One of the great things about Mondays is that it’s cheap movie day at the Cinema Nova in Carlton, Melbourne. To celebrate this fact I took myself to see ‘Kill Your Darlings’ yesterday. This film, directed by John Krokidas, is the story of the murder of David Kammera by Lucien Carr in New York in 1944 (or there abouts, it’s not clear exactly). Before I saw the movie I didn’t know who either David Kammera or Lucien Carr were, but their friends were Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, and I knew them. As well as being a story about murder, it’s a story about literature, about poetry, about rebelling against the system and about creating a new style – the founding of the Beat Generation.
Kill Your Darlings poster
But why did I title this blog ‘Harry Potter is gay?!’? Because a lot of the buzz around this film when it was released late last year what that it’s star, Daniel Radcliffe, was playing Allen Ginsberg who’s famously into dudes. There are a lot of people out there who insist on comparing everything Radcliffe does to his role as Harry Potter, and the same can be said about everything that J. K. Rowling has written since then too, but that’s for another time. In an interview, when asked what it was like to film man-on-man sex scenes (of which there is one, and it’s short) Radcliffe said he was astonished at the amount of time people have spent talking about this. His comment was that he got less flack for doing a show on Broadway in which he was completely nude and had a love affair with a horse than he did for this part. This, to me, says a lot about the way people think about same-sex relationships and shows a complete lack of understanding of the weirdness of filming any kind of sex scene with anyone ever (seriously, it must be really weird). I got chatting with a woman sitting next to me in the cinema about the mixed reviews the film has had, she said she’d seen both 1 star and 4 star reviews, and I suggested that perhaps people who didn’t like it were commenting on the content rather than looking at is as an artform or entertainment.
So, let’s talk about about the acting. Firstly Radcliffe is very good. He has a convincing accent throughout the film, which is good, because sometimes American accents done by British actors are not so good. His portayal of Ginsberg’s self-destructive adoration of Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) is poignant and vivid; it was all in the longing stares, the unspoken hurt, and the ridiculous things he was willing to do for Carr. Dane DeHaan is similarly convincing as the boy who both revels in and abhors the attention of the men around him. There is something of Dorian Grey in the character; beautiful and cruel, he inspires art around him but produces none himself. The relationship between Carr and David Kammera (Michael C. Hall) is tense throughout the film, and for a long time I was on Carr’s side, but by the end everything was much murkier. Michael C. Hall, who I know best from ‘Dexter’ fame, is clearly more versatile than I gave him credit for. His desperation, jealousy and hurt were palpable. There was nothing about his performance as the love-sick older man who cannot let Carr go that was comical. Even when he’s sitting on the balcony of Kerouac’s apartment knocking on the window, begging for forgiveness, all I felt for him was pity. Pity and a little bit of disgust for being so pathetically obsessed.
Still: Burroughs, Ginsberg and Carr in the Columbia University library
My favourite performance of the film would have to be Ben Foster’s William S. Burroughs. I have heard a number of recordings of Burroughs’ spoken word performances (for example) in which his languid, slurred, monotonous voice is as much a trademark as his fantastical, pornographic content. Foster has clearly spent a good amount of time studying how Burroughs speaks because the stoned flatness was obvious from his first appearance on the screen. I will be very disappointed if he isn’t nominated for some of the Supporting Actor awards in the upcoming season of statue giving (but then again there were lots of good films this last year, either way he’s one to watch in the future.)
Reed Murano’s cinematography of this film was used to great effect, in particular the use of focus and depth of field. There are scenes in which the screen is blurred, where the actors swim in and out of focus, and these scenes generally denote flashbacks or drug-altered states. Indeed the flashback scenes involved the film running in reverse, like trying to find the right spot on a VHS tape, before settling on a particular phrase or image. The film’s first scene is repeated towards the end of the film, almost shot for shot, and this has the effect of emphasising this as a defining moment between Ginsberg and Carr, paralleling the way repetition is used for emphasis in poetry.
The last thing I want to talk about is the ‘gayness’. Over the course of the two hour film there is one kiss between Ginsberg and Carr, and one sex scene between Ginsberg and a guy who’s name we don’t find out. If these scenes were between a man and a woman, they would barely even register. The sex scene is dingy, shot in sharp focus, and has a strong undertone of misery and raw hurt. These scenes are not in the film to be shocking or controversial, they are in the film because they are important to the development of the relationships and characters. If only straight sex scenes were given as much thought and had such clear reasons for being in films, (I could go on about the way sex is (mis)used in films, but I won’t).
In sum, ‘Kill Your Darlings’ is a poignant, thoughtful, genuinely curious look at the beginnings of the Beat Generation and at the relationships which allowed it to happen, this film was a joy to watch; I’m giving it 4 out of 5 stars.