The East Coast Premiere of Kill Your Darlings directed by John Krokidas screened at the 21st Hamptons International Film Festival. It is currently being shown in select theaters in NYC and elsewhere. John Krokidas and Austin Bunn wrote the screenplay. Krokidas and Dane DeHaan stopped by after the screening to field audience questions. Dane DeHaan won a “Breakthrough Performer” Award at the Festival for his portrayal of the sensitive and angst-ridden Lucien Carr.
The film takes place in New York City toward the end of World War II and it follows Allen Ginsberg’s relationship with Lucien Carr and those he met through Lucien that were instrumental in inspiring Ginsberg to spearhead the Beats, a group of evolutionary poets, writers, editors who intended to upend the “system” in whatever way they could and break free of restrictive and phony concepts, forms, modes of being. Ginsberg’s was a revolutionary move away from traditional literary intellectualism and poetic forms that were typical of what Ginsberg’s father, Louis Ginsberg, a teacher and poet was writing.
In 1944 Ogden Nash was considered an important poet at Columbia. Lucien and Ginsberg share the same poetry class where professors uplifted works that adhered to strict poetic forms using rhythm/meter and rhymes, forms eschewed by Walt Whitman, Ginsberg is quick to point out. As Lucien and Ginsberg become close, Ginsberg meets the wealthy William S. Burroughs and edgy Jack Kerouac. These brilliant wild ones introduce the naive Ginsberg to sexual freedom, drugs, late nights and rebellion. Ginsberg initially immerses himself in their “unholy” enterprises partly for the joy of it and partly to escape dealing with his mother’s growing insanity and eventual admittance to an asylum. Then he becomes hooked by their allure and indoctrinated to their abandon.
Daniel Radcliffe gives a mature, well-turned out, marvelous performance as Ginsberg’s Columbia freshman. We enjoy watching him morph from innocent, wide-eyed and sensitive boy-man to knowing, cynical, hedonist experimentalist, willing to derange his senses and leap into the abyss to evolve and be born into someone he never imagined he could be. That he is shepherded by a brilliant cadre of sensualists adds to our understanding why and how he took the risk to venture beyond the familiar. The film is spot on in chronicling the genesis of the Beats’ core group: Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston won a “Breakthrough Performer Award” at the H.I.F.F.) Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs (wonderfully played by an unrecognizable Ben Foster) and Lucien Carr. This was before others numbered among their rangy collective (i.e. Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso).
Krokidas cleverly unravels the mystery of the Beats (This is a fact not well known.) and unfolds how their inception was actually fueled by someone never credited, though he was probably the tribe’s stepfather. The brilliant intellect David Kammerer (a poignantly tragic and sensitive Michael C. Hall) was in love with the golden Lucien Carr. With his friend William S. Burroughs, the mature men influenced and nurtured Lucien’s intellectual development. An apt pupil, Lucien then used the Yeats visionary ideas and Rimbaud’s concepts to draw in Ginsberg. Unfortunately, his obsession provoked Kammerer to follow Lucien across the country wherever he was enrolled in college. He made himself useful by writing Lucien’s papers, accomplishing his work and mentoring him with his intellectualism in the hope of spurring Lucien to requite his love. (It actually effected the opposite.) The film’s highpoint is its examination of a little known incident, Kammerer’s death, which involves Ginsberg in an ethical conundrum and exposes the tragic 1940s cultural ethos of “honor slayings” as a legitimate way for “heterosexuals” to rid themselves of unwanted homosexual attentions.
Krokidas who won a “Director to Watch” Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival 2013 is most effective in his montages showing Ginsberg’s break with his formerly uptight life, his “coming out party” into sexual freedom and the evolution of his ability to stretch his writing talents, cracking open the lotus pod dormant in his soul, spilling the seeds in the pool of the tribes’ intellect where they would take root. Eventually, their flowering populated the greater waters of poetry, changing the medium and influencing it to what it is today. It is obvious that Krokidas venerates Ginsberg’s evolution and revolutionary influence in poetic forms. The cinematography, score and Radcliffe’s superb performance during these scenes are exceptional.
In the Q & A after the screening Krokidas discussed how he put together the montages of Ginsberg achieving his breakthrough. He wanted to make it uniquely interesting and a far cry from the usual cinematic cliches of a “poet/writer” encountering a creative moment and executing it. Krodidas filmed various shots and scenes with Radcliffe improvising a number of different actions. He then selected from the footage, edited and strung the clips together, choosing apt music and sound. The scenes worked beautifully in helping the audience to understand the writing act as Ginsberg’s apotheosis for changing the world.
Krokidas also discussed that this was not the traditional combination bio pic and coming of age story. Encapsulated in it is the revelation of a murder and the question of ethics Ginsberg faces which is left unanswered, left for the conscience of the killer to work out. Krokidas complemented Dane Dehaan who fulfilled what he was looking for as someone who could be both magnetic yet vulnerable, understanding that beneath Lucien is frightened of being just ordinary. He is tremendously insecure, acting the bored genius, feeling he is capable of little greatness, resentful, restive and passive aggressive. In portraying an extremely complicated individual DeHaan’s performance is complex, visceral and real.
Krokidas, a fan of Ginsberg, with Bunn in writing the screenplay made use of the extensive research online and the Ginsberg archives at Stanford, Ginsberg’s adolescent journals and his conversations. Their investigations even led to their stumbling upon Jack Keroac’s apartment and visiting it thanks to the current renter, a thrilling moment which encouraged this long journey which Krokidas said spanned a ten year period since he acknowledged he was pulling it together to do the film.
Dane Dehaan reminded the audience of “how far we’ve come” in this country from the time when “honor slaying” could be used as a legitimate defense against killing someone who is homosexual, if the gay person’s target was a heterosexual. If the defense was used, depending upon the evidence, a light sentence was derived, homosexuality was such an anathema. This is true in this country, but we are not there yet globally. Honor killings against gays in Muslim countries occur and some report they are on the rise. Hopefully, this superb film is a step in the right direction as it screens globally.