As you may or may not be aware, Columbia was a major hub of the Beat poetry movement, that is if you believe the plaque about Jack Kerouac in the Hartley sky lounge. Daniel Radcliffe shot a movie about the Beats on our campus, and the result, Kill Your Darlings, is now in wide release. Bwog sent Ginsberg groupie Julia Goodman to report.
Although I wanted to see Kill Your Darlings the second it came out on Wednesday – Daniel Radcliffe! Allen Ginsberg! Nico Muhly! – the two midterms I had on Thursday forced me to wait. Finally, on Friday night, I went downtown to one of only two theaters in Manhattan showing it. Thank goodness one of my friends was willing to make the trek with me (if not, I totally would have seen it by myself, but this was better).
From the first image, the film is pure tribute to the Columbia experience, and the college experience in general. The first full scene ends with Daniel Radcliffe opening an acceptance letter even more exciting than the one to Hogwarts he opened over a decade ago – one to Columbia, of course. Radcliffe, as Ginsberg, is about to embark on a journey that will include a restricted section more unseemly than The Restricted Section, a wooded area more sinister than the Forbidden Forest, and a pretty blonde boy more manipulative than Draco Malfoy. The differences being that Ginsberg and his friends end up looting the Stacks, there are no unicorns in Riverside Park, and there is way more sexual tension between Ginsberg and his blonde counterpart.
The filmmakers clearly did their research: for sheer truth about Columbia, it was an impressive feat. On one of Ginsberg’s first nights on campus, he walks into a random upperclassmen’s room (the aforementioned pretty blonde boy). After a few moments of awkward, literature-based flirting, the upperclassman Lou Carr (Dane DeHaan) offers Ginsberg a glass of wine. “No thanks, I don’t drink,” responds Ginsberg. “Oh,” Carr asks, then pauses; “Freshman?”
There were plenty of Columbia moments beyond the classic getting-drunk-off-cheap-wine-in-dorm, from a breakup in JJ’s Place, to a breakup in Riverside Park, to a breakup in the LLC. The first interaction with your guileless racist-slash-homophobic-roommate (who also, no judgment, happens to be an athlete); the first night when you realize you’d be better off going down to NYU if you actually want to have fun on a weekend night; and of course, the first and/or last time you hook up in the Stacks.
At its heart, Kill Your Darlings seems to be posing the question of whether college is worth it. Or maybe more accurately, whether college is worth it for arts and humanities majors. If you can become a renowned, world-changing author or artist without the things you learn in your classes, what, ultimately, is the point? The film’s answer is more complex than it seems at first. What starts out as a fairly obvious condemnation of academia by a group of self-serious but unmotivated individuals becomes something more.
All of the characters take themselves seriously, but also suffer serious disappointments, and the one consistent thing they have to fall back on is Columbia. This is a Columbia where you intensely, desperately need your friends – where you quite literally will not survive without them. It is a place where your professors may be infuriatingly traditional, and may expect insane amounts of work; but where those same professors foster and truly appreciate creative growth, often against the wishes of the administration.
In other words, it is a Columbia that most of us, fifty-odd years later, are still familiar with. It is a universe where bizarre customs rule, and learning to subvert and laugh at those customs is one of the most important things you will do. The point of being here, as this film sees it, involves that strange mix of the ability to work within the system and the capacity to work around the system. Most importantly, it has to do with the combination of people that come together here, who can help us move beyond what we could ever do on our own. In the end, perhaps not so different from the answers we might give ourselves.