From director John Krokidas, Kill Your Darlings is a 2013 American biographical film telling of the college days of Beat Generation members such as Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). This film debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and after garnering much acclaim, has won many awards across the board.
The true events that inspired the creation of this film had been previously documented in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a collaborative novel written by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. The novel, and in turn the film, trails the lives of Beat Generation authors long before they had published their famous works such as Ginsberg’s Howl, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, or Kerouac’s On the Road. Written in 1945, this controversial novel remained unpublished and hidden under the floorboards for many years until it finally came to light in 2008. At the time of its publication, although written many decades prior, the authors were already well known worldwide. While Burroughs himself did not think this novel worthy of much praise, dismissing it as “not a distinguished work,” his audience disagreed. The tale of friendship and murder captivated the readers of the novel, and glued the viewer of the film to their screens.
Kill Your Darlings begins with a young Allen Ginsberg, circa 1940s, starting off his short-lived career at Columbia University. It is there that he meets Lucien Carr, an alluring young man whose main goal at university is to challenge the strict guidelines set up by the school. Carr is introduced to the movie, and Ginsberg, when he jumps up on a library table and reenacts a sexually illustrious passage from Henry Miller. The book this passage comes from is held in the restricted section of the library, and Carr, after its recitation from memory, is promptly chased out by security. After this incident, Ginsberg is completely enthralled with Carr. Not long after the movie begins, the viewer sees that Ginsberg, although a well kept, sober young man, may not conform to the standard literary guidelines Columbia has set up for him. In an exchange with a professor, young Ginsberg challenges the rigid guidelines set forward for a “successful poem.” He brings to the table Walt Whitman, a main influence of the Beat Generation authors, claiming that as a point Whitman never followed these rules and that is what made him the success he was.
From the transcript of “Kill Your Darlings,” an exchange
between Allen Ginsberg and his Professor
Ginsberg and Carr, continue their journey together into madness by creating the “New Vision.” They want to turn the literary world on its head. Drugs, alcohol, and sexual tension fuel these young Beats as they team up with Kerouac and Burroughs to fulfill their vision. Along the way the tumultuous relationship between Carr and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) is revealed. Carr is the object of Kammerer’s obsessions. While Carr’s sexuality is fairly ambiguous, it is clear that he has no romantic interests in Kammerer. As the storyline progresses, Carr becomes completely fed up with Kammerer. In an attempt to leave Kammerer behind, along with Kerouac, Carr attempts to run off and join a merchant marine ship headed to Paris. Kammerer is informed of this plan and a deadly confrontation between the two ensues. Carr ends up stabbing Kammerer and then drowning his body in the river.
Top: Real life newspaper article written about the murder
Bottom: Movie replication of article
It is important to note that the time frame of this movie is a significant period in Queer Culture. While homosexuality obviously exists in literature and the culture, when it becomes personal it is denied. Walt Whitman, a great inspiration to many of the Beats, had a very similar experience. In Whitman’s work, Leaves of Grass, the “Calamus” cluster celebrates the “manly love of comrades.” Many critics argue that these poems are an expression of Whitman’s homosexual love. While the homoerotic content is fairly clear, in a correspondence between Whitman and John Addington Symonds, in 1890, Whitman vehemently denies that he himself is a homosexual. When confronted about his own sexuality he fervently declared “no, no, no!” I am straight “I have six children,” none of which is true. The depiction of homosexual love is accepted when it is just words on paper, however as soon as the finger pointed at the poet, Whitman himself, he denied that accusation. He created a little family for himself because being gay meant not being “The Poet” Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind. Similarly, many of the Beats were notorious for being homosexuals, but some went to great lengths to conceal their sexuality, like Burroughs who had a wife.
At the time of Kill Your Darlings, gay liberation had yet to occur. Even Ginsberg, who later goes on to produce Howl, an epic poem riddled with homosexual content, keeps his identity hidden. Homosexuality is a crime, sodomy laws are still in effect, and being gay can get you jailed. In this vein, Carr uses gay panic to his advantage. Carr testified that Kammerer was a sexual predator, and Carr killed him in self-defense. They bring up the concept of an “Honor Slaying” which is “relating to a lethal attack committed when the accused is defending himself against a known homosexual.”
Link to Video Clip from Kill Your Darlings explaining Honor Slaying
In an era of gay panic, this defense is enough to get Lucien Carr’s sentence reduced from murder to manslaughter. This is an important time period for Queer Culture because the simple act of making a pass at someone you are attracted to is an excusable reason to find yourself murdered. Kill Your Darlings portrays a hidden element of the Beat Generation’s lives, a time before they are out and living in a world riddled with hatred toward homosexuality. While many of them will face ridicule and lawsuits later in their lives because of these issues, at this era they are hiding behind the concept of “Honor Slayings” and letting gay-hatred propagate through their lives. This movie brings to light the dark past of the Beats who were all complacent in the murder of an individual some of them considered a friend.
Whitman and Carr both had their reputation on the line when confronted with ideals about homosexuality. Although far less extreme as Carr, Whitman created children for himself in order to escape the label of a homosexual. Likewise, Carr clung to a defense that heavily depended on him being completely heterosexual. If there was a single drop of evidence proving he had even the slightest of homosexual tendencies, the guilty charge of murder would have stood. Both men lived their lives in such a way that their sexuality came into question. When brought into the light both men went to great lengths to turn the spotlight away from them in order to return to what the heteronormativie world around them deemed as normal.