James Franco walked into the classroom and took the seat next to mine. No introductions were made: Just a guy in a raggedy hoodie and crisp leather jacket, one of four prospective students ushered in by the director of the Brooklyn College fiction program. He wore a disaffected manner punctuated with spates of kinetic restlessness. His hair was dyed orange. How likely that a movie star would have nowhere better to be on a Thursday night than there with us, fiction-addled freaks? Wasn’t there something happening at, like, The Viper Room?
We were discussing a story that novelist and workshop leader Joshua Henkin had assigned, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien (really the story MFA programs assign). “Desire in fiction” was the ostensible topic. The guy who seemed to be James Franco focused intently on Henkin, leaning forward now and again so that his leather jacket creaked. He began to dine on a package of vending machine snacks after tearing the plastic open with his teeth and pouring a few morsels into a cupped hand.
I looked from the page in front of me and up at James Franco and back to the page in front of me where Lt. Jimmy Cross was shifting a pebble around in his mouth while dreaming of his unrequited love for a faraway girl. A few of my classmates were smiling aimlessly in my general direction (read: James Franco’s general direction). On the table in front of him was a book: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. And, there it was, confirmation in words, a manila folder at his feet whose label read “Franco – NY Schedule.” The urge to smile was now almost overpowering. I fought it back.
James Franco spoke up, the second prospective student to do so, addressing the point of view of Lt. Jimmy Cross and his comrades in Vietnam: “These are guys who’ve seen things we’ve never seen and hopefully will never see.”
I rose out of silence to make my own comment. Joshua Henkin said: “That’s a really great point, Jeff.” Without looking his way again, I thought: James Franco now knows that I made a really great point. Then: how embarrassing to be patronized in front of James Franco.
When the fifteen-minute break arrived, I asked James Franco about the book he was carrying. “It’s for… class,” he said, turning to smile on the last word before asking if I knew of anywhere nearby to get coffee. His manner was bemused, a Jonathan Lethem cartoon man. He was in his own synch, the pleasure of recognition trailing every gesture, consciousness of that pleasure gleaming in his eyes. It was part and parcel to the thrill of his being there, the spectacle of someone who had believed in the love of an imagined audience, the romance of possibility. There was just one thing: I didn’t drink coffee.
When I tell the story to friends, their faces invariably darken. And I could have saved them that look by simply saying “Sure.” But then I would have been walking across campus in tow to James Franco to get a coffee I didn’t actually drink with James Franco for the sake of telling the story of how I got a coffee with James Franco. So I pointed him in the direction of another student who was going to get coffee and James Franco turned away. Then, just as quickly, turned back. “Thank you,” he said, clasping two hands together, gesture performed as if in a vacuum, no eye contact, beatifically gracious.
Among his brief remarks this past Monday night prior to the Lincoln Center screening of Howl starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, the poet Lou Asekoff, retired director of the Brooklyn College poetry program recalled how Ginsberg once burst into his office to say, “I just blew the guy who knew a guy who blew a guy who knew the rough-hewn tradesman who as a boy lay all night in Whitman’s lap.”
Ginsberg considered Walt Whitman a mentor, “Howl,” his expansive “Song of Myself.” For those expecting a character study of the Beats, the new film isn’t it. It is, instead, a passionate homage to the poem.
The visuals skip between three different fields of reference: an outlaw fantasia animated by Erik Drooker; Ginsberg as played by James Franco in an unshaven interview doing things like sitting on a couch and lighting a stove while talking about his work and again, clean-shaven, in the San Francisco Six Gallery where the poem debuted two years before (1955), actors as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in silent tow; and a courtroom drama with Jon Hamm as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich arguing against the poem’s obscenity, David Strathairn as the D.A. Ralph McIntosh arguing to condemn it, in a sort of Humbert Humbert Ladies-and-Gentlemen-of-the-Jury type treatise on literature’s angels and devils.
Each section has high points. Consider David Strathairn’s delivery of the line, prosecutor Ralph McIntosh’s inadvertent poetry of frustration with Ehrlich’s defense: “I don’t want to box with him, he’s disturbing me. I open my mouth and out fly fists.”
Regarding creative ferment, Franco as Ginsberg recalls the conversation he had with his therapist on whether or not to leave the buttoned-down life behind, having shunted away feelings of his own desires in favor of a desk job. How can he possibly part with that order, Ginsberg recalls asking his therapist, when if he does so he may well end up wretched and white-haired and alone? His therapist, he says, told him to go for it, adding, “You are very charming and lovable and people will always love you.” A gasp of laughter escaped from the movie theater audience.
In the Q&A session that followed the screening, with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman seated up front alongside their star, an audience member asked BC (and Columbia and NYU) MFA alum James Franco, what he made of his role as a cultural icon, or one rapidly in the making? Answered Franco, “I hope to bring attention to some areas being passed over, or dying, lost in the shuffle—you know, poetry is something that doesn’t get a lot of attention, so if I can help bring it some attention, that’s not a bad thing.”
The evening ended and almost everyone took to their feet, a crowd of admirers clotting the exit lane around the movie star, writer and artistic frontiersman James Franco. I couldn’t help it—I was smiling. Okay, I had passed up on coffee. Perhaps, in a life not without its stupid moves, it was the stupidest of all: my friends’ faces say as much. Fame is voracious, and who hasn’t hungered for it? But alone on my row, looking to the front of the theater, I saw—I know that I was seeing—in some literary way, through the fever of my belief in the immortal word, the image of a different kind of friend: one I could trust to carry a dream forward.