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Kill Your Darlings

Allen Ginsberg in the chamber of repression

Kill Your Darlings

If you’re not a devotee of Beat literature you may not know the name of Lucien Carr, who spent most of his life as an editor for the United Press news agency. But as a young man at Columbia University, he was the nucleus of a group that included Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs. Considered by some to be the “fallen angel” of the Beats, he inspired their youthful iconoclasm and rebellion, but didn’t follow them down the path onto which he led them. In 1944 he killed an older man, David Kammerer. His defense was that he was defending himself from homosexual assault, and he spent two years in a reformatory for manslaughter.

Carr died in 2005, reviving interest in that case. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a 1945 novel written by Burroughs and Kerouac about the killing, was published for the first time. And now there is this film, which depicts Carr as a manic, somewhat troubled young man who (contrary to the story that kept him out of prison) had a sexual relationship with Kammerer, using him for such conveniences as supplying booze and writing papers for his classes.

There was a time when a story like this would have been told as a roman a clef, in which the use of fictitious names served both to license the smoothing-out process that separates fiction from history as well as to keep the lawyers at bay. Think of Citizen Kane, the story of a newspaper tycoon named Charles Foster Kane understood by everyone at the time to represent the publisher William Randolph Hearst. In that case, the fictionalizing only helped Orson Welles, who (albeit in the service of making one of the cinema’s universally acknowledged masterpieces) was able to indulge audience’s curiosity about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But the film’s success has replaced the historical record: More people now think that actress Marion Davies, Hearst’s longtime mistress, was as untalented as her Kane surrogate, singer Susan Alexander, when it fact she was a very able and popular film comedienne.

Carr is not the center of this, the first feature film directed by John Krokidas (who also scripted with Austin Bunn). That would be Ginsberg, who we first see leaving his parent’s house in New Jersey for his first taste of he world. Daniel Radcliffe in no way resembles Ginsberg, but the casting director was presumably going for youthful inexperience combined with a thirst for knowledge, and got just that.

Of course we know where this young man will go in life, and the aim of the film is to show the experiences that shaped him. Krokidas shows the expectations of conformity that surround young people of the era and the headiness of realizing that a new path can be carved out. This goal requires more tweaking of history: It’s hard to believe that the eminent critic Lionel Trilling would have been quite so hidebound in teaching poetry. (In his case, the name was changed.) And the ending is half-invented: Ginsberg was indeed expelled from Columbia, but only for a year and not for the reason shown here.

It’s those small, indisputable liberties with history that make you wonder about the larger ones. I don’t know how much research went into the script’s depiction of the relationship between Carr and Kammerer; one can only hope that in dealing with such tragic events in the lives of people who still have living family a great deal of care was taken. But looking at the rest of the film makes me suspect that it would not hesitate to bend more truths to fit into its goals. And that’s not something a filmmaker should do lightly: There’s always that chance that, like Orson Welles, you may end up re-writing history.

Watch the trailer for Kill Your Darlings

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