Howl, having its local premiere tonight as part of the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, threatens at first to be a compendium of writer-movie clichés: the bespectacled poet musing over his typewriter, the closeup of keys striking paper, the singsong poetry reading in a smoke-filled club. But this exploration of Allen Ginsbergs epic poem Howl and the 1957 obscenity trial it engendered soon morphs into something much more rich and strange.
Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman compiled the script from court records, archival interviews with Ginsberg and Howl itself. But they intersperse their more traditional docu-dramatizing with segments of animation that bring to life Ginsbergs angel-headed hipsters in ways both literal and fantastical.
James Franco, who lately has been all about calling attention to himself (Grad programs! Art installations! General Hospital!) gives an admirably unshowy performance as Ginsberg, quietly conveying the poets earnestness and acute intelligence.