Friday, November 8, 2013

When You Kill Your Darlings: A Look at The Beats' Beginnings

Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) and Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) as Columbia University undergraduates. The electricity between Radcliffe's Ginsberg and DeHaan's Lucien Carr is unforgettable.

Beat Writers in Embryo

Kill Your Darlings is a great movie. That's as good a place to start as any before I get into the background about why the movie is so damn good. Because there is a fair bit of background to this film, which opened in Canada on Friday, starring Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg. The cast includes Ben Foster doing a spot on William Burroughs, nailing the man's trademark sinister drawl, and Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr, who, along with Ginsberg, propels the action forward and is responsible for most of the plot's romantic and sexual heat.

But let us get back to the background. Kill Your Darlings is based on the novel And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, co-written by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs before either had established reputations as literary bad boys and dangerous, original thinkers. The novel concerns the events of summer 1944 when a young Allen Ginsberg was an undergraduate at New York's venerable Columbia University. In short order, he befriended Burroughs, Kerouac, Carr, and David Kammerer, a professor with an obsessive crush on Carr. Lucien and Kammerer's relationship is the central point on which the plot pivots late in the movie, because the elder, obsessed professor is stabbed to death and then drowned by his not so innocent protégé - more on that later.

And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks was written in 1945, before being confined to some dusty filing cabinet until its' publication by Grove Press in 2008. Structured with two narrators in alternating chapters, William Burroughs wrote 'Will Dennison' and Jack Kerouac penned the 'Mike Ryko' character. I'm thankful the novel was published because it serves as source material for this outstanding movie.

DeHaan as Lucien Carr is impossible to take your eyes off. As the blond-haired, blue-eyed Devil Child, he is not a writer himself, though he sure knows how to turn them on and get the creative juices flowing. DeHaan's character is of a type - the beauty who knows how to get other people to do his bidding through a unique blend of charisma, raw sex appeal, book smarts, and streetwise understanding of the levers that make human beings do the things they do. Think of pretty blond Nicholas from Xavier Dolan's 2010 Les Amours Imaginaires, but with book smarts.

Lucien's motto is, "First thought, best thought." It is with this freewheeling, adventurous, and devastatingly forward raison d'être that he brings his friends along on a wild ride. Tearing up David Kammerer's books in a move that suggests Burroughs's Cut Up method in its' infancy, dropping Benzedrine inhaler strips in coffee (amphetamine), and staging a mock hanging in Carr's Columbia dorm room (another Burroughs touch, this one presaging scenes from his taboo destroying Naked Lunch) are shown in quick succession.

Some of the movie's best scenes involve Carr helping Ginsberg break out of his overly cautious, repressed, ever-so-studious persona. When the two share the screen there is real fire. It's fascinating stuff to watch the Beats in Embryo rebel against 1940s' social norms - their rebellion is part of what gave birth to the Free Love 1960s', then the 1970s' and all the social transformations that were reflected in the art of the time. In 2013 we seem to have entered a new age of repression where the bright lights of rebellion have dimmed and we see people put blinders on, adopting unimaginative, corporate outlooks on a life that is to be lived for profit.

But that criticism is for another blog entry - back to the movie. Some critics have suggested the choice of Radcliffe as Ginsberg is a bit of stunt casting. I disagree - his Britishness and mannerisms (I couldn't stop watching the way his lips move) are perfect as he portrays a repressed, creative soul, longing to break free so he can 'Howl.' Carr's function is to both bring him out of his shell and serve as Ginsberg's love interest. From one of the movie's earliest scenes we see a young Allen putting his finger on the Christopher Street subway stop - then (and now) a hotspot for NYC gay nightlife. It was in this area that the Stonewall Riots took place, signalling the birth of North America's gay liberation movement.

Whether Carr is gay or not is up for debate - he certainly knows how to make a play for queer affection. One scene finds Burroughs, Carr, and Ginsberg in Columbia's rare book room, looking to distract a female librarian so they can swipe and make impressions of the library's keys for a night time heist. To pull it off a nervous Allen brings the librarian into the back for a quickie. After copying the keys Lucien decides to watch the 'show' in the back stacks. The attraction and tension is clear as present danger - it comes as no surprise when Allen, having fully adopted Lucien's worldview, later says, "first thought, best thought" before making out with him.

Interestingly, the real Allen Ginsberg may have had more in common with a librarian than his rebellious public persona. From Sam Kashner's When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School: "People always think of Allen Ginsberg as the outrageous, out-of-control, scatological, nudist-loving, free speech advocate who smoked pot for breakfast and took LSD the way other people take Tums... By the time I was Allen's apprentice, though, he had changed... He loved keeping lists and files and filling notebooks as if they were ledgers, his dreams charted and monitored like stocks. He rarely if ever cursed. He could be the most polite of men. He often wore a bathing suit in the hot tub."

So it would seem that Allen Ginsberg, like many less well-known men, was lost in his contradictions and also found in them.

Of course, tragedy must come near the end of any good drama, and so it does with Kammerer's murder. What follows is at best anticlimactic, but in no way spoils all the fantastic stuff that comes before. Director John Krokidas has made a movie that will last, and will become part of my collection as soon as it comes to DVD.

An added bonus, for anyone who has ever suspected that Harry Potter was a bottom, this movie confirms it. You see a great shot of the adult wizard's naked ass before he gives it up for a blond Lucien Carr substitute, as the real deal is busy seeing to Kammerer's end.

For anyone interested in the Beat Generation, and for all the lads young and old who have personal experiences with a Devil Child blond, this movie is for you.

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