Ray Greene has been filing daily reports from the Sundance film festival; here' is the final installment. Make sure to listen to his conversations with the cast and crew of the documentary "20 Feet from Stardom," the first film to sell at Sundance this year. It's a rousing report on the life of pop music backup singers.
If the Beat Generation hadn't existed, the Sundance Film Festival probably would have had to invent it.
Sundance is a bastion of what might be called "Starbucks hipsterism" -- the mostly white, mostly upper middle class strata of privilege best defined by its air of studied casualness and the quality and specificity of its wardrope, pop culture and electronics purchases. So much of what we associate with hipster culture today originates with the Beats. The flippant, "be yourself" dress code. The general posture of functional anti-authoritarianism. The carefully curated notion of life itself as a series of artistic choices. The openness to alternative religious philosophies. The ritualistic usage of chemical and sexual shortcuts to achieve spiritual and sensory bliss.
They wrote a few good poems and novels, too.
Almost every Sundance there seems to be a narrative or documentary about Beat culture. In my own long-observed annual ritual of Sundance attendance, I've seen at least half a dozen of these films, and that list could be vastly expanded if it were to include documentaries where Allen Ginsberg appears in his re-invented persona as the beaming hippie-era bard of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
At Sundance 2013, I saw two narratives in a row featuring Jack Kerouac as a leading character. Though wildly divergent as creative achievements, "Kill Your Darlings" and "Big Sur" make for an intriguing double feature -- a portrait of the artists as both young firebrands and fuddled middle-aged men.
"Kill Your Darlings" -- a bildungsroman centered on the relationship between Columbia University freshman Allen Ginsberg and his mentor/muse, upperclassman Lucien Carr -- disproves a private theory of mine, which is that it's impossible to make a decent narrative about the Beats (David Croenenberg's "Naked Lunch" is a masterpiece, but narrative is not its main impetus). "Kill Your Darlings" is more than decent -- it's actually quite good, and that's a real achievement against long odds.
The Beats weren't just self-obsessed, they were self mythologizing, which means adaptations of their works and lives face some of the same problems Warner Bros. confronts when it tries to reboot a super-hero movie franchise. The Beat archetype is as established as Batman's, its iconography as rigid as the surreal Salvador Dali "S" on Superman's chest. Previous dramatizations get the cigarettes, the empty highways, the typewriters and the jazz clubs right, and then populate them with anti-hero stick figures -- human logos of rebellion -- without ever finding a pathway to the moist breath of real artistic inspiration or a lived life.
With "Kill Your Darlings," writer/director John Krokidas elides all that by focusing on Ginsberg, the most appealing and centered of the Beats, and Carr, the movement's pivotal early nucleus and first major casualty. It helps that these two instinctive revolutionists are shown authoring themselves and their movement before our eyes. We are not asked to take the radical achievement of the Beats on faith, but rather instructed in the evolution of their ideals as a reaction against the staid and passionless academia Ginsberg and Carr encountered at Columbia.
As Ginsberg and Carr educate themselves in the ways of their mad calling, they educate the audience too. There is hesitancy as well as recklessness in their war on convention, and "Kill Your Darlings" is, in a sense, a love story. A homoerotic tension both binds Ginsberg and Carr to each other and ultimately drives them apart.
Carr's story is full of tragedy, though he would not go on to lead a tragic life. An almost sociopathic hedonist who styled himself after the ultimate poetic flameout Arthur Rimbaud, Carr was the nucleus that linked up Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, all of whom were his friends, and each of whom he introduced to the others. But Carr's pivotal early link to Burroughs came by way of an obsessed older man named David Kammerer, who fell in love with Carr when Carr was an adolescent and then stalked him from town to town and city to city for the next five years.
Carr may have been molested by Kammerer -- there is an argument within Beat scholarship over whether the two were "lovers," but since their association began when Carr was 14 and Kammerer was 28, "molestation" seems like the right word. The relationship ended horrifically when Carr stabbed Kammerer, weighted his body with stones, and sank him in the Hudson River, allegedly while still alive. A self-professed heterosexual, the 19-year-old Carr's defense was one of "homosexual panic;" he claimed he stabbed Kammerer when Kammerer groped him after a night of drinking. Carr would serve less than two years in prison, and then go on to a 47 year career as a UPI news editor, fathering "The Alienist" novlist Caleb Carr along the way.
Though the killing of David Kammerer gives "Kill Your Darlings" the flavor of a murder mystery at times, Krokidas' real focus is on Ginsberg's first flowering as a writer, and by extension the birth of Beat. Recently disenfranchised "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe proves he's built to last with his assured portrayal of Ginsberg. Speaking in a flawless American accent, Radcliffe is by turns eager, sensitive, wounded and raging, and he quickly makes you forget his iconic status as Potter, even while acting through what looks like a pair of Harry's spectacles. But the biggest revelation is Dane DeHaan's Lucien Carr -- a tour de force portrait of bravado and intellect wielded as a shield in a doomed attempt to defend a confused man-child's broken heart.
By contrast, Michael Polish's "Big Sur" isn't a very good movie, but it makes for a decent Beat artifact. Adapted from Jack Kerouac's roman a clef about his own middle-aged struggle with both the bottle and with the celebrity conferred on him by the success of "On the Road," Polish's ode to artistic sterility paints a rather tedious portrait of artistic deterioration and emotional self-absorption -- the "king of the Beats" trapped inside a hermeneutic chamber of fermented horrors, in stark contrast to the anarchic joys of "On the Road."
To honor his source, Polish slathers "Big Sur" in star turns (Anthony Edwards as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Josh Lucas as Neal Cassady, Kate Bosworth as Billie Dabney), jettisoning the pseudonyms Kerouac used in the original novel. A brave performance by Jean-Marc Barr as Kerouac includes a fulsome voiceover adapted directly from the book, and the Monterey locations where Kerouac endured his crisis of inspiration and addiction are filmed with a clenched reverence that seems to infuse everything about this film.
Polish's decision to toss out Kerouac's fictional character identifications in favor of the more famous Beat brandnames of Kerouac, Ferlinghetti and Cassady strikes me as symptomatic of what went wrong with "Big Sur the Movie." It's a film where we're asked to care about Kerouac because of who he is, not made to care about Kerouac because of what he went through; his significance, as both a man and a character, has been pre-established elsewhere, and Polish seems content to mostly present rather than enliven that fact. Despite the recitation of so many of Kerouac's words, we never get a glimpse of the artist's interior life, and therefore can't really inhabit his specific struggle. Without that key ingredient, what's left is mostly a lost drunkard, capable of crying over the death of a cat or a sea otter, while remaining insensate to his destructive impact on everyone he claims to love.