Posts Tagged 'James Franco'

Howl

Details: 2010, USA, Cert 15, 84 mins, Drama/Period, Dir: Jeffrey Friedman, Rob Epstein

Starring: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels

That the Beats saw poetry as ejaculatory male self-expression is a not at all unsubtle idea. Sex runs through every vein of their literature, with all corresponding imagery. This film pulls off the connotations with animated sequences of trains running up mountain legs, in phallic landscapes and shooting fireworks. That the imagery is so obvious may be due to the backgrounds of the directors.

This is their first feature film, written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, documentary-makers who collaborated on the Academy award-winning Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. It centres on Howl, the infamous poem penned by Allen Ginsberg (James Franco), who was a senior member of the jazz and words-obsessed Beat Generation. The poem sparked controversy for its drugs and sexual references and was brought to an obscenity trial.

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg

The film flits between three parts: from an interview in New York, to the court-room drama of the trial in 1957 San Francisco, to Ginsberg typing the poem with hallucinatory animation. It all changes from B&W to colour for each segment – it’s not as confusing as it sounds, and the whole thing continually returns to the opening scene, the poem’s debut Six Gallery reading, and as it progresses we get to hear Howl in its entirety.

The film’s tone is hushed and reverent, the camera sitting still to absorb all the wisdom dispensed in the poet’s interview. The script takes us through Ginsberg’s ideas and philosophies, all delivered with arrow-straight emotion by Franco. His depiction is considered, thoughtful, soft and earnest, which has truth, but the restraint can be too much. Franco doesn’t have the necessary weight, both literal and figurative, for a character so mired in intensity.

Elsewhere Mad Men’s Jon Hamm is oddly stiff as defense attorney Jake Erlich, while it was great to see Jeff Daniels as a clueless English professor. We don’t see much of Jack Keroauc (Todd Rotondi) or Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), the former the biggest inspiration to Ginsberg. It helps to keep focus on the studious beardyman but it left a void of wild adventure and craziness, characteristics central to the Beats.

It’s a nice film to look at, the cinematographer Edward Lachman has given the movie a modern mid-tone B&W, which thankfully doesn’t add any nostalgia, and the colours of the courtroom are green and warm like a gust of summer. But it all feels a little lightweight, even the animated sequences, which I thought were going to be a blast, stay faithful to its era. We get images of wombs, ghosts, skeletons and angels, all rendered in an art deco style. They’re flat and unimaginative.

Some simple sentences do resonate. The prosecuting attorney (a suitably strung-out David Straitharn) asks:

“What are angel-headed hipsters?”

“You can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it is poetry”, comes the reply from the literary critic.

And Franco wrings great depth from the line, “Promised I was heterosexual and that’s how I got out”, when he talks about his time spent at the mental hospital with the writer Carl Solomon, to whom Howl is dedicated.

With the cross-examination of various English professors and ‘experts’ in court, we get differing views on what defines literature. It offers a handy breakdown on technical and thematic aspects of Howl, which may delight or bore you. My feeling is the poem gave voice to a massive generation change, turning into epic the feelings of a repressed clique, and ultimately of a gay man.

Allen Ginsberg (right) with (from left) fellow Beat luminaries Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso (back to camera) and David Amram, New York, late 1950s

Jack Keroac’s On the Road, with its dizzying sentences and breaths of untrammelled optimism, and Ginsberg’s free verse allowed the Beats to express their joy at all the opportunity and ecstatic freedom that jazz, drugs and uninhibited sex gave them, in an un-liberated time. But this structure of fixated desire, so attuned to the flow of words, left them indeed devoid of any “moral greatness”.

But the film does hint that sex is much art’s undercurrent, with a lovely shot of Cezanne’s La Montagne Saint in colour, while surrounded by B&W. And Howl itself of course, partly helped by the obscenity trial (alluded to in court), like all obscenity trials, helped to draw attention to social norms of frankness and honesty.

Perhaps the poem’s need to provoke and its outpouring of emotion and gushing rhythm could have come from no other man as Ginsberg. He was repressed after all and an obviously sensitive soul. We see this at the film’s end, with a clamorous, though rather reverent scene of the poem’s footnote. Franco reads with fervour and ends with tones of compassion on the final line:

“Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent
kindness of the soul!”

I only saw glimpses of this in the film, and people who knew him testified to his gleeful generosity. But the film is a monument to Howl, not its author. And I got a clear handle of the poem’s power as spoken word but all the realities of life, social upheaval, Ginsberg’s relationships and clouds of darkness were missing or only there in stolen snatches.

I gained knowledge such as that an English Lit seminar could have given me, but the acting, the very textural quality of the film gave me little clue as to the context in which Howl was created. It was more strait-laced then I imagined it would be, a route that can reveal better insight, but overall the film does not engage emotionally, its analysis is too dry and cumbersome.

Some greater narrative must match Howl’s riveting, bopping, long lines of thrill and change.

3/5

127 Hours

James Franco as Aron Ralston in 127 Hours

I’d sooner lose a finger than chop my own arm off. I’d rather shoot myself in the foot than chop off my own arm. In fact, chopping off my own arm comes pretty low on the list of things I’d like to do, along with shit-eating and talking about sex with my mother. But Aron Ralston in 127 Hours faces a choice altogether more stark: life or limb?

James Franco (of Spiderman fame) plays Aron Ralston, an engineer with a passion for climbing. He’s easygoing with a do-it-all attitude. He takes a trip to Utah, to mountain bike, hike and climb, but doesn’t inform anyone where he’s going. He slips while he’s climbing and gets trapped when a boulder falls on his arm. 127 hours later, he’s armless but free, with the aid of a blunt knife, and lives to climb another day.

It’s a true story which occurred in 2003 and in an interview, the real-life Aron Ralston, 35, said “The movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama”. And what drama Danny Boyle has wrought is testament to his skill as a film-maker. This is Boyle’s tenth feature and follows his trend of character-driven movies, whether they’re an ensemble of heroin addicts in Trainspotting, a spoiled adventurer in The Beach, or the love-struck Jamal in the life-affirming Slumdog Millionaire.

Every one of his movies has energy and wit, a willingness to play with composition, texture and expectation. But the success of his latest owes as much to James Franco’s detailed and awe-inspiring performance as directorial technique. The movie has a curious style. From the beginning, Boyle makes use of all the tricks he has, with split screens, close focus shots of arbitrary things – tap water running, a Swiss army knife missed, and images of the inside of objects – the whir of a lens motor in a digital camera, the x-ray of a knife being plunged into bone. This and the super-vivid colours reminded me of the band Maroon 5’s hyper-slick, advert-style music video to ‘Sunday Morning’.

These tics and decorations are needed in a film with a bare-naked plot and mostly just one cramped setting. And it’s a film of lovely details. Images of ants being chased by the sun and in one superb sequence, we get a Gatorade reverie, with a lip-smacking shot of a shivering, sweating bottle of sugared liquid.

James Franco’s smile would probably be the smuggest smile in the world, if it were not so seductively likable. It radiates confidence and ease, and fits the glow of happy solitude that anyone who has ever gone hiking would recognise. But when the boulder falls and traps him, watch his face. His smile almost lingers, his eyes almost drool as they start to comprehend despair. It’s a microcosm of emotion and dawning realisation.

As background, we get flashbacks to Ralston’s childhood and mental replays of what could have been. Clemence Poesy has a small part as an ex-girlfriend and her prettiness is welcome in so rugged a film. When finally we get to what must be done, to what most audience members probably have come to expect as climax, the grisliness of the whole affair does not disappoint.

Using a crappy multi-tool with a crappy knife to slice his arm, it definitely gave me a sour taste of sharp pain and I’ll never think of tendons in the same way again. Franco acts of all this with a face that flickers, sniggers, grimaces and winces in all the right degrees, it’s as perfect a performance I have seen, and the director has filled the movie with just enough focus and distraction to balance narrative tension. The soundtrack works well with songs from Beck and Bill Withers used to good effect and A. R. Rahman‘s score, which changes from kinetic to quietly stirring, is one of his best.

Any moral one could draw from all this would be vapid. Be more prepared? Buy better knives when you go hiking? Don’t be so proud? Who cares. What Danny Boyle has managed to do is make something unfilmable flow in what almost feels like real time. I came out upbeat but not uplifted, and it was a good call not to show Ralston as any kind of superhero. His actions could have been repeated by any one of us, and yet could only really be his.

This is Ralston’s story and 127 Hours is not a film, it’s an experience.

5/5


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