Yale was the hottest place to be in New Haven, if not the state on Wednesday night, thanks to James Franco.
Yale’s most famous grad student arranged for a screening of “Howl,” a re-enactment of Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem and the controversial obscenity trial surrounding the book.
Franco stars in it as beat poet Ginsberg. The film is a re-enactment based on Ginsberg’s first public reading of the poem in 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. The date goes down in history as the time the Beat movement began.
The screening was at the Whitney Humanities Center, and it brought crowds. A line started forming three hours early and wrapped from Wall Street onto Temple Street.
Several Yale women admitted that Franco – best known for “Freaks and Geeks,” “Spider-Man” and “Milk” - was at least part of the draw.
Before the film, panelists talked about Ginsberg’ role in literary history and how he was a collection of marginal personalities -- the poet who prided himself on being gay, a socialist and a pot smoker.
Franco walked, unassumingly, in before the pre-screening panel discussion, grabbed a seat, watched his film and answered questions afterward.
“It shows that the poem does have value,” Franco said during the question and answer period. “It shows one trial is not the only reason that Howl is read today.”
The film is based on court transcripts and interviews with Ginsberg.
“This is not a Hollywood rendition,” Franco said.
The court transcripts added to the humor of an otherwise serious, if not dark, film.
“It’s silly,” Franco said of the arguments made during the trial. It showed how perceptions of literature and free speech have changed in 55 years. “Everything they said. These are the transcripts. To perform that is strange.”
Franco is a graduate student of Literature at Yale and his class is discussing beat writers and the ‘Howl” trial.
“It was a strange case. We’ve talked about it in class,” Franco said. ”(The case) made ’Howl’ more well known.”
Yale English professor Amy Hungerford suggested the screening to her famous student and Franco made it happen.
“He is an actor of immense talent and range of openness,” she said, referring to Franco’s varied roles in General Hospital and as Scott Smith in “Milk,” the gay lover of Harvey Milk, the country’s first openly gay elected official.
During the question-and-answer session, students asked about the film, Franco's creative process and the use of animation, which brings a graphic-novel urban-hipster feel to the film.
When Franco talked about the acting, he said Ginsburg’s “early readings are pretty flat – serious” but they got better, more dramatic, as time went on. So, the filmmakers showed an arc of progression in the readings through Franco’s performance.
One student, however, asked Franco how he is finding Yale. The actor laughed and pointed out two of his professors in the auditorium.
“The professors are the best,” he said. “I feel very welcomed.”
Hungerford also revealed a new project Franco has been working on -- turning poems into small productions Franco calls “translations.”
Franco said they are words turned into images.