Six things Kill Your Darlings (and every other Beat Generation movie) would be better off without

Wednesday October 9th 2013

The London Film Festival kicks off today, which means a veritable avalanche of hugely anticipated films will be clogging up the capital’s finest cinemas (and the Cineworld Trocadero) for the next two weeks. Among them: Kill Your Darlings, a Beat Generation thriller starring Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr, Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs and Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg. It’s a decent enough way to spend an hour and a half, but like most of its fellow Beat movies, it suffers badly from a small handful of seemingly deathless clichés. Here are six I’d be happy to see the back of…

Doddering old voices of authority going out of their way to tell free-spirited poets what they can and cannot do

In Howl, the de facto old fogey was David Strathairn’s stern prosecuting attorney, who might as well have shown up to court in a T-shirt emblazoned ‘History Will Prove Me Wrong On This One’, so clearly was he the walking embodiment of all things archaic. Here, Ginsberg and Carr share an austere English teacher named Professor Steeves, who lectures them constantly on the importance of metre and rhyme, oblivious to their jive-talkin’, free-flowin’, form-eschewin’ ways, ya dig?

Lame acts of rebellion

Remember that CITV show Bernard’s Watch, about a boy named Bernard with a stopwatch that could pause time? Well, when he wasn’t using his rejection of earthly temporality to stay up past his bedtime or finish off his homework before school, he was utilising his powers to play pranks on authoritarian teachers and nasty school bullies. As I recall, one involved balancing a bucket of water atop a door frame. (It’s a prank you can orchestrate without the use of reality-altering timepieces, but it’s more exciting with the added frisson of timelessness.)

Ginsberg and cohorts show off their anti-establishment chops with a series of similarly fiendish schemes, including one in which they replace the display books in the Columbia University library with copies of Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Outrageous!

People constantly saying the names of famous poets in a slyly knowing way

Stop for a second and consider how many people have referred to you by your surname this week. Or, you know, ever. I’m willing to bet the answer is close to zero. There are really only two situations in which referring to somebody by their surname is appropriate: 1) if you outrank them in the police force; 2) if they are soon to be a world-renowned literary icon and you want to ram that point home for the audience of your middling Sundance biopic.

The way that audiences at poetry readings do that weird open-mouthed, silent laugh thing

No Beat Generation movie would be complete without a revelatory, what-a-time-to-be-alive scene set against the backdrop of a swinging underground poetry reading and/or jazz club. And just in case we fail to recognise what a thrill it was to be present at such a moment in time, the venue is filled to bursting with hip young sophisticates gazing slack-jawed at the spectacle.

Feverish montages of cigarette-fuelled typewriting

If you’ve ever sat and watched somebody writing, you’ll know it’s not a particularly strong source of entertainment — even in the 40s, when there was at least a satisfying clickety-clack aural component to the proceedings. The creation of literature is mostly an internal process, that’s hard to adequately ranslate to cinema. That is, unless you shoot it in extreme gritty close-up, soundtrack it with frantic syncopated drum rhythm, and fetishistically backlight cigarette smoke to the point of obscenity.

The use of black people and women as props

For all their social progressiveness, Ginsberg, Kerouac et al. weren’t the most inclusive of souls. The best Beat movies (On The Road, to name a recent example) acknowledge rather than endorse that fact. The worst lazily duplicate the prejudice. In Kill Your Darlings, Elizabeth Olsen gets the weightiest female role as Kerouac’s wife Edie, and her half dozen lines of dialogue are all variations on, “Jack, stop being a cultural revolutionary and settle down with me”.

Black people, meanwhile, are consigned to a single scene at a Harlem jazz club, in which Carr and Ginsberg literally stop time — like the Bernards of their day — and walk amongst the African American crowd, all of them frozen in suspended motion like the inanimate props the film so clearly writes them off as.