Allen Ginsberg Didn’t Say That: A Conversation on the Film 'Howl'

C.E. McAuley and friends get wordy about Allen Ginsberg, Howl, and the release of the film now on DVD.

When I arrived at the movie theater Dr. Jonah Raskin, author, professor and radical, was dismayed.

“What’s wrong?”

“They’re not showing the movie. The projector’s broken.”

We had made plans to see Howl (2010) starring James Franco -- released recently on DVD -- at a small, local theater in Santa Rosa, California. Raskin’s authored numerous books and articles, notably for this occasion American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of The Beat Generation(University of California Press). The plan was to see the movie with Jonah and then discuss his film, Ginsberg’s poem and its connection to the film (which largely covers the famed obscenity trial following Howl’s publication by City Lights Press that brought Ginsberg to prominence).

We were accompanied by two of my journalism students Rothtana Ouch and Aimee Drew. Now we were all standing there awkwardly. Besides ourselves and the staff it didn’t seem that anyone else was at the theater though a number of other films were playing. We were quickly approaching the 5:30 showtime so it seemed time to get innovative as the film was leaving the theater in the next day or so. I had before me a sympathetic ticket taker, the theater manager and the tick tick tick of the clock.

“You know,” I said. “I have a friend who lives in Asmara, Eritrea and if he wants to see a movie he can walk down to the movie theater and ask them to play whatever movie he wants to see that they have and they’ll start it whenever he wants. Is there really anyone seeing Freakonomics at 5:15?”

With our pathetically sad eyes, desire, negotiations, a sympathetic ticket taker and a little luck the projector for Howl began working at 5:28 p.m. After the film we adjourned to an Italian place down the street that’s a local favorite and talked. In the din of the small loft, the four of us reflected on Howl -- the film and the poem -- Ginsberg and our time together. In celebration of the recent release of Howl on DVD this week what follows is a transcript of my interview with Raskin and our discussion with Aimee and Rothtana -- three generations howling together.

C.E. McAuley: Jonah, have you decided what kind of salad you want?

Jonah Raskin: I thought you said the -- which one was that?

C: I think the Sonoma Salad...

Jonah Raskin: Fine, let’s split that.

C.E. McAuley: Alright, yes.

Jonah Raskin: Yeah.

C.E. McAuley: So, you wrote the book American Scream...

Jonah Raskin: That is correct.

C.E. McAuley: About the making of Howl and the implications of Howl -- how do you feel the film, that we just, saw relates to your work and to the book itself?

Jonah Raskin: Well, gosh. I think the film is gonna make Howl and Allen Ginsberg better known than he already is now, so I would say that’s obviously a good thing.

C.E. McAuley: And you have an actor like James Franco, who is very popular in the Spider Man films that were out, do you think having an actor like that will help engage a younger audience?

Jonah Raskin: That I don’t know, I have to ask

Aimee that. (To Aimee) Did you relate to James Franco as Allen Ginsberg?

Aimee Drew: I think I relate to Allen Ginsberg more than I relate to James Franco.

C.E. McAuley: Just in general?

Aimee Drew: Just in general, yeah I mean he’s a good actor, I can’t really judge his acting prowess based on Spider Man, but I think he did a phenomenal job in How.

Jonah Raskin: I did find that the least interesting part, for me in the movie, was when

Allen Ginsberg is just talking.

C.E. McAuley: Which was most of the film.

Jonah Raskin: Is it? Well, I mean, there’s also the, I mean I liked the animation...

C.E. McAuley: Right...

Jonah Raskin: The courtroom drama, that adds some drama to it.

Rothtana Ouch: (to the waitress) I’ll take a meat lover’s nine inch.

C.E. McAuley: Yeah you will.

Rothtana Ouch: That’s what she said.

Aimee Drew: That is NOT what she said.

C.E. McAuley: I’d like an original calzone please.

Jonah Raskin: Could I get a nine inch margarita pizza, please?

C.E. McAuley: Are we gonna split a S... can we split a Sonoma salad?

Aimee Drew: Can I have a, I guess a small Caesar salad with chicken please?

Jonah Raskin: Well I do think it blew -- the sex was blown out of proportion. I would say.

C.E. McAuley: Well, yeah, it’s interesting. You think in terms of the portrayal of it in the film or as it relates to the poem?

Jonah Raskin: Well, sort of both, there is sex in the poem, there is homosexuality. But I mean, Ginsberg was also, he was the full spectrum of, you know, he had relationships with women, he had relationships with men. So to say that Allen Ginsberg was gay or homosexual -- some of the time he was -- you know, there were times when he wasn’t.

C.E. McAuley: So if you were to put the poem in context, why is Howl -- why was it and why is it, why does it continue to be a vital poem in American literature? Why is it important to us today?

Jonah Raskin: Let’s see, you’re asking hard questions. Well, it’s his personal experience. It’s the poet, the speaker and the poem, talking from his own unique life and experience and that’s who we are as Americans. It’s our job in the world, we’re supposed to like, speak from our hearts and our souls about what -- how we -- our vision and…

C.E. McAuley: Right and that was one of the -- seemed like one of the main themes of the film was to get past the individual persona and into the real soul of who the artist is or who the person is, who the poet is.

Jonah Raskin: Yeah…

C.E. McAuley: And, so we have Howl that came out in 1955, it’s post WWII, it’s the post WWII generation...

Jonah Raskin: Yeah...

C.E. McAuley: It’s the nuclear age, it’s almost the space age...

Jonah Raskin: Yes...

C.E. McAuley: You mentioned the animation which wasn’t quite psychedelic, but was borderline. My question on the animation in terms of…

Jonah Raskin: Yeah well, you know more about animation than I...

C.E. McAuley: Well, I’m not gonna ask you a technical question about animation...

Jonah Raskin: Gosh --

C.E. McAuley: (motioning to the shredded cheese)What did you think that was butter?

Jonah Raskin: I thought that was butter.

C.E. McAuley: How many times have I made that mistake? Many.

Jonah Raskin: Well, I thought the animation was kind of surreal.

C.E. McAuley: Well, absolutely. But do you feel, for instance, when you’re reading the poem you have your own images of the poem, how do you feel the animation might influence people who have not read the poem in terms of how they find meaning in the poem?

Jonah Raskin: Well the animation is very fluid , sort of, it just, it sort of oozes around in time and space, and so I think the poem does that. So I think it reflects the breaking of boundaries; spacial, temporal boundaries of the poem.

C.E. McAuley: Cause when I watched it, I was thinking to myself ‘Well I wonder if these images though, compelling, would somehow constrain a reader ... or would it liberate a reader? I mean those were the questions I was asking myself.

Jonah Raskin: It probably does both, really.

C.E. McAuley: I guess it...

Aimee Drew: It depends on the reader.

C.E. McAuley: It depends on who the person is.

Jonah Raskin: I mean some people go to the movies then they read a book, some people don’t wanna see the movie cause they read the book and they think it’s gonna ruin it for them, I don’t know.

C.E. McAuley: What’s the main -- in your opinion the main strength of the film and its main weakness, in how it tells the story of Allen Ginsberg, Howl and the Lawrence Ferlinghetti/Howl obscenity trial?

Jonah Raskin: I thought the trial part was really good. Because it presents so many issues and it also, I thought it was pretty fair in terms of testimony on both sides.

C.E. McAuley: It seemed to me that it would be, especially if you didn’t know what -- you were unfamiliar with the topic -- and you didn’t know that they were gonna win at the end, as it’s a very famous trial...

Jonah Raskin: Yeah...

C.E. McAuley: That it would have more power to someone who was not familiar -- (To Rothana and Aimee) What did you guys think of that?

Rothtana Ouch: I mean I thought the, yeah I thought it was one of the most interesting courtroom -- esque, the scenes I’ve seen, but yeah, I guess the impact was less of, yeah you knew they would win...

Aimee Drew: Yeah so you’re not so much on the edge of your seat waiting for it.

Rothtana Ouch: Instead of you’re, you’re more just watching it.

C.E. McAuley: Mm -- hmm…

Aimee Drew: Just watching how it’s going to end.

Rothtana Ouch: Yeah I was paying attention to how poetic the lawyers were and like the judge was...

Aimee Drew: Even the judge...

Jonah Raskin: Well I would say there’s too many things going on in the picture. Like they’re trying to be, well they don’t have everybody there, I mean they don’t -- William Burroughs doesn’t get into the picture at all.

C.E. McAuley: Right.

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