Wednesday, December 4, 2013

'Kill Your Darlings' (2013) directed by John Krokidas

Kill Your Darlings is 'Beat Generation: The College Years'.  The year is 1943 and our protagonist is a young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), about to venture out from a home in turmoil and broaden his horizons in New York City.  Quickly he becomes entangled in Greenwich village bohemia, his guide the angelic libertine Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).  Soon he's introduced to William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), forming a tight, intellectual foursome with designs on the literary world.  The story charts their growth as the seed of their future work is planted; the secret origins of Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac.

This is a film with pretensions towards intellectual discourse, characters dispensing bitesize bits of Rimbaud, referencing Shelley and having high-falutin' benezedrine fuelled chats about Yeats.  For all this though, the skeleton of the film is, by and large, your traditional college film.  So there's a crusty old dean who needs some of the starch taken out of his stuffed shirt, the nerds versus preppy jocks and know-it-all-know-nothing arrogant Professors who are about to get blown away by our gang's funky fresh literary stylings.  

Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan)
We explore this world from Ginsberg's perspective, but the catalyst for action is Lucien Carr. He's equal parts David Bowie at his most androgynous muddled up with dollops of River Phoenix's Mike from My Own Private Idaho.  DeHaan infuses the role with a brittle fragility, staring balefully out of red-lidded baggy eyes that make him look like he's been up for days He becomes the object of desire that drives the central conflict, and as he sinuously inhabits the screen you can see why everyone wants him.

Radcliffe nicely sells the building confidence within Allen Ginsberg as he slowly realises that he doesn't just think he's a great poet - he might actually be one.  The evolution of Ginsberg from buttoned-up neurotic to freewheeling experimentalist is perfectly pitched, and it's quietly touching to see Ginsberg's talent blossom as he interacts with Burroughs and Kerouac, the three men influencing each other, impressing each other and developing a rare artistic brotherhood.

One problem is that exactly what they're creating is rather fuzzy.  The events of the film are more about laying the foundations of what would become these men's artistic philosophy rather than actually exploring what their ideas entail.  This means we get scenes where the men excitedly define their 'new vision' literary movement, but what on earth that means is frustratingly vague.  Kill Your Darlings is even light on actual work by the men; we get just a short, early poem from Ginsberg and the odd tidbit from the others.  

Ginsberg Senior and Junior - a slightly distracting David Cross.
To be fair I wasn't exactly bored at any point during the run-time, though that's only because director John Krokidas can't seem to decide on what tone he's going for, the solution he comes up with to throw much as he can at the screen and hope something will work.  So the film spins wildly from apparent pastiches of Dead Poet's Society, to an experimental drug trip scene, stylistic tricks like reversing the audio for a second and playing back - even taking a short sojourn into Baz Luhrmann/Sofia Coppola territory with a heist soundtracked by TV On The Radio's 2005 hit Wolf Like Me.  Finally, (and disappointingly) the film settles down into a curiously dispassionate melodrama.

Kill Your Darlings is an odd goose; there's brief moments where the film starts crackling with passion and dynamism, interactions that are a credit to these talented young actors.  The drug-addled montage that leads to the destruction of a book collection is exhilarating to watch; the thrust of blade into book creating a beautiful, cut-up chaos, an image that encapsulates much the film.  Also deeply memorable is a moment where the virginal Ginsberg is getting a blowjob from a librarian, while Carr stands silently behind him, burning a lusty laserbeam gaze right at him as he comes.  All this stuff is glitteringly good, yet the odd disconnected bit of genius can't carry a story that turns out to be disappointingly conventional.

It's this narrative conventionality that ultimately tips the film into the category of noble failure.  We're instantly sympathetic to their philosophy, disgusted at the literary straitjackets their college tutors are fastening Ginsberg and Carr into - instinctively agreeing that forcing strict grammatical structure upon poetry is literary fascism  - that the unfettered expression of true inner-self with no heed to rules and regulations is the recipe for true poetic beauty.  We feel all this watching, then we realise we're right now watching a by-the-numbers period piece.  Suddenly it all feels a bit staid and listless.

William Burroughs (Ben Foster)
Allen Ginsberg's Howl was an atomic bomb of literature, the poem evoking image and atmosphere unlike anything else people had heard.  Though not written until a decade after the events of the film, these experiences should be informing the man who'll sit down in front of a typewriter and write this:
"who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman's loom. who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness"
To put it mildly, the apocalyptic vision of Howl and the reality Kill Your Darlings presents don't seem to have a great amount in common with each other.  To be fair to Krokidas, perhaps capturing the Beat Generation on film is impossible; both 2012's On the Road and 2010's Howl similarly lacked the high-voltage spark that sizzles inside the writing.  Kill Your Darlings is far from a bad film, but it's a limited one - making an iconic time feel mundane and dragging glowing, talented genius into boring old reality.


Kill Your Darlings is on general release from December 6th

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