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

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.

Jonah Raskin: So, there’s his mother, there’s his father, there’s Jack Kerouac, there’s Neil Cassady, there’s Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti’s like the only person who’s still alive. The only thing that he does in the movie is that he smiles at one point, he’s the bird that comes in and he smiles right?

Aimee Drew: Does he have any lines?

C.E. McAuley: He doesn’t actually speak in the film —

Jonah Raskin: He has no lines, he’s the only person who’s still alive — doesn’t have any speaking lines, it’s just…

C.E. McAuley: Well, there was sort of a, I don’t know, a disconnectivity, I think, at some level to the film between the relationships of the people. It seemed like, to me. Because it didn’t, it talked about relationships, but it didn’t actually really go into the relationships, which was a major part of the Beat generation, which were these key relationships. What do you make of that?

Jonah Raskin: Well, yeah, well I would say that these people, the people who made the movie — who by their last names, it seemed like Epstein and Freidman, sound like Jewish names.

C.E. McAuley: Right.

Jonah Raskin: And Allen Ginsberg was Jewish, but there isn’t really anything explicitly Jewish about him, so I mean. He sort of looks Jewish I suppose, but could have passed me for an Italian or Turkish or something…

C.E. McAuley: You mean James Franco or Allen Ginsberg?

Jonah Raskin: James Franco. The actor.

C.E. McAuley: Yeah.

Jonah Raskin: So, they kinda left out the Jewish part. Didn’t they?

C.E. McAuley: Well, there was nothing, I mean — that — when they read lines from the poem there were references to Judaism in the poem.

Jonah Raskin: Ahh, yeah.

C.E. McAuley: That was about it.

Jonah Raskin: Yeah.

C.E. McAuley: They also seemed to dwell on certain aspects of the poem.

Jonah Raskin: Really?

C.E. McAuley: I mean you would hear it, then they would repeat it.

Aimee Drew: Yeah, there were some references… in like the coffee houses

C.E. McAuley: Yeah…

Aimee Drew: With the animation…

Jonah Raskin: So what is your — how did you get connected to Allen Ginsberg, Aimee (to Aimee)?

Aimee Drew: Oh I haven’t the slightest idea. Um, probably my parents I would imagine. I guess my dad. I know my parents had a whole lot of books that weren’t exactly appropriate for kids just lying around the house when I was growing up, when I would pick them up and read them.

Jonah Raskin: Yeah. Ok.

Aimee Drew: I honestly don’t remember the first time I read Howl, but it’s always been something that I really appreciated.

C.E. McAuley: Why is it significant to you?

Aimee Drew: I have no clue. Why are you interviewing me?

C.E. McAuley: Well, we’re having a conversation.

Aimee Drew: It is a round table, a square table.

Jonah Raskin: Is this off the record? Are you writing…

C.E. McAuley: No, this is all on the record. Everything is on the record.

Aimee Drew: Nothing is off the record ever. Ever.

Jonah Raskin: We just gotta establish the ground rules here.

C.E. McAuley: Well, that’s true. Well, we’ve established that everyone’s being recorded here and everyone has permission.

Aimee Drew: My mother’s recorders…

C.E. McAuley: Yes, thank you Aimee. Hey, this is a good salad. I think Allen Ginsberg would approve of this, but I’m still waiting to hear how…

Aimee Drew: Oh yes. Why I like it?

C.E. McAuley: Well, what does it mean to you?

Rothtana Ouch: Have you read the whole thing?

Aimee Drew: I tried to memorize it.

Rothtana Ouch: Oh my God.

Aimee Drew: Nearly killed myself doing it.

C.E. McAuley: Aimee can quote from it.

Rothtana Ouch: I didn’t know that.

Aimee Drew: Oh I did on Facebook.

Jonah Raskin: That’s ambitious.

Aimee Drew: Yeah, I don’t know why. I memorized The Jabberwocky when I was like seven, the Lewis Carroll poem. Just because I wanted to and I was like ‘Oh I can do it…

C.E. McAuley: Perhaps you’re a prodigy.

Aimee Drew: I doubt that. If I had been a prodigy I could have memorized the whole thing.

C.E. McAuley: Hmmm. So your greatest gift is avoiding answers…

Aimee Drew: Is avoiding answers, yes.

Jonah Raskin: Well, I would say, you see, Aimee doesn’t really have to say anything else.

C.E. McAuley: She doesn’t have to.

Jonah Raskin: Well what I mean, we can just interpret what she said. I would say the significance of it is that people read it when they are teenagers or adolescents and they know that it’s a poem or book that they’re not supposed to read and so, it’s sort of like, it’s a view into some sort of like — you have to read it when you’re a teenager. And just reading it, it’s like you’re initiated into some kind of subculture or something, your initiated into something.

Aimee Drew: Mm — Hm. Even if you don’t completely understand what he’s saying, and I don’t know if I necessarily do. I know he’s saying something and I know it’s important.

Jonah Raskin: Well that’s exactly…

C.E. McAuley: There you have it.

Jonah Raskin: I have friends who are fifty years old and they say ‘I don’t know …

Aimee Drew: Yeah, I didn’t live in the same world that Allen Ginsberg did when he wrote Howl. So I can’t experience it to the same degree that he was when he wrote it.

C.E. McAuley: I first read it when I was 18 or 19 or 20, when I was at the junior college and I had read, I think Bukowski first and was getting into the main Beats of the Beat canon and what appealed to me was that it seemed to me like a critique of everything and a call for liberation from all the constraints of society and a call to be real. That’s what it meant to me when I read it. You know, and then if you look at the whole — I mean, I’d love to see a film in addition to this one, that tells the whole story of the Beats and their relationships, because when I first saw the movie I thought ‘Well this seems like a parody of reality.’

Rothtana Ouch: Oh you saw it already?

C.E. McAuley: No, I mean when I saw this film tonight.

Rothtana Ouch: Oh ok.

C.E. McAuley: Um, I was just happy they got the projector working. You know, Ferlinghetti didn’t say anything.

Jonah Raskin: I would say that James Franco was kind of like a parody of Allen Ginsberg.

C.E. McAuley: That’s how it felt to me. And I like James Franco, but the portrayal seemed like a parody to me. For instance, in the opening credits with the jazz stuff, even though Allen Ginsberg makes jazz references in the poem, it just seemed to me almost like a — and I don’t know if that’s the influence of Gus van Sant who was one of the producers — but I don’t know, it seemed to me almost, I don’t know. When something is translated into film that almost can’t be translated into film, like was the movie about just the trial or was it about Allen Ginsberg or was it about the poem?

Rothtana Ouch: Or what was the movie about?

C.E. McAuley: Or — yeah what was it about? I mean, what was the focus of it?

Aimee Drew: I mean, it seemed like it was trying too hard to be too many things at once. Maybe.

Rothtana Ouch: Yeah.

C.E. McAuley: What do you make of that?

Jonah Raskin: I think it was trying, yeah, they wanted to make a movie about Allen Ginsberg and they couldn’t really figure out what the focus of the story was so they put everything in it.

Aimee Drew/Rothtana Ouch: Yeah.

Aimee Drew: They just threw everything and everybody into it.

C.E. McAuley: In your book, American Scream, it focuses on the creation of Howl, what went into it, and then what came after it. So how does this film reflect the reality of your book?

Jonah Raskin: Well it does have that same, where he sits down at the typewriter and he just starts typing the poem. Which isn’t really, it’s not really what happens. And the way the it just sort of rearranges everything do you don’t find out, he doesn’t talk about being in therapy until later on. Like this Doctor Hicks. So he’s writing, he was actually writing Howl when he was in therapy in San Francisco and therapy enabled him to have a sort of breakthrough.

C.E. McAuley: And they never do show who’s interviewing him either.

Rothtana Ouch: Yeah, I was kinda — I felt like we were interviewing him sort of when he was like — yeah, I mean with the interviewer and interviewee…

Aimee Drew: Yeah and they didn’t say what it was for…

Rothtana Ouch: That was kinda weird.

C.E. McAuley: How did the film differ from your analysis in your book? In terms of how everything was presented, or how was it similar?

Jonah Raskin: Well, some of my book is about, there is a poem about somebody who grew up in New York and went to school in New York and met all these people in New York. But he could only really write about that whole scene and that whole picture until he came to San Francisco.

C.E. McAuley: Why do you think that was?

Jonah Raskin: Because he needed to get away from his parents, his professors, his whole sort of New York — the way he conceived of himself in New York. So he had to have the geographical distance, the sort of emotional detachment from all of that in order to look back at it.

C.E. McAuley: And you have this Six Gallery

reading in 1955 as this seminal event that’s reflected in a number of different works, for instance in Dharma Bums. You hear about it from Kerouac’s point of view and he goes on to describe, you know staying with Allen Ginsberg or that his character Alvah, I forget the last name, but Alvah in Berkeley. And so, you get to see Ginsberg from a different point of view.

Jonah Raskin: Well, they could have done the whole movie just around the Six Gallery reading.

C.E. McAuley: Right.

Jonah Raskin: Because he was asked to put together a reading at the gallery.

C.E. McAuley: Right.

Jonah Raskin: And he hadn’t written the poem by then. And that was like a month beforehand. So it could have done — like just focused on August, September, October 1955 and, because Kerouac was there, and Snyder was there.

C.E. McAuley: Having a film of American Scream, or going straight with the facts instead of interpreting them with an artistic license, I always think that the raw story of the Beats is so much more interesting than some of what people tried to do with, for instance the film Naked Lunch, even though it has some great performances in it or with this film. And we have some contemporary issues like this connection of Ginsberg and Howl and the tea bagger movement. So maybe you can talk a little bit about that because I was very surprised when I first heard about that.

Jonah Raskin: Well, yeah there was somebody in the New York Times named Lee Seagull who like a week ago wrote these pieces on how the Beats and the tea baggers are the same.

C.E. McAuley: Really?

Jonah Raskin: Yeah.

C.E. McAuley: So the same but opposite?

Jonah Raskin: No, they’re both like… so, American freedom, speaking for freedom and individual freedom.

C.E. McAuley: I always was concerned that the tea baggers were actually just veiled racists. But that’s just my point of view.

Jonah Raskin: Well, I believe there’s a lot of millionaire money behind the tea baggers.

C.E. McAuley: I get confused with them and the birthers and I always get the feel that they’re all part of the same thing.

Jonah Raskin: Well there was no big bucks behind the Beats.

C.E. McAuley: So I don’t know, so what do you, how do you feel about that argument that the tea — what do they call it the tea party we call them the tea baggers here in California — but how do you feel about that comparison of the tea party to the Beat generation and are their values similar or different; in what way?

Jonah Raskin: It does seem like people who write about the Beats are always trying to figure out who they’re like, right? And a couple years ago there were people who wrote about the Beats and said they were like the rat pack. Like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr.

C.E. McAuley: They were swingers.

Jonah Raskin: So, I would say it’s meaningless. I mean it’s trying to take something that’s happening… a contemporary phenomenon… and try to understand it by connecting it to the Beats, it’s like… it’s dumb.

C.E. McAuley: Yeah I would agree. I would say that it’s almost offensive to equate the Beats with the tea party movement which appears to me, at least, to restrict certain peoples’ lifestyles and have unrestricted lifestyles for other people. Maybe I’ve mis — analyzed it.

Jonah Raskin: One thing that’s completely missing from this movie is that the Beats were global. I mean, that by the time Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl, he’d already been to Africa, he’d been to Mexico, he’d been to Cuba, the Caribbean. And the Beats traveled all over the world they were absolutely global, they went to Japan, India, they were exploring Buddhism, Hinduism, different religions and very American, but also connected to different cultures. Kerouac connected to his French ancestors and Ginsberg, his ancestors came from Russia, he always had his link to some Russian Jewish ancestry and after Howl was published, he went to the Soviet Union, Moscow, he wanted to see what was happening there.

C.E. McAuley: So we don’t see anything, you said it was dumb, the tea party comparison and we still, what we’re left with ultimately is a film that was made about Howl about the obscenity trial and about Ginsberg to a certain extent. If you think of Ginsberg’s notebooks, I mean they go into so much depth, I don’t even know if he’s somebody who can be captured on film. I mean do you feel there could be a film about, really about Allen Ginsberg, but was in the spirit of really telling the true story of Ginsberg, what would that be like?

Jonah Raskin: I think, if there’s a real historic figure, that people who stick to the literal truth pretty much, they want to respect the facts, usually don’t make a good movie.

C.E. McAuley: Oh, that’s interesting.

Jonah Raskin: I think you just have to start from scratch, you just have to be inspired ‘what’s the essence of this person’ and not be bound or prisoner of ‘that there was a sixth gallery reading, that there was this guy who published it’ but more inventive, more free wheeling.

C.E. McAuley: So, in what way did this film capture or not capture that free wheeling feeling, that essential nature of the man and the poem?

Jonah Raskin: Well, you don’t really see Allen Ginsberg, like the traveling thing — you don’t’ really see; Allen Ginsberg traveled way more than Neil Cassidy, or Jack Kerouac. You don’t see him getting on a bus, you don’t see him going to Cuba by himself, I mean the guy went to…

Aimee Drew: Just New York and San Francisco and that’s it.

Jonah Raskin: How old he was and you know, how old was he? He was 23 he went by himself, he went to West Africa. He went on a ship, he was a sailor. He was a student.

C.E. McAuley: So if you could remake this film what would you do beyond just the travel? How would you retell the story? How would you remake the movie?

Jonah Raskin: Like how I would do it? I would do it more as a mystery story I think. I mean I like mysteries, you know. I might do it like a remake of Citizen Kane, you know, where you actually see the editor and the interviewer, sort of like the, the editor says ‘everybody knew this public figure Allen Ginsberg, but we need some new angle.’ Like he’s just died, I would start with Allen Ginsberg’s death. The editor says, you know, it’s like CNN. ‘We want to find out, we’re working on a story to find out who is the true Allen Ginsberg.’ Get below, behind all of this PR crap, bullshit that he was putting out and I mean, Allen Ginsberg was this total publicist, I mean. And totally, he was like, as well as being this great poet, I would say he was a great poet, I would say he was also this great PR character. He was always promoting himself and sort of creating a persona. You never really see that he’s like manufacturing this whole image of himself, so I’d have it as the reporters, you know being the kind of role as a detective where he goes around and he talks to all these people, you know so you get different, like a Cubist portrait, different points of view and so, in a way there’s never any definitive answer, there’s always different people who see him form different ways.

* * *

After dinner ended and we made our way down the stairs to the first floor of the restaurant, Raskin made one final observation that captured a major difference between the focus of the film and his interpretation of the poem.

“The main focus of Ginsberg was not on the section of the poem which they focused on in the film about about the line ‘who were fucked in the ass by saintly truck drivers and screamed with joy.’ It was all about ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.’ All the rest was there, but that was a main focus. Allen Ginsberg didn’t stand around in interviews just talking about people getting fucked in the ass by saintly truck drivers and screaming with joy as his main point. Allen Ginsberg didn’t say that.”

Q&A Transcription by Josette Canilao.