Kill Your Darlings a Fascinatiing Look at Pre-Beats Life

Kill Your Darlings  (2013)
Directed by John Krokidas
Sony Picture Classics, 104 minutes, R (language and sexual situations)
* * * *

William Burroughs… Allen Ginsberg… Jack Kerouac… Can we imagine the Beat movement without them? What became the most significant literary movement of the mid-20th century was almost nipped before it budded and, if justice had been served, it would have been.

No–this isn’t an anti-Beat rant. Like millions who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, I was weaned on Naked Lunch, Howl, and On the Road. But I wonder if any of those works would have seen the light of day if the truth had been told in August of 1944, when Lucien Carr murdered David Kammerer. The film Kill Your Darlings takes us back to the early 1940s, when the world was at war, clubs served up sizzling hot jazz until the sun came up, gay and drug subcultures thrived in the shadows, and some of the brightest young minds in New York City spent more time dancing on the razor’s edge than studying in the hallowed halls of Columbia.

Ginsberg entered Columbia in 1943, a shy Jew from Paterson, New Jersey with a poet father, a mentally ill mother, and distressed musings over his own sexuality. There he met the brilliant-but-lazy Lucien Carr who shared his contempt for formalist poetry. In the film, Ginsberg’s relationship with Carr parallels that of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine–madcap antics, initiation into gay life, free-flowing alcohol and drugs, and a coalescing circle of intellectuals-in-the-making. The latter group included John Clellon Holmes, Gregory Corso, Kerouac, and the older Burroughs, well on his way to a life of addiction and dealing. Through the use of occasional jumpy camera work, skewed angles, dark tones, and quick-spliced sequences, director Krokidas depicts a world that is, in measure, sordid but exciting, and experiences that rocket between surreal and hyper-real.

Krokidas gets superb performances from his cast. Daniel Radcliffe continues to leave Harry Potter far behind in his nuanced portrayal of Ginsberg. He is, in turn, prescient but naïve, lustful but frightened, brilliant but arrogant. Like Carr and Kerouac, he seems one step from success, but just a half step from implosion. Dane DeHaan’s depiction of Carr is reminiscent of that of Anthony Andrews as Sebastian in Brideshead Revisted back in the 1980s–volcanic, charming, infuriating, and androgynous but sexually alluring. The film implies that Carr and Ginsberg were lovers, which most biographers doubt. The same biographers debate Carr’s relationship with David Kammerer (Michael Hall), the older man who saved him from a teenaged suicide attempt and then became–depending on whom you believe–his lover, his stalker, and/or his despoiler. He was, most certainly, Carr’s victim, but one that yielded surprisingly little jail time as Carr used an “honor killing” defense at his trial.

The latter is a reminder of how dangerous it was to wander outside the mainstream in 1944. One could literally get away with murder if, as Carr did, you could convince a jury that your victim intended homosexual molestation. (Until 1961, sodomy was illegal everywhere in the U.S.) Nor is there much doubt that Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Kerouac (Jack Huston) obstructed justice in an attempted cover-up–Burroughs by not reporting it and Kerouac by helping hide evidence. Imagine if the entire truth had come out in 1944–that Ginsberg and Burroughs (and perhaps Carr) were gay, that Kerouac was bisexual, that all of them had used illegal substances, and that several of Carr’s friends conspired to hide a murder.

This is a very good film, though it’s not without its faults. Let’s just say, straight or gay, it’s decidedly a man’s world. You’ll see credits for Elizabeth Olsen, Kyra Sedgwick, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, but even the word cameo is a bit grandiose given how little screen time they have. In real life, Ginsberg was hardly the angelic naïf we see on the screen, nor was he exclusively gay in the 1940s. Moreover, Krokidas simply presumes you know who everyone is; if you don’t, you won’t quite know what role Burroughs plays in the drama. For my taste, Foster plays Burroughs as if he’s channeling Hunter Thompson instead of Burroughs, but I may be nitpicking. And, I suppose if one really wants to nitpick, the film’s implication that Carr cut his ties with the Beats is untrue.

But let’s let the literary biographers argue all of this. I often invoke the late Roger Ebert’s assertion that a really good film has the ability to take us inside a world we couldn’t enter on our own. Enter this one and you’ll see the madness, the junkies, the angelheaded hipsters, jazz cats, agitators, and the queens that led Allen Ginsberg to howl. Do we think Ginsberg might have howled even louder when he contemplated gay bodies sinking into the Hudson?  --Rob Weir

PS: Controversy has emerged because Daniel Radcliffe spends screen time tongue-locked with DeHaan and later has a nude love scene with another man. There is nothing salacious about either scene, though the furor is a distressful reminder that some 1944 attitudes remain.

FYI: For lovers of irony, Lucien Carr fathered three children, one of whom is novelist Caleb Carr.   


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