Brendan’s Log: KILL YOUR DARLINGS (2013)

December 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Desssstroy the old and builllld the new,” goes the slur of Ben Foster’s William S. Burroughs, over a furor of activity. Hands, knives, pages, bindings, tacks, and the Beat emerges as a map of some undiscovered continent, occupying an entire wall in this apartment and perhaps more, since the camera never pulls far back enough to glimpse the limits of the zonked-out poets’ vision. In attendance and united in the solidarity of some ill-defined literary revolution are Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, played respectively by Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan. The latter arrives onscreen with the lewdest of movie-star introductions, after a flashforward in prologue that sees him pleading with Ginsberg from behind bars; in the library at Columbia University, he recites Miller’s Tropic of Cancer whilst leaping atop a table and reclining, lamp between legs, for maximal erotic effect, not lost on Radcliffe’s decidedly green “Ginzy”.

Nobody ever says “Beat” aloud (all well and good), preferring the “Vision” of Yeats so alluded to in the Times article chronicling Carr’s eventual homicide charge, a choice that retroactively taints a movement with murder – as though the picture didn’t make that clear enough. “Kill your darlings,” says Professor Stevens. Edit out your digressions, your whimsical phrasings? Rip up the old works of canon? Use the same penknife to bleed your stalker out upon the riverside? At his arraignment, Carr clutched the Yeats volume in a detail seized upon by some capricious columnist for a vivid lede, a darling that should have withered sometime between their college days and 2013, when it forms the thesis of a picture too woozy on insight and incident to successfully infuse one with the other.

The first half stumbles along with an invigorating breathlessness; Ginsberg and his father (David Cross, a bearded cartoon cameo of Ginzy in I’m Not There) argue over the correct way to finish the latter’s poem, the moment finding its rhyme only a few scenes later as Carr finds Ginsberg finishing off unread lines of Yeats as well. A philosophy expands within the tiny dorm room, “another lover hits the universe, the circle is broken”, rhyming again with the introduction of Michael C. Hall’s ill-fated David Kammerer, running his finger along the rim of a wine glass as he extolls the virtues of an ethos lifted from Carr, who looks on with a cruel smolder.

He directs that look in so many ways throughout the film, but the real object of admiration, the ideal latched onto by the college boys is Jack Huston’s Kerouac, the Merchant Marine, genuine novelist and football star framed on the walls of pubs in “souvenir histories”. The conversation about these phony memories hangs over the picture like the spectre of its quite-tangible failure; the easy route for such a film to take is to take a beaming snapshot of the historical moment, Kerouac emerging with a rakish grin from a barrel tumbling across the street in one of Darlings’s many recreated anecdotes. Tellingly, he stoops his neck to puke while Ginsberg makes his first unhallucinated move on Carr. The film can’t quite be reduced to this image of a diorama history with a sexual awakening layered in the background, but the threat is there.

It’s more than just an illustration of Radcliffe’s Ginsberg, “[cowering] in unshaven rooms in underwear” as he lunges back and forth for the typewriter or to kick at his bed, the sort of literalist imagery that took down whole passages of I’m Not There. Instead, this film tries sensitively to reach through the fog of mythology that’s formed around these figures, which Carr embodies with all his anachronistic surety that their moment in history is assured and they stand at the brink of a new Renaissance (centuries more will bear him out, I was merely surprised to discover that Carr wasn’t an entirely fictional creation). Instead of finding a dramatic resolution to Ginsberg’s awakening and Carr’s crime, though, it settles for a scene intercutting the homosexual act with a stabbing, a sort of crude climax from which the picture just gradually fades away.

In this film, the best minds of Ginsberg’s generation have to surmount a regrettable mark on their public records, but can still move on to great things, with nothing more to say about the effect this crime has on their work. The killing is actually more of an afterthought and regrettable complement to the true dramatic juncture, of Ginsberg’s total emancipation from the identity wished on him by his insane mother. And if the ending is too quiet, too resolved, it’s perhaps for the best that the filmmakers chose a softer turn for their depiction of inspiration and burgeoning genius, because so many things can go awfully wrong when straining for a howl. Those tend to be more interesting, though. – Brendan

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