Film - Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings

The beat goes on as steven harris takes a look at the film Kill Your Darlings...

Writers hear that phrase a lot. It’s bullshit, but what do you expect from a quote attributed to William Faulkner, a man far from averse to patches of purple prose? As the title for the 2013 John Krokidas movie the phrase takes on a double meaning when murder occurs.

A biopic, of sorts, Kill Your Darlings focuses on the earliest days of what eventually became known as the Beat Movement. In the last years of the Second World War William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr discover a kindred need in one another to destroy what they see as the restrictive traditions of literature and inspire the beginnings of each other’s untethered, jazz-frantic writing.

Only not so much with Carr. For many he is the forgotten founder of the movement he and Ginsberg initially named The New Vision. Forgotten because unlike the other three or their later contemporaries, Carr did not go on to write seminal works of literature. He did, however, help to edit and review Kerouac’s first novels and is largely responsible for the aesthetic which propelled the Beats to greatness:

1) Naked self-expression is the seed of creativity

2) The artist’s consciousness is expanded by derangement of the senses

3) Art eludes conventional morality.

There was that murder thing, though. Carr was effectively stalked by another associate of the fledgling Beats, David Kammerer whom he eventually stabbed and drowned in August 1944. Kammerer’s relationship with Carr was portrayed as an older man’s unwanted obsession with a beautiful young aesthete when it came to Carr’s defence against a murder charge. The film leaves their connection a little more open to interpretation to strengthen the standpoint of the movie which is Ginsberg’s own, milder obsession with Carr.

For Ginsberg, Carr is more an ideal and a conduit through which to recognise his own latent homosexuality. The casting of Daniel Radcliffe as the Jewish, New Jersey poet may have caused consternation with some audiences anticipating that he would wave his pencil at pieces of paper, say something in Latin then sit back as words wrote themselves. He is in fact superbly cast as the slightly gauche, slightly naive young Ginsberg soaking up the influence of his new-found friends and experiencing all the delights that a freshman at Columbia University can cram in.

Radcliffe is braver as an actor than he is generally credited with being. While still making the Harry Potter films he took a role in Peter Schaffer’s controversial play Equus at the Gielgud Theatre in London, going on to reprise the role on Broadway where he received a nomination for the Drama Desk Award For Outstanding Actor In A Play. Certainly it is brave to play against type as Ginsberg to such an extent that the role includes homosexual fantasies concerning Carr and a scene in which the poet is apparently initiated into a fully active sex life with a man he meets in a bar.

Carr is played to petulant, pouting perfection by Dane DeHaan, although I must admit that his resemblance to a young David Bowie was somewhat distracting at times. The huge overcoat he wears in most of the exterior scenes makes him look even more like Low-era Bowie and I couldn’t help but expect him to break into Bromley tones and insist that he and Ginsberg can be heroes, just for one day.

Ben Foster and Jack Huston present wonderful facsimiles of Burroughs and Kerouac respectively, a tad one-dimensional but this is not their film despite their importance to the literature of their age. Kammerer, as played by Michael C. Hall, unravels slowly as the film progresses, mentally decaying from the high intellectual being he evidently was into an emotionally tortured, feverish creature incapable of recognising that Carr does not welcome his advances.

Carr’s own family have distanced themselves from the film, arguing that it is based on subsequent accounts by Ginsberg which reflect a very personal agenda. Yet the long-unpublished novel by Burroughs and Kerouac, And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, does appear to verify details as depicted in Krokidas’s movie. Tellingly, perhaps, while various associates and friends of the collaborative writers appear in recognisable enough forms under pseudonyms in this novel, Ginsberg himself is absent yet he is transparently evident in other Kerouac works such as The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans and The Town And The City.

But hey, film is art and art eludes conventional morality, right? So who cares if Kill Your Darlings is an accurate account of the events of that time. What it certainly manages to be is a thoroughly engaging and inspiring film about defying convention en route to redefining adulthood, masculinity and literature.

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