Art Through Angst in Kill Your Darlings

There’s a truly exciting scene early in Kill Your Darlings where Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) frenetically craft their “New Vision”, the start of what would become the Beat Generation. They get high, rip pages out of books and nail them together on the wall in a massive collage, the whole scene rapidly edited along with jazz music. It’s a terrific little sequence that captures the buzz of invention and creativity, that feeling you get when you’ve tapped into something truly special and it just begins tumbling out of you. While I might not have much knowledge or interest in the Beats, I could still appreciate that sensation. It’s the pursuit of that sensation that lies at the heart of Kill Your Darlings, and the arc of Lucien Carr serves as a reminder of the pitfalls and dangers that are part of that pursuit. Spoilers after the jump.

Perhaps the most consistent element throughout Kill Your Darlings is the recognition that at the core of great art is a degree of sadness and frustration, and that the anger of youth is a great impetus for creativity. While the title (a reference to an oft-used piece of critical advice for writers) suggests the theme that it’s important to let go of what matters to you, the film also quotes a piece of poetry that acknowledges that the more you try to “let go” of something, the more that it will come back to haunt you further. In my mind, the film puts forth the idea that in order to break boundaries and really establish one’s voice as an artist, you have to embrace all the frustrations and anger you feel and put it into your work. You can’t make your mark while being shy about your passions and your pains, you have to know and accept who you are. This is demonstrated in the lives of Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), all of whom are unapologetic and open about who they are, and who feel restrained and tied down by the uptight world that they live in.

Watching scenes of these poets unleashing their creativity, and exploring themselves in doing so, is incredibly inspiring to me. Even small scenes of Ginsberg questioning the need for rhyme and meter hit me right in my creative center, and make me want to challenge the establishment and break new creative ground the way the Beats did. And then I remember that I wanna tell stories about superheroes and spaceships, and it takes all the wind out of my sails. Because more and more I feel that the sort of stories that I’m drawn to, the stories I want to tell, are exactly the kind of conventional, easily digestible material that people like Ginsberg would want to challenge and usurp. How can I follow in the footsteps of ambitious, boundary-breaking artists when my ideal work would fall right in with the rest of mainstream pop culture? It’s an issue that I’ve been fighting with for years, encapsulated perfectly in my reaction to Kill Your Darlings. But then, the film provides something of an answer in the person of Lucien Carr.

Carr is portrayed as, on some level, the godfather of the Beat movement, the one that initially encourages Ginsberg and Burroughs to come up with an alternative approach to poetry. He’s full of ideas and opinions, and seems invested in seeing his friends making their mark as artists, but it becomes more and more clear that he doesn’t have much of a voice as a writer himself. He’s all theory and no practice, unable to even write essays without help from Ginsberg or David Kammerer (Michael C Hall), much less poetry. It’s revealed that he used to have a romantic relationship with Kammerer, but became unhappy with the relationship and his own sexuality, and tried to flee both. By running away from Kammerer (and also himself), Carr cuts himself off from a key part of who he is, and in the end loses his voice as an author. He ends up creating vicariously through Ginsberg and the others, while trying to keep his distance from his own desires. Carr ends up representing a fate that I fear: being nothing more than a commentator, spewing out theories on the work of others without contributing any real work of my own. I’m already treading that path, just by writing this blog rather than trying to work on a screenplay, and I fear I’ll end up being in the same boat as Carr, egging on other people rather than pursuing my artistic urges myself.

But as the movie demonstrates, the best way to avoid this is to embrace my own passions rather than push them aside or doubt them. And while the passions in question for me are not as existentially important as those facing Ginsberg or Carr (as much as I love a good space opera, I don’t think it’s as essential to my nature as someone’s sexuality or family issues), it is clear in watching their depictions here that both characters are built or broken by whether they embrace the passions that define them or not. The juxtaposition of Ginsberg and Carr, and Ginsberg’s success in relation to Carr’s near-doom, remind me that it’s most important to be true to yourself as a creator in order to be successful.

While Kill Your Darlings might not be the first movie to address these concepts of artistic angst, it’s done so in a way that really rang true for me. The cast is uniformly terrific, and all accurately convey the anxiety and frustration that is frequently at hand for artists in pursuit of their muse. The sort of hunger they all capture, and the sort of excitement and energy that director John Krokidas conveys with his imagery, is right in line with how I’ve felt the last couple of years, and perfectly encapsulates where I am as an aspiring writer myself. There’s something special about art that can capture exactly how you feel at a given moment. The World’s End already did that for me once this year, and Kill Your Darlings has unexpectedly done it again.



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