In 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and another employee were charged with obscenity for publishing and selling the collection Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg. Specifically, the prosecutors charged that the poem "Howl" itself, due to it's use of vulgar language, was obscene and unfit for the public's consideration. (Judge for yourself if it is by clicking here.)
The trial, and what led to Ginsberg writing the poem in the first place, is the subject of the 2010 quasi-docudrama Howl, co-written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. The film is based on both the trial transcripts and actual interviews given by Ginsberg, now out on DVD. (Click here to reserve a copy from the library.) Howl's structure is split into several different scenes: the 1955 Six Gallery reading where Ginsberg (James Franco) first unveils "Howl"; an interview Ginsberg gives to an unseen journalist; the aformentioned obscenity trial (with Jon Hamm as Ferlinghetti's attorney Jake Ehrlich, matching wits with prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, played by David Strathairn); animated depictions of the poem's passages while read by Franco-as-Ginsberg; and flashbacks to Ginsberg's friendships with the likes of Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassady. It's during the latter scenes when Ginsberg describes how influential Kerouac, Cassady and the other Beats were to him, that we get a sense of what the Beat Generation (which Ginsberg explains were just a group of guys "trying to get published") was all about.
There are also scenes highlighting Ginsberg's lifelong relationship with Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit) as well as interesting cameos by the likes of Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams and Jeff Daniels as various courtroom witnesses/experts. The animation scenes are quite striking; the hated "Moloch" is especially vivid.
Despite the ping-ponging from one setting to another, Howl the movie holds together as both an exploration of the power and influence of poetry and the creative processes that go into crafting poems (and by extension, any other work of art). During Ginsberg's on-screen interview, we hear what influenced him writing "Howl" (unrequited love was one factor) and see the various reactions it garnered at the Six Gallery as well by less enlightened folks (like Strathairn's McIntosh) who felt threatened by the work's brutal honesty. It's this celebration of the power of poetry that makes Howl essential viewing.
(Beat scholar and two-time Greenwich Library guest speaker Bill Morgan, who gets a "special thanks" credit at the end of the film, co-edited with Nancy J. Peters the 2006 book Howl On Trial: The Battle For Free Expression, which is a excellent account of the trial. It provides transcripts, newspaper accounts and letters from Ginsberg from that period and can also be reserved online by us by clicking here.)