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Kill Your Darlings – a film review

The conceit that the stabbing death of David Kammerer at the hands of Lucian Carr would birth the Beat Generation was a premise audacious enough to make me interested.

What follows in the film Kill Your Darlings is beyond the “dollar book Freud” of the Rosebud sled ending Citizen Kane (to quote Orson Welles himself). It is the fabrication of people that seemed to do research based on what they overheard at a cocktail party.


To begin, “first thought, best thought,” a famous writing slogan popularized by Allen Ginsberg, is mouthed several times through the film, more than 25 years before Ginsberg himself first started using it based on a conversation with his Tibetan guru, Chogyam Trungpa. What’s more, that slogan comes from a long history of listening to Jack Kerouac developing his notions of spontaneous prose. In this film, Kerouac is credited with experimenting with a streamlined lack of punctuation, but once more, years before the scroll of On the Road, unsupported by the well-documented block of actual work he’d already accomplished. In Kill Your Darlings, Jack is given a pretty thorough back seat in a less than charismatic role played by Jack Huston. Still, Huston as an actor has been set up–the film’s thesis won’t work unless Lucien is the source of all.

Allen’s own poetry doesn’t rhyme in the film, though it would be the influence of William Carlos Williams several years after he left Columbia.that would get Allen away from this straight jacket of literature. Here he appears fully sprung as a freshman in Kill Your Darlings, I didn’t recognize what Ginsberg was reading (it is not from his Collected Works, which include some of the rhymes from his pre-Williams days), but if it has any legitimacy, it would have to have been prose written in his journals.

Which brings us to the long prose piece that gets him “expelled” at the end of the film. Although Ginsberg did write a long prose piece that appears in his earliest published journal, The Book of Martyrdom & Artifice, turned in at Columbia with negative response, it was not the source of expulsion, nor did the piece reveal Carr’s apparent conflicted sexuality. Ginsberg’s own “Howl” recounts what did get him expelled, “publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,” writing among other things “Fuck the Jews” in the dust of his own dorm window, hoping to get the maid to clean them. That, and the discovery of non-student Kerouac crashing in the dorm room, were enough to get him kicked out. Still, he was reinstated and completed his B.A. in English.

So Kill Your Darlings is like the new Star Trek movie, an alternate universe where Spock is the one to shout “Khan!” as Kirk dies, instead of the reverse. That would be annoying enough, but including Ginsberg’s own photos of the gang at the end of the credits as if what we have just seen is a meticulous biopic moves the film into the unacceptable, a misinformed Wikipedia entry to screw up many a term paper.

To the movie’s credit, what is of greatest interest in a fresh interpretation of this well-know incident in Beat history. Young Lucien Carr had been dogged by an older man, David Kammerer, who even in the more sanitized versions of the tale appears to be shamelessly manipulated by Carr as a willing and degraded servant. Kammerer had followed the beautiful and brilliant Carr from city to city, clinging to some impossible hope that they would eventually be united as a romantic couple. Carr worked Kammerer like a heartless cheerleader conning the school geek to write her papers and wait on her every whim–except this geek is an adult, not a student. The only thing that remotely redeems Carr in the set-up is that Kammerer simply won’t go away–so Carr instead chooses to control what he can’t banish. What’s introduced here is that Carr is said to have had sex with Kammerer more than once. James Grauerholz’s forthcoming bio on William Burroughs is rumored to give some credence to this. However, the heartless new details of the murder itself, like so many other scenes that reek of speculation at its most inventive, just can’t be taken at face value. Maybe the new Burroughs bio will back some of this up. Still, with all the historical inaccuracies as they stand, Kill Your Darlings comes closer to the fantasies of Velvet Goldmine’s Iggy Pop & David Bowie romance, which at least had the sense, like Kerouac’s novels, to change names in its reveries.

Speaking of Burroughs, Ben Foster’s characterization of the Naked Lunch author is likely the most satisfying element of the film. When Burroughs is on screen, the movie seems its most authentic (and hilarious). Daniel Radcliff is a decent Allen Ginsberg, though no match for James Franco’s uncanny portrait in Howl. Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr certainly provides a character that understandably mesmerizes everyone. Michael C. Hall’s Kammerer is fantastic–giving a face to a historical figure’s motivation we have never really been able to see clearly. The women, Edie Parker as played by Elizabeth Olsen or Allen’s mom Naomi as portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh are good at what they’re allowed to do. Probably the showiest female role goes to a quick scene with a Columbia-affiliated Barnard College girl as library clerk, well-played by Nicole Signore. This is a likely fictional blow job scene in the stacks that doesn’t ring as all that plausible, but less so Jack Kerouac picking up another Barnard girl in less than 30 seconds, suggesting this is not the shy Jack of legend, but a cocksman of Neal Cassady’s charisma.

The title, Kill Your Darlings, is from William Faulkner, who paraphrased Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s “Murder your darlings.” It is given to a professor to say in the film, uncredited, but it means the same thing–in writing, be willing to cut what you love. The pun here is obvious, and it gives the film a sort of Andy Warhol patina. In fact, some of the cutting of the film itself has a very indie, post-Monte Hellman feel. Where that cutting fails to the point of monotony is a repeated motif of running things backward as perhaps the most uninspired “derangement of the senses” that first-time director John Krokidas could come up with to echo Rimbaud’s words on our young explorers of the mind. Also, what are we to make of a proto-cut-up salon conducted by Burroughs with his two amphetamine disciples Carr and Ginsberg? Are we to believe that Burroughs came up with his infamous razoring of texts prior hanging with Brion Gysin in Paris a good ten years later? Why not? “Khan!”

Cinematically, perhaps the most satisfying cross-cutting occurs during Carr’s murder of Kammerer. Burroughs shoots up, Ginsberg is fucked in the ass, Kerouac resumes domestic bliss. It is not an original approach, but it is at least film grammar strikingly arranged. Well-lit with impeccable art direction, these details only underline the lack of invention and sloppiness of a story that did not need to be.

–Marc Olmsted


3 thoughts on “Kill Your Darlings – a film review

  1. Your piece is welcome among the growing recognition that this film is nothing more than fantasy. You correctly state this being a well known incident in Beat history. Yet Mr. Krokidas as well as Mr. Radcliffe in interviews as well as promotion of this film claim it to be ” a true, untold story.” Even the poster reads, “A true story of obsession and murder.”I suppose they are correct; it is untold as they tell it and true for anyone who doesn’t know better. Elizabeth Olsen may be good at what she is allowed to do but what she is allowed to do is portray Edie Parker as a woman who in no way resembles the woman I knew and lived with for ten years and whose memoir I co-wrote and edited. Edie was one of only three people who were there – the other two being Jack and Lucien. She devotes a third of her memoir, “You’ll Be Okay – My Life With Jack Kerouac”, which was published in 2007 by City Lights, to telling the true story. Yet she is merely a filler in this film. I offer a quote of William Burroughs from a letter of encouragement he wrote Edie during the period she was writing her memoir: “You have a unique viewpoint from which to write about Jack as no one else has or could write. I feel very deeply that this book must be written. And no one else, I repeat, can write it.”
    The true story of the beginnings and seminal event of the Beats is perhaps the most fascinating one of their history and deserves to be told. Unfortunately, Kill Your Darlings, blew an opportunity to tell it and perhaps sentenced the truth and a future film that could portray it to being judged by the failure of Kill Your Darlings.

  2. An enjoyable read Marc. Hmmm I thought Kerouac had the First Thought Best Thought line and that Virginia Woolf had Kill Your Darlings but no matter. The reviews in the NY press were mixed at best but yours was much more explicit and detailed than either A.O. Scotts or James Wood ? or whomever the New Yorker critic was And vastly more knowledgable to boot. And come to think of it with cooler allusions and a punchier style. Good Show!.

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