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April 19 2014

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Catching Ginsberg Mid-Howl

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If there’s one thing that doesn’t put butts in the seats, it’s—for better or worse—American poetry. But if there’s one thing that does, it just might be James Franco, the increasingly multimedia star (General Hospital, anyone?) who stars as the late poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl, opening in theaters today. (That’s Franco in character, left.) Howl centers on the 1957 obscenity trial involving Ginsberg’s famous long poem that threatened to send its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to jail.

Poems raising public hackles? Seems a little hard to imagine in the post-Twitter era. “We’re so used to seeing anything and everything,” Rob Epstein, who co-directed the film with Jeffrey Friedman, agreed at Woolrich Woolen Mills’ premiere screening this week. “The new taboo is authentic feeling. We thought it was a good time to introduce the spirit of Ginsburg and the fact that these guys were speaking from such an authentic place at a time when it was so conformist.” (That conformity is plainly evident in the period-perfect costumes throughout the film—from the starchy suits of the lawyers, played by Jon Hamm and David Strathairn, to Ginsberg’s Coke-bottle glasses.)

Franco, who’s made something of a subspecialty of playing fifties icons—he won a Golden Globe for James Dean in 2002—studied up on the nonconformist to get it perfect. “He does have very specific mannerisms, very recognizable speech patterns,” he said. “I just kind of practiced them all.” (His co-star Aaron Tveit remembered him sitting in the makeup chair at 6 a.m., listening intently to recordings of Ginsberg reading.) It worked: Franco recites large snatches of the poem in a convincing Ginsbergese throughout the film. In the end, he may have a clearer picture of the guy by literary osmosis than his director does through actual experience. “I encountered him once, chanting backstage at the Living Theatre before a performance of Paradise Now,” Friedman remembered of his one Ginsberg sighting. “I was high on God knows what.”

Photo: Photo: JoJo Whilden / Oscilloscope Pictures

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