Fascination with the Beat Generation seems to come in waves. I remember the first time I experienced a resurgence in interest and popularity: It was the early 90’s and San Francisco was awash with slam poetry readings and jazz clubs. I wasn’t immune, and Rhino Records’ Beat Generation box set was on constant CD rotation.
William S. Burroughs appeared in the Beat-influenced Drugstore Cowboy in 1989, and David Cronenberg released his adaptation of Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch in 1991, to some acclaim, though it probably confused the hell of out more people than it entertained.
But interest seemed to fade, and Hollywood looked elsewhere for inspiration for a number of years. But now, the Beats are back. In the past two years we’ve had adaptations of On the Road and Howl, and this week finds two more Beat-inspired films opening in Bay Area theaters.
The first, and probably more accessible of the two, is Kill Your Darlings, starring Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg, in a story about a shocking murder that clouded the birth of the Beat heroes.
The film follows Ginsberg as he escapes his rocky home life–his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is schizophrenic and his father (David Cross–who, coincidentally also played Allen Ginsberg in the movie I’m Not There)–hasn’t the will to do much more than commit her–for college.
Once at Columbia, Ginsberg meets and develops an infatuation with fellow student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Carr is no stranger to infatuations, and is dealing with someone he basically sees as a stalker: David Kammerer, a former teacher-turned janitor (Michael C. Hall) who has followed Carr across the country. It’s clear Kammerer is in love with Carr, but Carr maintains he is straight…
Carr introduces Ginsberg to his friends, William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and they get into a variety of escapades disguised as art, in an attempt to challenge the collegiate status quo. But things between Carr and Kammerer get dark and eventually, Kammerer ends up dead.
It’s a pretty shocking story, and a surprisingly under-known one. Bring up the Beats and murder, and you’ll probably hear about Burroughs and his wife before you’d hear about this one.
Director John Krokidas has a neat way of presenting the amphetamine fueled antics of the crew, although his use of modern alt-rock on the soundtrack is annoying. And while Daniel Radcliffe isn’t the first actor I’d think to cast as Ginsberg, he does a commendable job in a role that might shock some of his younger Harry Potter followers.
Jump ahead about 20 years in the Beat timeline, and we arrive at Big Sur, featuring a fictionalized version of Jack Kerouac, who is now an alcoholic writer trying to stay sober by camping out at friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti‘s cabin in Big Sur, California.
The problem with adapting some of the books by the Beats is the same problem you might run into trying to turn a painting into a movie: the art is in the medium. Beat books are about manipulating language, and about the craft of writing itself. So what directors often resort to is adding lots of voice over, with words taken directly from the work. And director Michael Polish is no exception.
There are some beautiful visuals accompanying the monologues–Big Sur could use parts of the movie as tourism promotion. And much of the movie includes scenes shot in San Francisco, (although annoying anachronisms in architecture and locations abound). But attempts to include plot, featuring Kerouac’s longtime friend Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas) and a new girlfriend (played by the director’s wife, Kate Bosworth) who was also Cassady’s girlfriend, get muddled.
But there is one moment where the voice over and visuals come together and almost reach the poetic heights achieved by the Beats–and that’s at the very end, with Kerouac’s words rushing non-stop, like a wave onto the beaches at Big Sur, and shots of his surroundings perfectly synched to the rhythm of star Jean-Marc Barr‘s delivery. That moment left me a little breathless, which is how I imagine many fans of the Beats have felt over the years when confronted with their work.