Film Review: Kill Your Darlings
The slightly adapted origin story of the Beat Generation
Published: November 13, 2013
Kill Your Darlings
Directed by John Krokidas
Opens at the Charles Theatre Nov. 22
Forget futuristic dystopias: The Beats are the true YA authors because Middle-Class America is the most dystopian place many young adults can imagine. Your family is fucked up (all families are fucked), adults are hypocrites, and all anyone wants for you is stability, predictability, and money, while all you want is sex and beauty and . . . sex. Nobody understands. So what do you do? You howl. Or at least you read “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s seminal (in every sense) poem about “angelheaded hipsters.”
Kill Your Darlings, a sort of origin story to the Beat myth, shows Allen Ginsberg (Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe) dealing with exactly this kind of teen angst as he goes away from stifling New Jersey to metropolitan Columbia University. David Cross—who played the older Ginsberg perfectly in I’m Not There, the experimental Bob Dylan pic—is brilliantly cast as Ginsberg’s respectable rhyme-and-meter poet father. Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an equally great tormented mother. (The scenes with her are especially sad if you have read “Kaddish,” the poem Ginsberg wrote upon her death.)
Young Ginsberg walks across Columbia’s campus with such a wonderstruck look, it prompted my professor-wife to say, “I wish kids would get that excited about college today.” Nevertheless, things start to sour. On a map in his dorm room, Ginsberg traces the subway line down to the gay-centric Christopher Street when his Waspy roommate enters and tells him that’s fairyland and then remarks on Ginsberg’s Jewishness, calling him a “hymie.”
His professors don’t seem much more open-minded, but things start to look up when, on a tour of the library, a gorgeous young man (Dane DeHaan) jumps up on the table and starts reciting Henry Miller, ending with a lamp to his groin, exclaiming about a “cancerous cock” before security chases him out. “Write a letter, Lucien Carr is innocent!” he yells. This is a bit of foreshadowing, though we already know from an opening scene that Carr ends up behind bars. The movie details the budding friendship and quasi-romantic relationship that develops between Ginsberg and Carr, their nascent literary movement (which they call “The New Vision,” after Yeats), and the crime Carr will commit.
The movement that, of course, becomes the Beat Generation also includes William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, both of whom Ginsberg meets at Columbia, through Carr. Carr first introduces Burroughs (played with a spectacular stiff-jawed reserve by Ben Foster) in a bathtub, huffing nitrous oxide at a party. Soon they’re all taking amphetamines and frantically cutting up books in a bit of literary archaeology prefiguring Burroughs’ later-famous “cut-up method” of composition; they paste pages onto the wall in a massive collage that will act as prototype of their manifesto.
The problem is they can’t write. Ginsberg can’t get over his father’s stiff formalism. That’s where Kerouac (Jack Huston) comes in. Carr tells Ginsberg that he’s found a real writer in Kerouac just as Ginsberg has finally produced a notable poem, causing the young poet to hide his work in sulky jealousy.
Carr’s own inability to write is of a different order and forms a big part of the plot. He’s already left other schools and is followed around by David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an ex-professor working as a janitor because of Carr. Carr introduces the teenage Beats to Kammerer: They’re his books the boys tear up and use for their collaged proclamation, pinned to the walls of his spacious apartment. Kammerer writes Carr’s papers as a kind of payment for sex. When Ginsberg kisses Carr, a self-loathing homosexual, in an ill-advised moment, this task and Carr’s coldness fall on him.
The fulcrum of this film, Carr excels at getting things going, but he can’t follow through (“I’m only good at beginnings,” he says a couple times). He’s a rich kid who makes gay men swoon, but he quickly tires of people and pushes them away.
Nevertheless, his presence and influence remain. And the vision he first espouses to Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs is quite close to the vision the Beats became known for (“first thought, best thought”).
Despite all of his charisma, or perhaps because of it, he is shown essentially as a tragic character. The film would seem to indicate that he separated from the group after the period depicted by the film and that he never really did anything again, when in fact he remained close with the three writers, serving for nearly half a century as an editor at the UPI wire service, where he gave young writers the editorial advice, almost as good as “kill your darlings,” of starting with your second paragraph.
The film is a dramatic whole, not just some ragtag retelling of a bit of lit history. John Krokidas, who directed and co-wrote the movie, takes a few liberties with history, increasing Ginsberg’s importance in the plot. The strategy is effective, as is the casting. In their supporting roles, Huston and Foster as Kerouac and Burroughs are superior to almost all their myriad interpreters. Radcliffe pulls off a convincing Ginsberg, transforming from a shy, nerdy Jewish kid to a Whitmanesque wild man. And DeHaan possesses Carr’s beauty and charisma, which inspired these soon-to-be-famous authors. The overall effect of the casting and the plot’s history-tweaking, then, shows how—despite their strong, even egocentric personalities—the Beats were essential to one another, playing off each others’ ideas like the jazz combos they loved.
Kill Your Darlings also plays Cinema Sundays at the Charles Theatre on Nov. 17 at 10:30 a.m.
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