Monday, November 18, 2013

Kill Your Darlings

Allen Ginsberg

KILL YOUR DARLINGS       A-          
USA  (104 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  John Krokidas         Official site

Where is the love, beauty and truth we seek 
But in our mind? And if we were not weak, 
Should we be less in deed than in desire? 
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, Julian and Maddalo:  A Conversation, 1818

Well one thing is for certain, that with the recent festival acclaim and even adoration of films with explicit gay sex scenes, like Stranger By the Lake (L'inconnu du lac) (2013) and Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2) (2013), gay films are certainly out of the closet, for better or for worse, and judging by this small gem of a film, it’s all for the better.  Of all the movies that touch upon the Beat Generation, this is the first one to get the tone right, making all the difference in the world, as their antics were largely humorous pranks designed to amuse themselves and challenge their intellectual imaginations, which were extraordinary.  Another movie based on a true story, the secret of the film’s success lies in choosing an early time period when the as yet unblossomed literary figures were still nobodies, where they were just a bunch of directionless souls still searching for what to do about their mixed up feelings, filled with insecurities and real life problems, where even their “parents” figure into their stories, all of which provides a cultural background for something that all happens in a larger social context afterwards.  In this manner, characters remain surprisingly accessible and believable, as they’re filled with doubt and fears about what they are about to do, yet can’t stop the rising tide of spiritual liberation, all set in a conservatively conformist society that routinely arrests homosexuals in nightclubs even as soldiers are fighting the Nazi’s abroad for American freedom, a point not lost on the viewer.  More typical Beat movies show them as exaggerated caricatures, completely irresponsible and wildly out of control, dizzyingly drunk or high where no one in their right mind would emulate their antics.  But this film hones them in as real characters, where the performances throughout are nothing less than superb, especially Dane DeHaan, a revelation in the role of Lucien Carr, a pretty boy figure beloved by Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), William Burroughs (Ben Foster), and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), all meeting at Columbia University in 1944, forming a kind of libertine club, not to mention a former literary professor, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) who was fatally in love.  These men comprised the origins of the Beat Generation which was yet a decade away, as such it plays out as a coming-of-age film, not only of a movement, but each individual who contributed to it.       

DeHaan actually provides one of the best performances of the year, as he’s an enigmatic force that stirs the pot, that spouts poetry from memory on university tabletops, that mixes the strange brew of literary savants that would eventually surprise the world, while he, oddly enough, never writes a single word.  He is to Ginsberg in the 40’s what Neal Cassady is to Kerouac in the 50’s, an inspirational force that looms larger than life.  As a spiritual mentor, he is learned in all things literary, yet oddly enough we never see a single one of them actually reading, yet they voraciously discuss a visionary breakthrough that must cut through the stale syntax of literary rules and definitions still being taught in prestigious institutions like Columbia, heralding Walt Whitman as their emboldened hero, who dared break from rhyme and meter a hundred years earlier, a transcendent force in American literature, who’s sexuality sits alongside his literary merits.  One other thing this film gets right is its treatment of “homo-sex-uality,” the queer issue, still looked upon by mainstream America as if it was the bubonic plague, where insidious forces stealthily track them down by night, hauling them out of bars and nightclubs, arresting them for being who they are, which at the time was still considered a crime, making many of them criminals.  This lawful restriction, as much as anything, was the stifling force of repression that drove their inherent need for freedom and liberation, which they expressed through mad writings, touting Rimbaud, Keats, Blake, and Yeats, reinventing a style of language that was exuberantly free form, associative with jazz improvisations.  But all of that is yet to come, as in the early years, each had yet to discover what drove and inspired them, yet they gravitated towards one another in a city the size of New York, forming a small literary circle.  While we rarely see them in class, while at Columbia Ginsberg contributed to the Columbia Review literary journal, while also winning the Woodberry Poetry Prize, and served as president of the Philolexian Society, the campus literary and debate group.       

While the choice of Jack Huston as Kerouac is questionable, as he feels almost like a last-minute throw-in, barely even included in the script, brilliantly written by Austin Bunn and the director, which is more about Ginsberg meeting Carr, which was like a combustible explosion in Ginsberg’s life, unleashing the inspirational forces at the gate, never to be closed again.  Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Ginsberg’s mentally unstable mother, is jaw droppingly good and literally takes your breath away, while David Cross as Ginsberg’s father actually resembles the grown-up Allen Ginsberg.  Likewise, Elizabeth Olsen, so good in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), is excellent here as Kerouac’s would-be wife.  Daniel Radcliffe is no slouch as the inquisitive young Ginsberg, smart and still naively cautious, much like his alter-ego at Hogwarts, yet driven by forces he can't begin to understand, where his youthful timidity grows emboldened by Carr’s audacity, who is quite correct at telling him, “You’d be boring without me.”  But the real revelation is Ben Foster’s smirky, perpetually downbeat, yet laceratingly truthful take as the cynically understated William S. Burroughs, hilarious at every turn, who we initially see wearing a gas mask while ingesting nitrous oxide in a bathtub at a party, and we know instantly that this could only be the infamous Burroughs, a walking pharmaceutical dispensary that willingly turns on the uninitiated in the 40’s much like Timothy Leary turned on America in the 60’s.  Burroughs is a key figure in the Beat Movement, as they all recognize his prodigious talent and laser-like intelligence, though his demented nature is prone to going off the rails, almost a metaphor for the rest to follow.  Kyra Sedgwick even has a small role as Lucien Carr’s forlorn mother, so the cast is uniformly excellent throughout, but it’s the tight interplay between Carr and Ginsberg that provides the spark and mad passion that drives the picture.  Shown as a beautiful series of small moments, this is an insightful look at a period rarely seen from these iconic figures, where Radcliffe is just edgy enough to do naked sex scenes, but it’s the exposure of Carr’s anguished soul that really nails what artists are faced with in unlocking their deepest and darkest secrets, as sometimes you never know what you’ll find.  

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