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Jewish Journal

Live at Sundance:  James Franco Howls

by Larry Mark

January 23, 2010 | 5:06 pm

At the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, it seems as if there are more films of interest to the Hebrew tribe this year than in the past, and as it so happens, the most prominent ones all start with the letter “H.”  They are: “Holy Rollers,” about Hasidic drug mules (more on this later); “Hesher,” which revolves around a family in the midst of tragedy; and “Howl, ” about the gay, Jewish Beat Generation poet “Allen Ginsberg” (James Franco of “Spider-Man” and “Milk”), who was tried for obscenity for his work.  So far, “Howl” has garnered the most attention at the festival, mainly because it was one of the opening night films.

Written, directed and produced by the acclaimed gay activist documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Times of Harvey Milk,” “Celluloid Closet”) the drama began as a doc about Ginsberg and the fiftieth anniversary of the publishing of his provocative (some said obscene) poem, “Howl.”

At a Park City press conference, the directors described the creative obstacles they faced while making the movie – and how they hoped to break the filmmaking form in the same way that “Howl,” broke the poetry genre.  Epstein recalled, “We’d been given this treasure, but now we were faced with how in the world do we actually do this?  We started out with a traditional documentary approach, but it soon became clear we weren’t getting to the essence of Ginsberg.  We had to find a way to bring together all these different elements - the text of the poem, Ginsberg’s life and ideas, this landmark trial - to create a multi-faceted picture of “Howl’s” creation and the world’s response.  The thrilling part was that we were inventing the form as we went along.”

The directors, who were closely familiar with how screenplays get made in the editing room, chose to turn the film into three interwoven stories:  the unfolding of the landmark 1957 obscenity trial; an imaginative, animated exploration of the poem; and the story of Allen Ginsberg finding his prophetic voice and a way to perform his masterpiece at a time when America was changing.

Franco, who was raised in Palo Alto, CA (and whose mom is Jewish) became interested in the beat writers at age 14; he always envisioned himself playing someone like Jack Kerouac, another literary iconoclast who with Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs is considered a pioneer of the Beat Generation.  Franco recalled, “We were all so taken with the whole idea of ‘live, live, live.’  We were into ‘Howl,’ [Kerouac’s] ‘On The Road,’ ‘Naked Lunch,’ and we would go up to City Lights [book store] to see where it all started.”

Franco saw “The Celluloid Closet” at Palo Alto‘s Aquarius Theatre as a youth, so when approached about “Howl,” the combination of Epstein, Friedman and Ginsberg didn’t seem like the name of a Jewish law firm, but of a new passion project.  Franco spent his own money during the film’s development phases to research the role and find ways to inject new vigor into the poem.

Having previously portrayed the actor James Dean and Harvey Milk’s real-life boyfriend, Scott Smith, Franco said he enjoys tackling real characters since he has to work harder to give them their due on screen.

One third of the film focuses on the 1957 San Francisco obscenity trial, The People v. Ferlinghetti, that the publication of “Howl” initiated.  Prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) set out to censor and ban the book, while defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) argued the case for freedom of expression.  The case is argued before conservative Judge Clayton Horn (Bob Balaban), while Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams, Alessandro Nivola, and Mary-Louise Parker play the roles of some of the unusual witnesses who appeared during the case.  (Today, it is still a violation of FCC obscenity rules to broadcast the words of “Howl.”)

Balaban previously faced censorship in one of his first feature film roles, “Midnight Cowboy,” which received an X rating as a result of an oral sex scene involving Balaban’s student character and Jon Voight’s cowpoke.  It was later changed to an R rating after the movie received several stellar reviews.

With its experimental type of format, “Howl” has been receiving mixed reviews in the past 24 hours at Sundance. Friedman said, “As a film, “Howl,” is a lot of things, but I hope audiences will relate to it as the story of a man finding a way to be true to himself.  Allen Ginsberg was searching for a way to express fully who he was - and, in doing so, he changed himself and the culture.”

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