18 December 2013

Filmbook: "Kill Your Darlings" (2013)

I say, why shouldn't the Beats get their own "Heathers"?

When little Allen Ginsberg goes off to college at the beginning of "Kill Your Darlings," it's clear he's not going to settle in with the football jocks like his study-disdaining number-sweater-wearing roommate. ("Central Casting, get me the blondest dope you can find.") Instead, an older, more streetwise student named Lucien Carr takes him under his wing, giving him books to read and taking him to exotic downtown (and uptown) parties. Through him Ginsberg meets other people whose names you recognize by now like football hero Jack Kerouac and rich junkie William S. Burroughs. But Lucien also has a friend no one seems to like, named David Kammerer, who is always hanging around, helping him with his homework. What's his game, anyway? Is he in love with Lucien? Is it mutual? Wouldn't they all be better if they just dropped him for good?
I've been bending the rules again: Technically, this isn't a book adaptation, although it covers the same events at the same time as a novel Kerouac and Burroughs wrote together. This novel, called AND THE HIPPOS WERE BOILED IN THEIR TANKS, then sat on Burroughs' shelf until he died, at which point his literary executor decided to wait until Carr's death to publish it. How close does it ring to the true events? Hard to say, but it's more of an artifact than a great book, as I described when I reviewed it on its final publication in 2008.

Even if they didn't talk about it much, that fall would mark all of the men through their friendships and sometimes more -- and I give this movie credit for not straightwashing* the Beats' circle, as some may be tempted to do. However, for at least its first half "Kill Your Darlings" is exquisitely art-directed and completely boring. I was suffering and digging for a pen, though not a light because I am not a monster. The most entertaining thing about those 45-50 minutes was David Cross as Ginsberg's father (yes, really, Tobias Funke!) If you can make it to the library sequence, you're home free.

It's a shame, because Daniel Radcliffe is developing into a fine actor under America's nose and one day he's going to sweep up and steal that Oscar and everyone's going to be all, "But Harry Potter!" But Harry Potter nothing. There is a seriousness to his intent here that is adorable, but also very fine. In fact most of the major players here were reverent without being two-dimensional; Ben Foster as Burroughs was just weird enough and Jack Huston infused life into the second half as Jack Kerouac. And Michael C. Hall, "Dexter" himself, brought that freaky intensity right in to his role as Kammerer. (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Elisabeth Olsen were also quite good, but typically underused.) Dane DeHaan, as Lucien Carr, was more of an unknown quantity to me; it wasn't hard to see why everyone was captivated by him, but sometimes I detected a nonresponsiveness to his eyes. If anyone in this movie gets male-gazed at, it's him.

I also have to fault the film for the twist it gave the final scenes to suggest something about Ginsberg and Carr's relationship that wasn't true -- at least, not that we have documented. It seemed so cruel at the time, and the film seems to take a side just in that one sequence, when otherwise it was more evenhanded than I predicted.

Filmbook verdict: Unless you've seen all 8 HARRY POTTER movies or are a Beat completist, wait for Netflix. Late-night cable will probably chop it up too much.

*Out of curiosity, I Googled this term to see how frequently it is used and found this interesting, though oddly formatted article about biopics and straightwashing. It leads off with "J. Edgar," which I thought somewhat straightwashes Hoover but is such a soppy mess otherwise that who would be able to tell? Don't see that movie. Go read the back of a cereal box instead.


Marjorie said...

The great thing about this is that David Cross played Ginsberg himself in I'm Not There.

Ellen said...

You are a genius. I THOUGHT something seemed familiar about David Cross and Allen Ginsberg, and for the life of me I couldn't remember. Also, applause for the total weirdness of "I'm Not There."

Marjorie said...

Love that movie. And that was one of my favorite parts--Ginsberg and Dylan standing under a giant crucifix shouting at Jesus "Play some of your early work!"