Daniel Radcliffe, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Darlings

There are two great cinematic jokes in the new film Kill Your Darlings, two sly references to the dilemma of self-consciousness that this movie about the Beat Generation struggles to overcome. First, it must overcome the suffocating celebrity of Daniel Radcliffe, who plays the poet Allen Ginsberg, and the movie smartly tackles the “hey, there’s Harry Potter” problem right away. The movie opens with teenage Allen cleaning up his parents’ house, jamming to a song on the Victrola, and dancing merrily with a broom.

Kill Your Darlings toys with its literary legacy as well. As several people pitch in to help a mischievous and manipulative Columbia University student named Lucien Carr write a paper about the historian Oswald Spengler, we see a typewriter tapping out immortal words that remind us of another recent Hollywood film: “On … the …”. But then instead of “On The Road”, the words turn out to be “On the Decline of the West”.

Directed by John Krokidas and written by Austin Bunn, Kill Your Darlings is a clever, knowing film about the early exploits of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. It’s lively in the same way that Baz Lurhmann’s Great Gatsby was (though, of course, it’s nowhere near as bombastic), and it whips up a cinematic frenzy of literary inspiration that goes even deeper than Walter Salles’s On The Road or James Franco’s Howl into the ecstatic and Dionsyian mission of the early Beats. The movie has frustrating flaws, but perhaps succeeds mainly through the dedication of the excellent cast, which includes Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg’s schizophrenic mother, Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr and Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs. Daniel Radcliffe’s Allen Ginsberg also works very well, which goes to show that Daniel Radcliffe is good at playing divinely inspired fervent innocents.

I like Radcliffe’s earnest, heartfelt Ginsberg — even though I don’t think he quite captures the weird, powerful presence the famous poet always had (James Franco and other recent Allen Ginsbergs have also failed to capture his strong vibe). Having met and talked to Allen several times, I’ve sometimes struggled to describe his presence and have ended up resorting to the word “froggy”. Allen Ginsberg had a croaking voice, bulging, peeking eyes, a jumpy, crouched stance. His improbable demeanor added to the considerable urgency of his presence. I wish some actor could capture his heavy presence, his odd charisma, but if Allen Ginsberg’s spirit animal is a frog, Daniel Radcliffe’s in this movie turns out to be more like a chameleon or a cute lizard. It’s not the same thing.

The movie is about the early Beats as students in upper Manhattan, and about a murder (Lucien Carr stabbed and drowned an ex-lover) that shook all their friendships and left them all feeling guilty of one crime or another. The murder is less interesting than the blooming friendships, though some long scenes of campus pranks become frivolous and phony (a long sequence involving a library break-in descends to cartoonish storytelling, for no good payoff). At a couple of bad moments, the movie feels like a “Little Archies” of the Beat Generation — familiar faces, but younger and chubbier, with bigger smiles.

But this movie isn’t afraid to be cute, and its brashness is appealing. Kill Your Darlings may someday become a popular midnight double feature with Little Darlings, which presented a parallel vision of teenage girls flirting with danger.

There is much excitement to this movie, but little suspense or revelation. Kill Your Darlings is certainly not a mystery or a thriller. It’s a good college drama like A Separate Peace or Hitchcock’s Rope, or Dead Poets Society or History Boys — like the amazing movie of Donna Tartt’s Secret History which never has been made but hopefully someday will.

The movie stretches too many historical facts in order to wrap up too many psychological angles too neatly. But some of the twists manage to score. Unlike Marc Olmstead in Sensitive Skin, I don’t mind that Kill Your Darlings shows William S. Burroughs and Lucien Carr going wild with cut-ups on a wall years before Burroughs supposedly discovered the cut-up method with Brion Gysin. I like the idea that the idea might have echoed in his head for years. Any historical movie has the right to cut a few facts up in the name of good cinema.

But I do agree with Brian Hassett that the actor who played young Jack Kerouac fails to do much with the role, and that it makes no sense for young Lucien Carr to say “I’ll go to jail for the rest of my life” when in the real life story Jack Kerouac was known to have said “You’ll get the hot seat for this”. Why substitute a boring line for a good one, especially if the good line was historically accurate?

Well — maybe just to piss off cranky old Beats like me. That’s fresh.

16 Responses

  1. Cool!
    Good one!
    And thanks for the shout-out. 😉

    Funny pop culture reference with the midnight double feature with Little Darlings. 🙂

    And I love the other movies you cite, you cinephile you!
    You gotta be the only guy bringing Hitch into a “Darlings” review!
    and funny “On … The … ” joke. Never noticed that.

    Anyway, good, intelligent, reference-filled, original, level-headed stuff, as always!

    Two of the three down. “Big Sur” to go to complete the 2013 cinematic Beat hat trick! 🙂

  2. I’m looking forward to seeing
    I’m looking forward to seeing this one Levi. Glad to see you liked it. I can’t help but feel that the change in the Kerouac line was a dumbing down for the audience… though who they thought their audience was and why they felt they had to clarify that line is beyond me.

  3. Good review Levi, although in
    Good review Levi, although in all my studies of the Kammerer death/murder i’ve never read that he and Lucien Carr had actually made it sexually, which would have made the murder take on a different light. Correct me if i’m wrong, maybe i missed something in my researches on the matter. Having been totally disappointed by On the Road’s (I watched it over and over in amazed disgruntlment) recent adaptation i think i’ll take this movie less to heart and expect to be totally disappointed. I am looking forward to Marc Barr as Kerouac in Big Sur, though I wonder if the narrative style of Kerouac’s writing allows his prose to be captured cinematically.

  4. WIREMAN, the movie implies
    WIREMAN, the movie implies that Lucien tended to reveal different facets of truth to different people in his life, and had been hiding a once-intimate past with Kammerer (his eventual murder victim) from his other friends.

    I hope “Big Sur” is as good as it should be … and I hope the film revels in nature photography to try to match Kerouac’s prose.

  5. Wireman’s point is important.
    Wireman’s point is important.

    A contemporary understanding is that Kammerer was a predator against this minor, pure and simple.

    I don’t know how it is portrayed in the film.

  6. am i the only one who isn’t
    am i the only one who isn’t balls out giddy when a new film about the beat generation is released? i haven’t seen on the road, howl, this nor do i plan to. i don’t give a fuck what hollywood thinks about my heroes, nor do i care to see them do their best imitations of these legends. i’ll take the real thing over a copycat every time.

    “I like Radcliffe’s earnest, heartfelt Ginsberg — even though I don’t think he quite captures the weird, powerful presence the famous poet always had”

    of course Radcliffe couldn’t capture Ginsberg! Ginsberg was one of a kind, real person with a honest moral compass and an incredible, bright light. I can see actors trying to capture characters in a fictional book (Dean Morriarty, etc) but trying to capture the essence of a real person in a fictional setting will never cut it. nobody can act like Allen Ginsberg because the energy he brought to his art and to his life will never be replicated. to me, that’s what a legend is. i have no attention span for people who try to be someone else, rather than just being who they are. even when it is called “art.”

    i mean no disrespect here. But isn’t it quite heavy disrespect that it takes hollywood 50 years to catch up with a movement that impacted and continues to impact so many lives back then and today? why did it take them so long? I’m not impressed.


  7. I hate to flaunt my ignorance
    I hate to flaunt my ignorance in public (okay, I love it), but isn’t the title from a remark by Wm. Faulkner? Does it suit a story about the Beats better than, say, an epithet lifted from one of their own writings?

    Your review inspires me to want to see this film. But I wonder if the title may have been chosen to give the murder undue emphasis. Your view seems to be that Lucien’s act was incidental to the interpersonal and literary developments in these men’s lives.

    Does one come away with an implication that aesthetic demands are so great and significant they may even require the artist to kill a fellow human being?

  8. TKG, I’ve long sensed (even
    TKG, I’ve long sensed (even before hearing of this film) that Lucien Carr’s alibi for killing Dave Kammerer was phony, and that he got away with murder. I don’t say this out of any personal interest in the controversy, and certainly not out of dislike for Lucien Carr, who seemed to have had a lot of great qualities. (I also like his son Caleb Carr’s novels). I’m only saying this because this is what I’ve gathered about the background of the now-mythical crime.

    It seems clear that Kammerer was in love with Carr, and was stalking and harassing him. It does *not* seem clear that this had always been one-sided — rather, it seems that Carr once reciprocated Kammerer’s interests (I have no idea whether they had a physical relationship or not) and then lost interest in him. He then stabbed him to death, and got off very easy by explaining that he was the innocent victim of a homosexual predator. The fact that Carr came from a wealthy and well-connected family probably helped. Perhaps the most damaging evidence against Carr, which is mentioned in this movie: Kammerer was not actually dead when Carr tied him up and weighted him down and dropped him in the river — it seems that Carr stabbed him and then drowned him to finish the job.

    I am not an expert in this part of Beat history, but this is the story as I understand it, and this is also the story related by “Kill Your Darlings”. It particularly shows young Allen Ginsberg’s revulsion at Carr’s crime. Later in life, Carr remained a beloved friend of all the original Beats from Columbia University, but kept a low profile and refused to seek publicity for his literary connections. Perhaps he was disinterested in fame, or perhaps he didn’t want to dredge up stories from the past.

  9. Wojciech, I totally
    Wojciech, I totally understand you feeling this way. Maybe you think it’s strange that I pay so much attention on this blog to movie versions of Beat novels (or other recent classic novel->movies like “Great Gatsby”). I don’t disagree with you about the banality of many of these films. I suppose I pay so much attention because I’ve always been fascinated with the process of translation that occurs when a book becomes a movie. It’s just a particular fascination of mine. I like to see how different interpretations of a work layer upon each other to form a full public perception of a piece of art.

    I’m similarly fascinated with cover versions of songs or with alternate studio->live recordings of songs, and with art parodies, pop-culture mashups, etc. The idea that different perceptions or transformations of the same work are competing for public attention at the same time just strikes me as delightfully interesting. That’s why I give these movie adaptations so much attention — and it’s why I’m just as fascinated with them when they fail as when they succeed.

  10. These are great questions,
    These are great questions, anesam. Yes, the phrase “Kill your darlings” comes from Faulkner, and as literary advice I think it’s a familiar statement often used in creative writing workshops. I first heard it myself in a fiction workshop many years ago. The meaning, of course, is that a writer must be tough and sometimes let go of his or her favorite concepts or plot devices or lines of dialogue when they no longer serve the entire work. I think it’s great advice. The use of the phrase as the title of this movie is ironic, of course, because while these characters were writers, the “darling” that is killed is not a literary conceit but a human being.

    As for your second question — “Does one come away with an implication that aesthetic demands are so great and significant they may even require the artist to kill a fellow human being?” — well, one comes away with the impression that Lucien Carr felt this way, and acted upon it. That does not mean that the moviemakers felt this way — rather, they are framing the idea as a question that each viewer may answer differently. The movie does not endorse Lucien Carr’s actions at all — if any character’s conscience is at the center of this movie, that character would be Allen Ginsberg, not Carr.

  11. fair enough, Levi. I do enjoy
    fair enough, Levi. I do enjoy reading ABOUT the films from you, even if i don’t actually watch them

    I admire your candor.

    (side note, i read somewhere a while back [was it on this site?] that the murder of a homosexual was not considered that much of a crime back then. which is terribly frightening. i remember something about the maximum sentence for murdering a homosexual being like 2 years. don’t remember where i heard this or how accurate it is, but i found it interesting/scary.)

  12. Dang, for a while, there were
    Dang, for a while, there were no Beat movies being made. Now that On the Road has broken the seal, Beat films are proliferating like lizards on Joan Vollmer’s trees.

  13. nope – kerouac and carr made
    nope – kerouac and carr made a pact “heterosexual all the way” as to how they would portray themselves. all that gang “looked both ways” though only burroughs and ginsberg preferred men.

  14. curious if you’ve read the
    curious if you’ve read the Original Scroll? i liked OTR because of the historical veracity – was only pissed off that they didn’t use the real names.

    Big Sur pretty well sucked. i liked it, of course, but mostly because of the insight into why Kerouac went to Orlando and spent the rest of his years with Mom.

  15. OTR was not fiction. Kerouac
    OTR was not fiction. Kerouac said that he changed his brother-in-law into his “brother” so as to have plausible deniability, but that the story was written as it happened.

  16. Kerouac’s prose style is, at
    Kerouac’s prose style is, at its best, pure poetry, and if that is the book’s only lasting value it will still represent a sea change in American writing. Poetry cannot be put on screen unless someone reads bits of it out loud — which actually might work.

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