Comments on ‘Kill Your Darlings’

Incidents have been reported back to the earliest pages of the Bible, in which certain people can be induced into taking actions which are counter to their own best interests, by people whom they find fascinating. Often the attraction for the individual is a sexual attraction. In other cases, it is a different emotion – hero worship, religious zeal, patriotic devotion, etc.

The story of Samson, for example tells of a hero who informs the beautiful Delilah how it is possible to defeat him in battle, even though she is a member of an enemy nation. In Greek mythology, the crews of ships are forced to steer their crafts to their destruction on the rocks because they were so fascinated by the singing of the Sirens.

I recently had an occasion to see two different performances within a single 24-hour period on exactly that subject. The first I wrote about in a review during the last weekend of April. It was a production of ”The Shape of Things” by Neil LaBute, at the State University of New York at Fredonia. The second was a Hollywood film which I chanced to see the following afternoon, with the provocative title ”Kill Your Darlings.” This week, I’d like to share with you my thoughts on that film.

Kill Your Darlings

”Kill Your Darlings” is an independent film, created by first-time director, John Krokidas. It saw its official opening in October at the Toronto Film Festival.

If you are familiar with the film, it is probably because it is a starring vehicle for popular British actor Daniel Radcliffe. Radcliffe made a smash success as a child, and young adulthood, in the title role of the Harry Potter films. Since the completion of that series, he has really extended himself to take roles which will make the public think of him in terms not connected to wizards and magic wands. He played the mentally deranged blinder of horses, in ”Equus,” he played a song and dance man in the Broadway musical show ”How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” and a number of other, quite disparate roles.

In ”Kill Your Darlings,” Radcliffe plays a real person – poet Allen Ginsberg, who died in 1996. Ginsberg was a founder, along with his friends Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and others, of what is now called ”the Beat Generation.” The film is basically a true story.

In the years immediately after World War II, most people felt overwhelmed by the horrors of that war, including the Holocaust, the first nuclear bombs, and any number of other massacres, murders, invasions, etc. Naturally, whenever the general population is horror struck by something, they tend to divide into two camps: some think that the only way to prevent the shocking event from happening again is to initiate tough laws and to control behavior so that no one will be allowed to repeat the mistake. Others believe that while some individuals may choose bad behavior, it is only when you get a government power behind that bad behavior, such as the Nazis in Germany for example, that the behavior is a danger to more than a few individuals. Naturally, these two ideas do not co-exist happily in the world, and the result is often violent.

The Beats, as Ginsberg’s crowd was known, were part of the latter reaction. They believed that obedience to rules or laws, even when they seemed wrong, was dangerous and that unquestioning devotion to any abstract ideal, such as a religion or philosophy of government was dangerous, and the world was safer and better off if each individual lived according to his own lights. The Beats, or ”Beatniks,” as they were sometimes called, were inspiration to the hippies, who came along around 15 years later.

Ginsberg was born in 1926, in New Jersey, not far from New York City. His father was a poet and a teacher, and his mother stayed at home, largely handicapped by mental illness. In the film, we first meet Ginsberg when two very important events are happening in his life. First, his mother has become so separated from reality that she hears voices speaking to her from the electrical wiring in their home. His father responds by putting her into a mental hospital, and almost immediately takes up with another woman.

Second, the traumatized Ginsberg has graduated from high school and has attended a community college for a short while, but now his application to Columbia University has been accepted. The giant Ivy League University in New York City offers an acceptable escape from the unhappiness in his home.

Soon after his arrival at his Columbia University dormitory, Ginsberg met Lucien Carr. Carr is portrayed in the film by young actor Dane DeHaan, who is probably best known as the most recent portrayer of the Green Goblin in the latest ”Spiderman” film. Carr is the ”Delilah” of the film. His performance, changing in an instant from loving and praise to hatred and threats against the same person, for example, is really the key to the film’s success. Carr’s mother is portrayed in the film by actor Kyra Sedgwick, who played the lead in the television series ”The Closer.”

Blonde and attractive, Sedgwick resembles DeHaan physically, but one of the most brilliant elements of the film is the way in which her behavior patterns are virtually identical to those of her son. When she wants someone else to do something for her, especially when what she wants is counter to the other person’s own self-interest, she becomes seductive, threatening, morally outraged, and anything else which suits her purpose. The audience can understand why people do her will, and how her son has come to assume that he is entitled to use other people to get what he wants, even when what he wants isn’t even that important to him.

We’ve had a few hints in the film that Ginsberg could be gay. He was gay, in real life. When he enters his dorm room, there is a subway map of the city on the wall, and he quickly runs his finger down the route of the A Train down to Greenwich Village, which had a large gay population in the 1950s. Someone immediately says to him, ”You don’t want to go down there. That’s fairy land.”

When Ginsberg meets his assigned roommate, the young man is just returning from some vigorous activity and is headed for the shower. The roommate clearly feels uncomfortable, thinking Ginsberg has shown too much interest in that process.

As a sidelight, the small role of the roommate is played by Zach Appelman, who performed two seasons in our area as a member of the Chautauqua Conservatory, playing Biff in ”Death of a Salesman,” and Septimus in ”Arcadia,” for example. The bonus material on the disc with the film tells us that all the disembodied voices in the film, such as public address announcers in train stations, radio announcers, a classmate calling Ginsberg to the telephone and others, are all performed by Appelman.

We learn that Carr has a learning disability, which makes it nearly impossible for him to express his thinking in writing. He’s willing to reward Ginsberg for writing his class papers for him, and while he doesn’t seem interested in a sexual relationship, if that’s the cost of getting when he wants, he’s not averse to paying. We learn that Ginsberg has a rival for Carr’s attentions. Carr is the object of a stalker-like relationship with a somewhat older man named David Kammerer. Like Ginsberg, Kammerer has been doing class assignments, lending money, and basically has accepted the role of a servant to the handsome young man. Indeed, Carr lives with Kammerer, and the costs of living are all Kammerer’s.

Elements of the film bring back memories of films such as ”Easy Rider,” and ”Five Easy Pieces,” in which young people question social norms and take action – sometimes violent action – to oppose them. When the Beats learn that the university’s library keeps controversial books under lock and key, for example, they break into the library at night, get ”Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” and other such hidden volumes out of concealment, and when the library opens, the hidden books are now replacing classics such as ”Beowulf,” and ”Canterbury Tales,” in the glass display cases.

Jack Huston plays Jack Kerouac whose novel ”On the Road” would first introduce the national public to the Beats. Ben Foster plays Burroughs, whose novel ”Naked Lunch” is often credited with ending many censorship laws in this country. Michael C. Hall plays Kammerer, the older man in thrall to Carr. The second half of the film deals with events when Kammerer turns up murdered, and the Beats are taken into custody as suspects.

Hall’s performance is carefully structured and is a major strength of the film. His Kammerer clearly knows he is being used and deceived by Carr, and he makes us believe that he simply has no alternative to continuing in the relationship even though it leads to destruction.

The title of the film comes from a popular piece of teaching advice, often given to young writers. The phrase has been attributed to many famous writers, including William Faulkner, but a source I researched attributes it to a British professor Arthur Quiller-Couch, who used it to mean that sometimes an author will write a phrase or incorporate an idea in his writing which he loves and finds delicious expression, but unless it advances the writing to its goal, it must be edited out.

The phrase is introduced in the film by one of Ginsberg’s classroom professors, and while it refers only to editing out words, it clearly produces a parallel with the murder of Kammerer.

The film is available in our area through video rental businesses, and it can be rented from online movie rental sites, as well. It can be purchased from computer-based sites such as Amazon.com, but sadly, it can only be purchased as a part of a two-film deal, in which you cannot purchase the DVD unless you also purchase the Blu-Ray version of the same film. I couldn’t find it at the library.

The Beats were an important element in the creation of our contemporary society and I learned a great deal about them from the film. I recommend it to you, not as a suggested pattern for your behavior, but as a new and valuable point of view.

As Time Goes By

In all the years I taught literature both in high school and in college, one of the most useful pieces of writing which I used was the short story ”The Lady or the Tiger,” by Frank Stockton.

Our culture has always feared ambiguity. In particular, we shelter children from it. Stories intended for young readers usually have clean, precise endings. The phrase ”They lived happily ever after,” is commonly used.

The trouble with this understandable fear is that real life is rarely so cleanly cut. Literature, at least for adults, is valued whenever it illustrates and deals with real life, not with childish wishing. Stockton’s short story is about a man who is arrested in a mythological kingdom and is sentenced to appear in a public arena. Victims in that arena are required to choose one of two doors and to open the door of their choice.

One of the doors has a hungry tiger behind it. If that door is opened, the tiger has always rushed out and killed the victim.

The other door has a beautiful woman behind it, and if the victim opens that door, he is immediately married to that woman and given valuable prizes to finance their life together.

The victim in the story has been having an affair with the daughter of the king. The princess knows which door has the tiger, and while she doesn’t want to see her lover ripped to pieces, she doesn’t want to see him married to another woman either. She indicates a door, he opens it and the story ends, without telling what was behind the door he opened. The story nearly always produced wails of dismay, and students would demand which choice the princess had caused her lover to make. It was necessary to tell them that it was all a story; it had never happened and so it could be either answer. This often led to a valuable combing of the text for clues to why the princess made her choice and therefore what choice she made.