Life+Style Editor

After 30 years of making non-fiction films, using interviews, newsreels and stock footage, documentarians Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein have taken a dive into the deep end of the filmmaking pond with Howl. They don’t drown, but they need a stronger stroke to keep from treading water.

On the surface, it shares much with their documentary output: Like The Celluloid Closet, Common Threads: Tales from the Quilt and The Times of Harvey Milk, it tackles a high-profile moment in gay rights history: The writing of (and obscenity trial over) Allen Ginsberg’s incendiary longform poem Howl. It’s a rangy movie, flitting between Ginsberg’s (James Franco) relationships leading up to his writing of it, the initial reading at a San Francisco coffeehouse in 1955, the trial and an interview with and older Ginsberg about what it meant. In between, the directors use animation to capture the dreamy nonsense of the images.

That’s a lot to digest, with various visual styles that never coalesce: The supersaturated colors of the poem’s imagery contrast with the black-and-white hand-held shots of Allen at home, film noir moodiness of the café and flat, Mad Men-esque stuffiness of the courtroom scenes. It’s as if Friedman and Epstein, finally freed of the constraints of the reality of a documentary, got lost in the vast techniques at their disposal.

They have not, though, presented the drama with the intensity it warrants. The poem itself is compelling if pretentious, yet radical and historically significant; the lawsuit claiming it was pornographic for its depiction of homosexual longing was noteworthy but hardly precedential. Still, it’s plump with dramatic potential … which the film fails to take full advantage of. Even the trial, adequately handled with Jon Hamm and David  Strathain facing off over obscenity, doesn’t have the pop of a good episode of Law & Order. It feels compartmentalized, removed from the realities of Ginsberg’s creative process.

Still, Franco’s performance is enough to recommend it. Franco has become one of the most daring and inventive young stars in Hollywood, taking huge career risks with a happy quietude that suggests a real artist. His cadences as Ginsberg, and the brave way he throws himself into the gay situations, give him an ethereal quality, wafting through the movie like a guiding spirit.

Two and a half stars