My usual readers will know that I only very rarely review films, but Kill Your Darlings wasn’t something I could pass up. As many of you know, Hollywood has recently had the hots for the Beats what with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s HOWL in 2010, Walter Salles’ On the Road in 2012, and now John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings.
I’ve seen all three and, while I do think there are commendable and interesting elements of all, I have to say that Kill Your Darlings is easily the best of these. What’s been most interesting for me through the process of watching these films is seeing how each director/actor/writer has so differently interpreted the character of Allen Ginsberg: James Franco’s (2010) Ginsberg capitalized on Ginsberg’s poetic genius and youthful arrogance; Tom Sturridge’s (2012) Ginsberg focused on the craze and openness of young Ginsberg as he was just falling in love with the wild card of Neal Cassady; and Daniel Radcliffe’s (2013) Ginsberg centered on Ginsberg the Human Being. While all of these interpretations interest me, it’s Radcliffe’s that’s undoubtedly the most fascinating and, to my mind, the most honest.
Franco’s show of Ginsberg looked like the facade that any young man/poet would want the world to see: genius, coolness, and creativity. Sturridge’s was the most baffling interpretation of Ginsberg of the three–I can appreciate the type of exuberance he appeared to be aiming for, but all he made Ginsberg ultimately look like was a howling buffoon. Now, while Ginsberg was able to embrace the world and those in it with a brave joyfulness and was undoubtedly arrogant (as are most young artists), it is Radcliffe who seems to have best understood Ginsberg as a young man: sensitive, sometimes escapist, romantic, budding, exploratory, uncertain, brave, intelligent, and, above all, Multitudinous.
Ginsberg wasn’t just a self-involved Columbia student/graduate on his own for the first time. Ginsberg wasn’t just a crazed, hooting maniac. Allen Ginsberg was a human being and a young man whose mother suffered from the still-misunderstood disease of schizophrenia; whose father was already a well-respected poet; whose father was beginning to see other people; who had just begun college; who was just discovering poetry for himself; who was only beginning to adjust to life in NYC from suburban NJ; whose sexuality had yet to be explored; whose identity was still largely unbloomed; whose entire world had seemed to hinge upon a certain understanding and acceptance of a single, harsh reality until one fateful day when he fell in with those few rare individuals capable of challenging him with: Why?
This is the day and the time that Kill Your Darlings focuses upon, and this is the melee Radcliffe deftly brings to the screen.
But Kill Your Darlings isn’t a superior film thanks only to Radcliffe’s terrific performance as Allen Ginsberg (as a Ginsberg only just discovering his identity, sexuality, and poetry); it’s also superior to these other two Beat-inspired films because Kill Your Darlings actually has a plot. There’s a reason that Howl was a poem and that On the Road was a novel: these were the media the artists were reshaping and building themselves in! For this reason, their words are not really translatable to film. But Kill Your Darlings doesn’t try to recreate a book or poem on the screen. Instead, Krokidas centers more strictly upon biographical information, turning it artfully into a full and riveting story.
As I was stepping out of the Charles Theater in Baltimore, having just seen the new film for the first time, I overheard two young men talking about the movie and why they’d come to see it since one of the pair wasn’t a Beat fan. The non-fan explained that the plot had interested him and that the movie had been quite good despite his continued lack of appreciation for Beat literature. He then quoted Truman Capote who’d once charged the Beats (and Kerouac in particular) thus: ”This isn’t writing, it’s typing.”
To this, I must say that the man clearly didn’t grasp the true enormity of what the Beats (and, perhaps especially, Allen Ginsberg) were doing when they began their campaign for a new type of writing, for a new way of viewing the world: these were young men and women who were attempting to escape a WWII reality entrenched in fear, death, prejudice, and paranoia. The Beats were not Hippies. The Beat Movement came into being between the 1940s and the early 1960s. The Beats were some of the first to really begin writing boldly and explicitly about non-heterosexual love and relationships, about drug (ab)use, about alcohol abuse, and about trying to find/reinvent oneself between the glare and clamor of bombs, unemployment, prejudice, protests, and gunfire.
Truman Capote was absolutely a talented and ingenious writer (his invention of the creative nonfiction genre in In Cold Blood is a true masterpiece of American literature). But he was not the one I would elect for Bravest Author. In fact, I would argue that his boldness came nowhere near that of Allen Ginsberg, a poet who laid himself bare upon the page. Both Capote and Ginsberg set out to create something new — for Capote, it was a new genre: the nonfiction novel; for Ginsberg, it was an entire literary movement: the Beat Movement.
And it is this type of boldness that Radcliffe brings to the screen in Kill Your Darlings. Capote was gifted and gave us many literary gifts, but Ginsberg was a budding revolutionary who gave us a literary/poetic revolution. It is this struggle with bravery and the ability or inability to lay oneself bare that all the characters of Kill Your Darlings wrestle with, from Dane DeHaan’s Lucien Carr to Michael C. Hall’s David Kammerer to Ben Foster’s (very impressive) William Burroughs.
Kill Your Darlings is a beautifully made film that will, I have no doubt, whet a viewer’s appetite for more Beat biography and literature.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Beats, please consider checking out The Trickster in Ginsberg, a new nonfiction book examining Ginsberg’s “Howl” through his understanding and interest in the trickster archetype. Also check out my previous post, The Beat Books, which provides a list of and information on some of my favorite texts on the Beats.