Monday, April 6, 2009

Friday, March 20, 2009:

Today we began shooting the courtroom battle over Howl's literary merit. The publisher of Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Book Shop, was brought to trial for publishing obscene material. Bob Balaban played Judge Clayton Horn, who presided over the 1957 trial; David Straitharn played Ralph McIntosh, the prosecuting attorney who was in a bit over his head; and Jon Hamm was legendary defense attorney Jake "The Master" Ehrlich. Though we were shooting at a courtroom in the Bronx, the period set dressing and vibrant lighting created the feeling that we were in a sun-soaked 1957 courtroom in San Francisco. Forty extras in period clothes filled the courtroom; they were all positioned based on actual photographs from the trials that showed a courtroom full of attentive spectators. The courtroom scenes were being shot in a classical style, reminiscent of courtroom dramas from "To Kill a Mockingbird" to "The Verdict", in contrast with the looser style of the rest of the film.

As with most feature films, we had to shoot the scenes out of sequence because of actor availability, and so we began with the end - Judge Horn (Bob Balaban) delivering the verdict. As performed by Bob Balaban, the verdict became an eloquent monologue that beautifully summed up the importance of free speech. Judge Horn asked, "Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism? An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words." (Right before the Howl trial, Horn had been critiqued by local press for sentencing four lady shoplifters to
attend Cecil B. DeMilles "The Ten Commandments" and write essays on the epic's moral lessons. It seems that the criticism he received for that verdict must have weighed heavily on his decision in the Howl case).

After shooting the verdict scene, we then went to the very beginning of the trial and shot prosecutor Ralph McIntosh's opening statement. His befuddlement was evident as he began, "I want to show on the first page inside of Howl it says 'The Pocket Poets Series, Number Four, City Lights Book Shop, San Francisco'. However, on the following
page, way down at the bottom, is 'All these books are published in heaven'. And I dont quite understand that, but let the record show anyway, your Honor, it's published by the City Lights Pocketbook Shop". McIntosh objected to specific words in Howl as being obscene, yet he didnt understand the poem as a whole, as he openly admitted later in the trial, and he did not even seem to care about Ginsberg's intentions. McIntosh had tried many smut cases in the past against pornographic movies, nudist magazines, and Jane Russells appearance in Howard Hughes' "The Outlaw".

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