A Beatnik Animal House: John Krokidas’s “Kill Your Darlings”
By Len GutkinOctober 29, 2013
WHEN ALLEN GINSBERG entered Columbia University in 1944, he met Lucien Carr. The second name is less familiar than the first, but Beat aficionados will know it. A year older than Ginsberg, Carr was a charming, beautiful would-be poet who served as a kind of Beat galvanizer and muse, talking grandly about a Yeatsian New Vision movement and generally inspiring literary ambition. He had a troubled past — he’d been at three different colleges in as many years, moving from Bowdoin to the University of Chicago to Columbia — and a strange, tense relationship with one David Kammerer, a 35-year-old man apparently obsessed with him. Kammerer had known Carr since the latter was 14, and had followed him to Maine, to Chicago, and to New York. Somehow, horribly, Carr ended up stabbing Kammerer to death in Riverside Park, a crime for which he spent two years in prison.
This tragedy might be thought of as the Beat Generation’s founding trauma. Kerouac and Burroughs novelized it immediately in a 1945 manuscript finally published in 2008 as And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Ginsberg wrote about it too, in an unfinished novel fragment called The Bloodsong, and Kerouac wrote further iterations of the story in The Town and the City (1950) and Vanity of Duluoz (1968). Before Naomi Ginsberg’s lobotomy, before Burroughs killed Jane Vollmer, the slaying of David Kammerer was the central catastrophe for the cohort that would become the Beats.
John Krokidas’s Kill Your Darlings tells a version of this story. Dane DeHaan’s Lucien recalls an eviler reincarnation of Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte in the BBC Brideshead Revisited: a lovely aesthete with problems, seducing others with his epicene poses — all light, wine, and poetry — and then, with a darkening flicker of his hooded eyes, becoming quite the most vicious snake in the garden. He’s got the cruel energy and the sexual charisma to carry the role, and he executes his manifold manipulations — of Ginsberg, of Kammerer, of the Columbia administration — with the plausible aplomb of a born sociopath. And like any dandy, he gets the best lines. For instance, after kissing a stranger at a party: “She tasted like imported sophistication and domestic cigarettes.” Wouldn’t you have wanted to talk like that in college?
DeHaan’s dangerous charm is a good thing, too, because Daniel Radcliffe’s Ginsberg is as boring and safe as a J.Crew catalog — indeed, he appears to have escaped from one. In a moment of putative intellectual rebellion, he challenges a stuffy English professor’s insistence on metrical rules: “Then how do you explain Whitman?” I’m not convinced. Radcliffe’s Ginsberg couldn’t punch his way out of a bag sewn together from the pages of Leaves of Grass. He’s obviously working hard, but he does Ginsberg as so wide-eyed and impressionable that it’s impossible to recognize, even in embryo, the man’s ambition or vision: this Ginsberg would have given up poetry by sophomore year and become an accounting major.
As David Kammerer, Michael C. Hall (TV’s Dexter) rounds out the cast nicely. Haunted, stricken, hiding behind his red beard, Kammerer’s awful need is palpable in his every scene. Hall conveys Kammerer’s sinister power over Carr with a mixture of stalkerish urgency and reserved menace — we feel for him, but we’re also afraid of him. Hall and DeHaan’s fierce negative chemistry is compelling, but, perhaps of necessity, underdeveloped. The real details of the Kammerer-Carr relationship remain murky, and Krokidas is faithful to that murkiness.
The result, though, is that Kill Your Darlings isn’t really about the murder that is its technical premise. At heart, it’s a college buddy-movie about the lit-mag milieu. It wants badly to tell us something about poetry, or art, or whatever, but it doesn’t know how. It mostly tells us that college can be fun, but also sometimes scary.
Kill Your Darlings is, finally, a kid’s movie, or a college freshman’s, though one hopes that teenagers trained on “Howl” and on the sardonic Burroughs of Junky and Naked Lunch will have the wit to recognize when they’re being condescended to. From one of its earliest scenes, Ginsberg receiving his acceptance letter to Columbia, to one of its latest, Ginsberg buckling down to write in a café, whiskey and Lucky Strikes spread out before him, Kill Your Darlings fails to be more than a rather pretentious campus romp, relentlessly insisting on big issues it doesn’t really care about: World War II, the pressures of the closet, conformity, obsession. But Krokidas is really interested in lighter fare. One of the movie’s more successful scenes involves Ginsberg half-willingly getting a blowjob from an unimpressed Barnard girl in the Columbia stacks, all part of a scheme to steal the key to the banned books room. It’s pretty funny, in an American Pie sort of way. (All the gay sex, by contrast, is terribly solemn, as if part of a church service. Is there a rule that says that when straight actors portray gay characters, they have to be so earnest about it?) In another enjoyable sequence, Ginsberg, Carr, and Kerouac break into the library in order to stock the glass display-cases with pornography (Beardsley phalluses and so on.) In other words, this movie’s best self is a kind of Beatnik Animal House, but its larger ambitions are announced so blatantly that their failure to materialize renders everything else bathetic. It’d be a better film if it didn’t try to be so good: if it had a little dark and tasteless fun with the noirish possibilities of the material.
It would also be truer to at least one of it sources, Burroughs’s and Kerouac’s hardboiled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. The novel isn’t very good, but it has two things missing from the film: a genuine perception of the sordid, and a distorted sense of humor corresponding to that perception. Kill Your Darlings is a comic portrait of the artist as a young man with a happy resolution — Ginsberg scribbling away, on the cusp of greatness! — that happens to contain a murder. It might profitably be shown to 15-year-olds to encourage their nascent literary pursuits.
Len Gutkin is a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. He has written for TLS, Boston Review, and elsewhere.
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