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  • Writer's pictureBabi PunkMag


You know the first half of Kil Your Darlings (2013) is effective because it made me

want to drop out of film school, start a reflexively avant-garde cinematic revolution, and live

the rest of my life making movies on the streets. Never mind the fact that you

fundamentally need electricity to make movies, and money to get electricity. Usually. You

know the second half is less effective because I don’t have much of an introduction for it

and I’m not really going to directly reference it in this essay, since it’s all pretty boring. So

that’s that.

(And yes, I have to put it out there that no multi-million Hollywood movie starring

Radcliffe and Dehaan can ever truly be authentic to the Beat generation. It’s just an

incomplete image of artistic resistance repackaged into a shiny, commercially-sold, ‘Coming

Soon to Theaters Near You’ box. So what. Sue me, but it’s still a pretty darn good exercise in

wish fulfillment.)

In the film, the Beat poets rebel against the iron rules of meter, rhyme, form, and

censorship, as filtered to them through the restrictive, sectioned stacks of their university

library. Yet despite the historical actuality of this movement, academia has continued to

tend towards a certain restriction and rigidity in recent decades; never mind the STEM and

social sciences, art is categorized today, commercial film especially so (how insidiously

ironic, again, to make a Hollywood film about the Beat poets!). Nowadays, technical specs

rule every image, from counting the megawatts behind good, bright lighting to listing the

mathematical equations behind compositional proportions and editing patterns (I recently

skimmed a paper on fractal editing, AKA how the lengths of cuts in ‘good’ editing sequences

align with a certain complex mathematical sequence, and though it was immensely

interesting, a tiny part of me died inside). Even when it comes to narrative, every little

gesture is noticed, recorded, and catalogued as indicating this or that, being a direct symbol

or literary allusion or whatever. And yes, I may be over-exaggerating, per the usual. It is still,

however, a very exhausting technique, especially if you sometimes fall prey to that kind of

headache-inducing analysis yourself, as I do.

How wonderful, then, to fall instead into the ‘darkly academic’ world of Kil Your

Darlings, where the protagonists love their art with an ardent, hallucinatory passion. Where

poetry is poetry, beautiful words unbound from regulation and stricture. Where the frame is

defiantly edged in shadow, where nighttime scenes are truly so dark you can barely make

them out - not the fake blue lighting of many movies, but the true, all-encompassing ink of

night. It may still be shiny, commercial packaging, but at least it nods in the direction of

rebellion, somewhat. A direction in which you create things, experience visions just for their

own sake, instead of instantly cataloguing and sorting them away in the dim recesses of your


What does it truly mean to be ‘darkly academic’ like this? It’s a long-standing genre,

in literature especially, and a term I’ve felt grow steadily in our collective consciousness in

the past few years - or maybe it’s just my Instagram ‘Discovery’ page, I can’t really be sure, I

guess. The genre usually rests on the notion that an obsession with art or academia will

ultimately lead to some sort of corruption, that there’s an implicit decadence and ego in it

that holds its own respectively implicit moral decay. That’s where the ‘darkness’ comes from,

and it comes in the form of some moral rot, some malevolence or, well, yeah, usually it’s just

a lot of implied homosexuality (did I mention this is also a genre with a distinctly liberal/

conservative lens?) and a murder, straight up - you didn’t think the title was purely

metaphorical, did you?

But how necessary is this murder, and the darkness it comes from? In the film and in

history, the killing is committed by Lucien Carr, who himself is not a true poet. He doesn’t

even write - in all honesty, with the way he acts, he seems to be borderline illiterate - and his

interest seems to be more in rebellion than in the poetry itself. There’s a fine line between

the spectacle of rebellious performance and the spectacle of a poet obsessed, and the

distinction between him and Allen Ginsberg, the main character, seems to epitomize that

divide. Carr gets off on pure spontaneity, saying ‘fuck you’ to society, recklessness, isolation:

he has no darlings. At least, not any that make it pretty far; his fear of intimacy makes sure

of that. And Ginsberg arguably has too many, but too many what? Too many ideas? Too

many things he loves? Too many preferences, too many caveats, too many affectations?

What kind of bullshit is that? This idea of ‘too much love,’ of the inevitability of or

the need to be ‘killing your darlings,’ it’s rooted in some weird Spartan mythology we’ve

grounded our academia in for some self-hating reason. The film actually draws parallels

between it and fascism, which I have whole other litany of thoughts about (they aren’t good,

in case you’re wondering), but the statement that that allusion presents is pointed:

traditional Western thought is punishing.

But who the fuck said you can’t love what you study and love what you do? Who said

you can’t be fixated by things, interested by them, propelled by them? Who said that loving

art is a type of morally repugnant decadence? What’s so ‘dark’ about dark academia that

these catastrophes, usually in the form of murders, are portrayed as inevitable?

And yes, this right here is the problem of the second half, which I wish I could avoid

speaking about. That, and the utterly bewildering drop in production quality. I mean, using

an Instagram-imitation blue-yellow overlay on those scenes? In 2013? Really? Choices.

In the end, sure, Carr may be an irredeemable, truly dark character but Ginsberg

certainly isn’t - he’s only an academic who truly loves his craft, which somehow draws him

into this bewildering, artificial ‘dark’ distinction. And sure, you could probably make the

argument that the Beat revolution never would have begun without Carr’s reckless

encouragement, but I’d like to believe different. Maybe (read: definitely) I’m just kinda a

romantic that way. Maybe I believe that art can be intimate, and exciting, and ‘darkly’

academic without having to be ‘dark,’ even if it challenges existing convention. You know?

- A. DZH

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