Patience is required with “Kill Your Darlings.” There’s a good cinematic story being told, but you have to wait for the movie to “kill” off its own darlings first.
The darlings of this movie are the foremost Beat Generation writers (Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac) and their fellow travelers (William S. Burroughs and Lucian Carr) in Carr, Kerouac and Ginsberg’s Columbia University student days in the 1940s. The movie needs to extinguish its somewhat puerile affection for their proto-beat literary high jinks before it tells the murder story that’s worth seeing.
“Kill Your Darlings” is a traditional writing course instruction to young writers most often attributed to William Faulkner, i.e., cast a cold eye on whatever you’ve written that you love the most. And be ready to take it out. It’s a bit of a joke that the advice is often attributed to Faulkner, whose editorial eye on his own work was far from acute.
In fact, it was first said in a Cambridge lecture as “Murder Your Darlings” by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a literary critic and academic who straddled the Victorian and Edwardian eras and helped give the literary world critic F.R. Leavis.
All of which, frankly, I don’t find all that much less interesting than this movie’s insistence on showing how much fun the Beat Generation had as students breaking into the university library and putting such infamous “restricted” books as “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” and “Tropic of Cancer” under glass as the kind of honored masterpieces libraries are supposed to show off.
So there’s young Ginsberg, a sheltered, Whitman-loving poet’s son from Patterson, N.J., with a mentally disturbed mother, hanging out in his first years at Columbia with Carr, Burroughs and, eventually, Kerouac. Weed is smoked, jazz clubs are frequented, smart aleck adventures are had and literary rebellion is declared – especially in the class of a literary professor named “Stevens” who is clearly modeled on Columbia’s Lionel Trilling.
And however much it actually mattered to the literary history of the United States, none of it transfers at all well to film.
But right about here I must confess a large personal problem with this movie: I have never cared much for Ginsberg’s poetry. I love him as a delightfully “other” public figure in his mature years, but as a poet I much prefer almost all of his friends and sometime fellow travelers – Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Philip Whalen, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder.
So yes, I can recognize that star Daniel Radcliffe is doing a very un-Harry Potterish thing by starring as a young Ginsberg at the age where he’s fully discovering he’s gay, but all that “Portrait of the Beat Poet As a Young Nerd” stuff is largely lost on me in his case. If you’re more kindly disposed to Ginsberg than me, you will, no doubt, be absorbed from the opening minutes.
Carr, it seems, was a natural born rebel among the proto-beats who had a relationship with the older drug-dispensing Burroughs and another – infinitely weirder – relationship with a kind of older stalker named Daniel Kammerer, who followed Carr from city to city, finally, at Columbia taking a janitorial job just to be near him. The charismatic Carr, by the way, later became a wire service reporter whose children include Caleb Carr, author of the best-seller “The Alienist.”
Kammerer is played by Michael Hall, who stars as TV’s “Dexter,” so that should tell you what you need to know.
The tale you’re finally watching, then, is fascinating – the run-up to Carr’s murder of Kammerer in the park.
The obvious thing about this film is how much more interesting it would have been if it spent more time with “lesser name” Carr and had Ginsberg inhabiting a minor, even walk-on, cameo role.
Then, too, there’s a whole other subject never touched here – seven years later Burroughs would drunkenly (or under drug influence) kill his wife accidentally while supposedly playing William Tell with her. The Beats and their pals were a bit bloodier in their private lives in the beginning than, yes, the “lost generation” of the 1920s. If you can indulge this movie’s puerile “darlings,” it’s eventually not bad.
Kill Your Darlings
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, John Cullum, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Director: John Krokidas
Running time: 104 minutes
Rating: R for sex, language, drugs and brief violence.
The Lowdown: Close friends of poet Allen Ginsberg, in his 1940s student days, are involved in a brutal murder in the park.