OK, so James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg in a movie that is both about “Howl,” an adaptation of “Howl,” and a film about the 1957 Ferlinghetti obscenity trial. Basically, at this point you’ve decided whether you’d like to see it or not.
So, yeah, there are three or maybe four plot threads: we have Ginsberg reading the poem for the first time in 1955, we have Ginsberg talking about it in 1957, we have the obscenity trial in 1957, with David Strathairn for the prosecution and Jon Hamm for the defense, and we have this animated adaptation.
I think the interesting thing about the film is that it actually tends to cast its players against type — David Strathairn is the prissy baddie, for instance, while noted scumbag-player Jon Hamm is the pillar of liberal rectitude (and allegedly the inspiration for Perry Mason — the TV version, that is). And, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t try to turn Ginsberg into a romantic James Franco type of character, instead portraying him as a big old dork.
Now, I have only a little familiarity with the case, but based on what I do have it seems pretty straightforward.There’s nothing you could get from the trial scenes that you couldn’t get from reading about it or, for that matter, just sort of imagining what the trial might have been like. The Ginsberg scenes are interesting, but again I imagine (I am not an expert) that there are umpteen biographies and exegeses out there that would tell you the same things. So you’re basically here for Franco’s performance (which is good!) and the animated sequences (which are mostly, again, pretty much what you’d expect if you just imagined the animated version of the poem and therefore kind of forgettable).
What’s odd to me is all the talk about jazz and the almost total absence of it in the film — perhaps because bebop lacks transgressive power in the 21st century because of its status as a dignified form of high culture? Ginsberg would talk about that stuff blowing your mind, and of course it would if you hadn’t grown up in a culture steeped in its descendants. That type of shock is hard to convey and empathise with. (As an aside, that’s what’s so interesting about Lovecraft, since he should suffer from the same effect.)
I suppose that’s what makes a movie like this so risky — it’s very hard to convey the impact of that work precisely because of its impact; it was so influential that it made every seventeen-year-old boy at my high school with a spark of artistic integrity and an underdeveloped contrarian impulse put on a silly little hat and wear chinos and/or cords and a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up (well, OK, that was On the Road, but the principle is the same). It’s on a pedestal, and like 50% of this movie falls victim to that, but the rest is a lot more interesting.