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Howl (Blu-ray Review)

17 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $0.06 million
$29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Not rated.
Stars James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban.

Though the idea behind it was never going to be inherently filmable, this barely released slice of anti-nostalgia can’t help but seduce, within severe screen limitations, as a cheeky screen concept for grown-ups. Here’s James Franco playing Allen Ginsberg a couple years after the poet had penned once sexually frank Howl, which ended up spurring a famous 1957 San Francisco anti-obscenity trial against poet/publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. For good measure, the respective prosecution and defense lawyers are played here by David Strathairn and Jon Hamm (he, in particular, a personality who nurtures legal confidence).

We’ll start with Franco, who previously played James Dean in a TV movie. When my ex-wife, who has a thing for the significantly younger actor, heard of this casting, you could hear her loud “HUH?!?” all over the neighborhood. But truth is, Ginsberg was a lot better looking when he was younger as opposed to say, when he was testifying (and if I recall correctly) chanting a decade later at the Chicago 10 trial. So with an applicable haircut and some imposing glasses frames for the actor, you’d be surprised. If Martin Scorsese would please hire Franco to play Frank Sinatra in his rumored upcoming biopic (there’s as yet no evidence that this casting is anything beyond my fantasy), his filmography would pretty well have the ‘50s covered.

Howl (the movie) is co-directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman — best known for a pair of fabulous documentaries, The Celluloid Closet and Oscar-winning The Times of Harvey Milk, the latter to my mind much superior to 2008’s Milk, which dramatized the same story. Their rendering of the legal fracas is split into halves: the Ferlinghetti trial, which Ginsberg did not attend, plus life/autobiographic ruminations taken strictly from Ginsberg’s writings. In the latter case, the approach has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, you know that what you’re hearing is always coming from the poet’s mouth. On the other, the device is anti-dramatic in that it’s impossible for this Ginsberg to have a naturalistic conversation with another human being (Franco instead voices what Ginsberg has written to an unseen person in the room). Thus, there’s never anything too loose or off-the cuff in what he says — no “I’ll bet Richard Nixon never gets it on” or “Isn’t Frank Gifford cute?” — things a real person of the era might have said.

Franco also spouts a lot of Ginsberg’s poetry, which are backed by animated visuals that illustrate the highly visual concepts that were part and parcel of his verse. The movie can use this, and for a while the device works, but it eventually grows monotonous even given the movie’s welcomely modest 84-minute running time. Actually, the trial scenes are better because they, too, use actual transcripts. And from today’s perspective, it is amazing that this nonsense could have even taken place.

Almost by definition, the defense had to trot in experts of the day to speculate whether the poem had literary merit or if it were likely to stand the test of time — and one witness is shrewd enough to note that standing the test will probably be made easier because of the attention the trial will attract to the work in question. There’s one good (civil) sparring match between Hamm and a professor played by Jeff Daniels who is in over his head in a skirmish he can’t win. But my favorite witness, played by Mary-Louise Parker, is a so-called writing expert who is introduced as having worked for NBC (hopefully, it was just an affiliate) and who’d previously spent a lot of time and effort editing what she didn’t like out of Faust.

Along with the standard environmentally friendly Oscilloscope packaging that threatens to crumble in your hands, the release has lots of extras that include a Franco/filmmakers commentary and some cool backgrounders on how the production designer and costumers managed to do a lot with what had to have been a limited budget. I also couldn’t help but notice here that the “not guilty” verdict got headlined in the San Francisco papers on Oct. 4, 1957 — the same day that Sputnik went up and “Leave It to Beaver” made its network premiere. Pretty heady times, historically speaking, given that that was also the month “Jailhouse Rock” hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

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