Visual theatrics aside, the film alternates between courtroom scenes and moments when Franco channels Ginsberg reading his poem in a dark, smoky café. The poet is nervous at first and then gains confidence and momentum as he laments the members of his generation “who faded out in vast sordid movies, were shifted in dreams, woke on a sudden Manhattan, and picked themselves up out of basements hung over with heartless Tokay and horrors of Third Avenue iron dreams & stumbled to unemployment offices.”
Some of the poem’s verses that speak frankly about homosexual and heterosexual love and sex seem barely controversial in our more openminded age. Yet they were of utmost concern to people who had only recently seen the debut of Playboy and were more than a decade away from the Stonewall riots. After Howl was seized by American customs officials, en route from a London printer, its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books, was forced to stand trial and defend the literary merits of the poem against charges that it was immoral and obscene.
Based on the actual courtroom transcripts, these legal scenes are rendered with surprising finesse. It’s a rare cinematic moment when literary critics and English professors take center stage in a major feature film. Mary-Louise Parker (the pot-dealing protagonist of Showtime’s Weeds, among many other roles) has a lively turn on the witness stand as an anti-obscenity crank. One of the best defenses of the poem comes from University of California, Berkeley, professor Mark Schorer (played by Treat Williams). Schorer demolishes the haranguing of the prosecution’s lawyer, who is baffled by Ginsberg’s racy language. “Sir,” Schorer says, “you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it is poetry.”
The poem, however, is intensely biographical, alternating between descriptions of Carl Solomon, Ginsberg’s confidant and fellow patient at a New York psychiatric hospital in the late 1940s (referred to as “Rockland” in the poem), and Ginsberg’s pals and fellow scribes Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. The film includes some of Ginsberg’s actual black-and-white snapshots
The best mind of his generation? James Franco