All Things Entertaining and Cultural
On his first day at college at Columbia in 1944, Allen Ginsberg looks at a subway map showing the way from the university’s lower Harlem setting to Greenwich Village, a destination for his desire and imagination.
Somewhere early in his tenure at Columbia, Ginsberg hears Brahms emanating from a down-the-hall dorm room and follows the classical strain’s siren call. Not only does he find a kindred spirit. He finds the lovely young man, Lucien Carr, already, from seeing him on campus, the object of his homosexual longing, who excites a different set of desire and imagination. Lust for adventure and lust for male beauty merge as Carr, while remaining sexually aloof, becomes Ginsberg’s guide to the ride, well maybe the initial ride, of his life, the one in which his challenging nature embraces rebellion, and one that gives him the experience he will translate to the written page to become one of the best known poets of his time.
John Krokidas energetically shows that maiden voyage, Ginsberg’s Nietzchean “going under,” in his intelligent, humorous, engaging film, “Kill Your Darlings,” the title coming from Ginsberg’s creative writing professor’s dictum (per William Faulkner) that his students ruthlessly and mercilessly get rid of pet phrases, sentimental ideas, and rigid notions and look at every blank page as a chance to express without being saddled or worried about the consequences. (“If only….,” the writer sighs.)
Although “Kill Your Darlings’s” dramatis personae includes Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and other lights of the Beat generation, the first manifesto of which dubs their movement “New Vision,” Krokidas concentrates on Ginsberg and Carr.
“Kill Your Darlings” depicts Ginsberg’s coming of age as an independent man, a sexual being, and an artist while showing his coming out in every way imaginable. Many of the scenes Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn choose to illustrate Ginsberg’s journey echo passages from the first part of the author’s most famous poem, “Howl.” You certainly see some of the best minds of a generation indulging in self-destructive practices. Many will fall aside from the fumes of marijuana and the stimulation of benzedrine, although Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs will write seminal works in spite of them. Because of them?
Carr, the iconoclast and, in many ways, the ringleader of the New Vision rebels, also receives a lot of attention. The events leading to his killing of an overbearing admirer, someone who today might be branded a stalker, create the time frame and a strong secondary context, second to Ginsberg’s development, for the movie.
Krokidas’s focuses on Carr as the one who rouses his friends to action but also because he is the first of them to become controversial, for his killing of David Kammerer, at one time his mentor and, in “Kill Your Darlings,” his tormentor.
Krokidas and Bunn also have an interest in the gay aspects of the Ginsberg-Carr, Carr-Kammerer story. Carr, beautiful in real life and in the person of Dane DeHaan who portrays him, is a flirt. He is a man who knowingly and strategically uses his extraordinary good looks to captivate people. Ginsberg is obsessed with him in several ways, but carnal longing is always part of Daniel Radcliffe’s expression as Ginsberg when he looks at DeHaan as Carr. The scene in which Ginsberg first, by chance, shares a bed with Carr is fraught with tension. Radcliffe, who continues to show his post-Potter acting mettle in this role, conveys the unease and nervousness Ginsberg feels at being so close to his beloved while being forbidden to act on his ardor. Except with his hand, which he uses quite frequently to comic and pathetic effect in Krokidas’s movie.
Carr, though manipulative, wins the audience’s affection too. Not only because DeHaan is so endearing but because Lucien is funny and brave and always coming up with new and inventive ways to have a good time. Drugs, alcohol, and puking may be a byproduct of some adventures. Some of Carr’s stunts are a precursor to Johnny Knoxville’s “Jackass” movies. But there’s also the driving life force, the person who isn’t going to waste a minute when fun is a subway or boat ride away. Carr makes life exciting, a constant event. He is the one who leads Ginsberg to anything but still waters, and Allen is as mesmerized by him as Kammerer is.
From a contemporary perspective, Carr would not be more than physically attractive and may be regarded as a villain. He teases men to get what he wants from them. Although it doesn’t seem as if Kammerer will ever end his persistent pursuit of Carr — He follows him from city to city over a six-year period and zones in on him in unlikely places. — logic says Carr could have gotten away from him without killing him. His defense when he is caught and held without bail in Manhattan’s Tombs prison for men, is that Kammerer was a homosexual predator and that Carr murdered him in self-defense. He invokes what was called and codified as “the honor defense,” one that exonerates a person, specifically a straight man, from killing another person if gay overtures are involved. The “honor” gambit works for Carr. He is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Today, “honor defenses” are among the reasons gay activists promote “hate crime” legislation.
Cloudy though putting this 21st century context on a 1944 actual murder case makes Carr’s story, Krokidas and Bunn show why you can’t help liking Carr. Kammerer, as portrayed by Michael C. Hall, turning tides and playing the murdered on this occasion, is droll and witty but mad with passion and unrelenting in his imposing appearances in Carr’s life.
The director and co-writers also couch the way Kammerer dies in a tricky scene that puts Carr’s total culpability in question.
So “Kill Your Darlings” will trigger some controversy.
All in all, it is well told tale that brings legendary literary characters to vivid life, affectionately captures the feel and tone of the times it covers, 1944-45, thrillingly shows the creative impetus that drives the core characters, and gives a dozen fine actors a chance to show their talent and craft.
Krokidas has made a satisfying film. You want to join Ginsberg, Carr, Kerouac, and Burroughs on their adventures, even wacky ones, e.g. when Ginsburg and Carr roll Kerouac down a steep Central Park hill in a barrel. I may not personally agree with all the antics the New Visioners pull in their quest to bring new literary forms to staid Columbia, but I enjoyed watching them, at times uncomfortably, but always in a way that vouches for the movie’s power to excite. Krokidas takes you on a grand tour of late-war New York. Scenes in jazz clubs, at parties, in drug dens all resonate. So do the sequences when Krokidas becomes artistic and show you Ginsberg’s fantasies, how he sees the world when drugged, and how manic and sexual he is when he is trying to write while on a frenzied high.
Mainly, you see formative passages in Allen Ginsberg’s youth, events that will lead to “Howl,” “Kaddish,” and other works that will be a part of curricula for time eternal. Ginsberg’s relationship with his parents, and his care for his bipolar, hallucinating mother, is carefully explored. So are his introductions to sex, tawdry and impersonal, except for his infatuation for Carr, in the era “Kill Your Darlings” covers.
The professor that berates Ginsberg from some of his theories about poetry, who calls him Walt, Jr. because Ginsberg uses Walt Whitman as an example to challenge the teacher, also figures into the story as more than a device. Though the professor is the catalyst for Ginsberg’s chosen expulsion from Columbia, he is also the one who encourages him to hone his original voice and keep writing. And he is the one who inveighs people to “kill your darlings,” a lesson that applies to more than literature, and, in Krokidas’s film, to more than Lucien Carr’s literal murder of David Kammerer.
“Kill Your Darlings” gives Daniel Radcliffe the chance to shine is his first important totally adult role for film. Of course, he showed talent as Harry Potter, but in “Kill Your Darlings,” as in Broadway’s “Equus” a few seasons back, he shows his fearlessness as a performer. Radcliffe doesn’t stint or fake when it comes to nudity or masturbation. He plays scenes that require some nerve with the same aplomb as he carries off the many emotional moments Krokidas calls on him to play. Radcliffe plays Ginsberg the willing and enthusiastic rebel with the same verity he plays the unsure Allen who comes to Columbia aware of his cynical nature but too innocent to practice it. He can let go of Ginsberg’s acquired sophisticated air to cry with and for his addled mother, who is loveable and, as played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and warm in spite of her illness and neediness. Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, also gives him advice as unexpected and as wise as his professor’s, advice that helps him in his dealing with Carr as Kammerer’s murderer.
Radcliffe’s performance is fully realized and makes you want to see more of his work as he matures.
Dane DeHaan is bewitching as Lucien Carr. What fun this boy is, no matter how dark and scheming he can be, and no matter how much he leads Ginsberg and Kerouac into situations they would avoid except for Lucien’s pied-piper charisma.
DeHaan’s beauty matches the actual Jack Kerouac’s description of Lucien Carr, but it is the range he musters as Lucien that makes its mark. If “Kill Your Darlings” was distributed more commercially, I’d say DeHaan was ripe for an Oscar nomination. He brings out Carr’s wiliness and joie de vivre. He also lets you see his haunted, haunting manipulative side, the one that want to do damage and make mischief for the sake of tumult and not just out of revolutionary spirit. DeHaan evokes Carr’s depth, and given how many layers the character has to reveal, that is an achievement.
Michael C. Hall is oily from the beginning as Kammerer. You see his urbanity, his charm as a host, and the vast knowledge and perception that would have attracted a 14-year-old Carr to him.
Kammerer is at first flippant to Carr, mocking his posturing and his flaunting of his looks. Through the taunts, Hall shows you Kammerer’s possessiveness and jealousy. He cringes when Carr kisses a woman and takes an immediate dislike and wary approach to Ginsberg, in whom he recognizes another who fawns on Carr’s graces and will embarrass himself to get Carr’s attention or, please heaven, a smile or affectionate touch.
As Kammerer unravels, Hall become more distracted, more disheveled. The scholarly one-time professor, now working as a janitor because that was the job open to him when he followed Carr to New York, is tattered and ungroomed by the time he and Carr take the fateful walk by the Hudson River that seals his doom.
You see longing and lust in Hall’s eyes when he looks at Carr, the same look Radcliffe affects as Ginsberg when he can glimpse Carr in private.
Ben Foster is prickly and eccentric as Burroughs. He wittily plays the writer’s nonchalant nature and quiet love for anything that puts him in a state other than reality.
Jack Huston is a stolid Kerouac, who shows the masculine merchant marine side of the character as well as softness when the man who will write “On the Road” listens to a recording from his best friend who is fighting at Anzio Beach. Huston’s Kerouac is more of a libertine than a rebel. He is out to enjoy life in all of its variety and believes you have to get dirty to understand what living is about. He is the most conventional of the characters, and Huston plays him with mature gravity.
John Cullum, as usual, embodies his role as the professor who bedevils Ginsberg. Jennifer Jason Leigh is becoming too expert at playing complicated woman. She makes the troubled Naomi Ginsberg vulnerable and sympathetic while showing why she must live institutionalized. Jason Leigh’s is a moving performance.
As Ginsberg’s father, the poet, Louis Ginsberg, David Cross shows both affection and distance. Despite his profession, he is a straightforward man who is fed up with his wife and wants his son to be independent so he is free to pursue his pleasures without feeling responsibility.
Kyra Sedgwick is on screen for maybe six minutes, but she immediately lets you see how she both spoiled and neglected her son, Lucien Carr. I particularly admired Sedgwick’s disdain for everyone, even to an extent, Allen, and her general attitude of put-upon hauteur.
Elizabeth Olsen is bright and sympathetic as Kerouac’s wife. I enjoyed David Rasche’s turn as a Columbia dean who needs to maintain discipline and standards while being fair to Allen. (Where was a guy like this in 1968?) I was happy to see a one-time Philadelphia actress, Brenda Wehle, impress as a sour and stalwart Columbia librarian. Dawn Newman’s jazz renditions were a treat. I’d have liked to have seen and heard more from her.
For all Ginsberg, Carr, and company want to banish the old and cultivate new, fresh writing, they all appreciate the classics. Yeats and Rimbaud may be modern enough to pass the New Visioner’s muster, but Kerouac is moved by a passage he recognizes as being by Shelley, and Ginsberg makes his move towards what he doesn’t know is Carr’s room because he hears Brahms.
Lucien Carr continues to fascinate. Both Kerouac and Burroughs say Carr was straight and never consummated a relationship Kammerer, but they may have an ulterior motive as they were charged as material witnesses in his murder case. Kerouac also writes about how beautiful Carr is.
When he left prison in 1946, Carr became an editor for United Press International and stayed with UPI until his death in 2005. He did all of his writing as a journalist and led a relatively quiet life. Ginsberg, Kerouac, and especially Burroughs did not.