Franco, Franco, Franco

James, not General

I think this could be a new theme


So first off, let’s try not to ignore the film-based road my happy place has taken of late – this is no bad thing. It’s always kind of been there to be fair, whether it’s ranting about the amount of cock in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or shooting the breeze about Cameron’s opus – of film, I am a fan.

Second, blame Tron: Legacy. You may fight with me on this, but that film spoke to me on so many levels and has since prompted me to not only seek out more, better cinema but also – if the mood takes me – write about it afterwards.

With that in mind, we arrive at James Franco.

He’s been popping his head up a fair bit recently; first (after many a recommendation) I finally sat down to watch MILK, the true life story of California’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk. Anyone who knows this film will be aware that it is indeed a rather awesome Sean Penn flick but, unless you’ve actually seen it, what you might now know is that James Franco puts in a best-supporting-actor-worthy turn as Harvey’s long time partner and supporter, Scott Smith.

Milk is wonderful.

Dealing with the liberation of homosexuality in 1970’s San Francisco, the film opens with a love scene. Note; a love scene. Not gratuitous sex scene, but love. Two men, loving each other. For a film telling the story of how to overcome the bigotry and phobias associated with that time, the best way to bring your audience on side is to show them the one thing that everyone was fighting for: the freedom to love. Forget how the story unfolds or how well Harvey’s tale is told, for want of a better turn of phrase – this opener nails it. If you haven’t seen it, seek it out. At once.

I guess at this point it might be worth nothing that my hitherto experience of James Franco had only been through his fairly basic turns in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. If you’re reading this in the future, I’m talking about the Toby McGuire ones, not the Andrew Garfield one(s). The trilogy in question is worth a separate post on its own (but if you’re interested in the short version they rate in this order, 2 then 1 and finally, the worst, 3). Franco is… good… but not exactly stand-out. Admittedly with not much to go on, he masters father/son angst quite well. Alas, that’s pretty much all he has to go on. Well, that and murderous revenge, but they’re kinda the same thing anyway.

The point being: I’m only now exploring Franco’s filmography. So forgive me if this is old ground for some of you.

Moving on.

The day before seeing Milk,  I turned the TV on to discover James Franco appearing on ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio‘. If you’ve never seen the show, it’s basically kick-ass Hollywood superstars being interviewed in front of a group of theatre/film/acting students.

It’s a bit Parky, but actually – as the subject matter is mainly about the film(s) that said star has been a part of – it’s actually quite watchable.

Franco comes across as warm, funny and intelligent. Not that he wouldn’t be, but still – it’s nice to see. If you have the opportunity to see it all, then do so. Like I said,  he’s very funny [his story about how he nearly lost the part in 127 HOURS – which I am yet to see – because director, Danny Boyle, thought he was stoned is a key highlight] and evidence of this can be found in his frankly hilarious ‘Acting with James Franco‘ series on Funny or Die.

Which leads finally, to his most recent film –


I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

— Excerpt from Howl, Alan Ginsberg

Howl, if you’re unaware, is a poem by Alan Ginsberg and I’ll be honest, before reading about the film of the same name, I had never actually heard of it before. Which, when you think about it, isn’t that great and – even though I was happy to go in cold as it were – I left the cinema wishing that I had actually done my research on the piece beforehand and, if you’re making plans to see it yourself, then I’d recommend you read it too.

Hell, even if you’re not planning on seeing the film, just read the damn poem.

That aside, onwards to the film.

Created in documentary style and based upon both courtroom notes and actual recordings with Ginsberg himself, the film flits between interviews with the poet discussing HOWL and the obscenity trial that surrounded it. The film-makers originally set out to make just that: a documentary.

But they didn’t actually want to make just another documentary, hence the dramatisation element. HOWEVER, it’s super important to know [so important in fact, that you’re told before the film even starts] that all of the scenes are based upon actual events. The interplay in the courtroom is based upon the actual courtroom notes, the interviews with Ginsberg are taken from actual recordings and the whole thing comes together with a fantastic sense of authenticity and truth that it’s quite hard not to be captivated by it all.

Something that has divided critics so far however is the use of animation throughout the film. Obviously a whole film dedicated to one particular poem would be a bit weird if it didn’t actually include the poem itself. While some parts of it are recited by Franco channelling Ginsberg in full-blown beatnik, 1955-Californian laid-back angry mode [see image above, right], the main parts are shown through animation.

Not just any animation, admittedly. This work is based upon illustrations by Eric Drooker that appeared in his “Illuminated Poems” collaboration with Ginsberg from the late 90s. So, worthy of the attention, right?

I’ll be honest with you, while watching the film I wasn’t actually that stimulated by them and actually, kind of wished they weren’t there. I’ve already said that this was my first experience of Howl and so, I guess I just wanted to interpret the words for myself – to create my own images and my own visuals, not watch someone else’s.

But, my mind was changed before my feet even left the cinema.

I caught Howl at The Gate Picturehouse in Notting Hill. A lovely little cinema and actually, the perfect venue for a film like this [sidenote: don’t see Howl at the Odeon] and, in their endless awesomeness, they’d organised a Q&A after the film with one of Ginsberg’s contemporaries, Michael Horovitz.

Mad as a bag of badgers and delightful with it, Horovitz spent the 45mins after the credits rolled telling stories about Ginsberg’s birthday parties [only half The Beatles came, not all of them] and how censorship is unevenly spread across different mediums such as radio vs film vs publications etc.

Insightful? Probably.
Hilarious? Definitely.

One thing he also touched upon though was how he felt about the animated parts film and he made a fantastic point when he said:

“The animation is superb. Not because it visualises the work, not at all. But because it shows one thing that films like this often miss out on; and that is the journey of creation. Normally you’ll see the artist, the creator of work, just sat at his desk and then the next thing you know, the words – or the art – is there. The animation in this film really brings that burning inspiration to life — what it’s actually like to have those words flow through you from inception to ink. For that, I think they stand up well.”

Like I said, it completely changed my mind on it. If/when you see HOWL, consider the animated parts in that light and I guarantee you’ll enjoy them much, much more. I know I will.


In closing –

Franco is great. Understated, poignant and gentle.
The film deserves an arthouse cinema [there’s that point about the Odeon].
Read it first.




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Author: James Whatley

Experienced advertising and communications strategist working in brand, games, and entertainment. I got ❤️ for writing, gaming, and figuring stuff out. I'm @whatleydude pretty much everywhere that matters. Nice to meet you x

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