In 2010, a feature about Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl” written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman premiered in competition on opening night of the Sundance Film Festival. This year, two adaptations of Beat novels will screen at the festival: “Kill Your Darlings,” based on an early William Burroughs/Jack Kerouac collaboration, will compete for the dramatic grand jury prize once it premieres Friday afternoon, and a version of Kerouac’s late-career novel “Big Sur” will show as part of the Premieres line-up Wednesday, Jan. 23.
These, of course, come on the heels of Walter Salles’ and Jose Rivera’s elliptical adaptation of the book that elevated the Beats to national recognition in 1957, Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which opened in theaters at the end of 2012.
The work of the Beats has periodically bubbled up into the artistic consciousness over the decades (David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” the 1997 drama “The Last Time I Committed Suicide,” based on one of Neal Cassady’s notorious letters), but why does it have renewed artistic currency now? Is this new fascination indie filmmakers have with Beat literature a coincidence, what Burroughs might term a “third mind” confluence? Or is it timing: has the ethos caught up with the art?
“Kill Your Darlings,” directed and co-written by John Krokidas, reaches back to early Beat history: Based on “And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks,” a 1945 roman a clef consisting of alternating chapters written by Jack Kerouac, who narrated his as “Mike Ryko,” and William S. Burroughs, who wrote as “Will Dennison,” the slim text was not deemed worthy of publication in its time. (The book’s title comes from a news headline about a fire in a zoo, but the film’s name refers to the merciless instruction often leveled at aspiring writers.) Finally published in 2008, the book recounts the real-life “honor killing” of Dave Kammerer by a Beat confederate, would-be poet Lucien Carr.
Set in the environs of Columbia University a decade before the Beats’ seminal books made them famous, the story is the stuff of film noir: Carr’s longtime stalker — his former Scoutmaster, then age 33 — followed the 19-year-old to Riverside Park on August 14, 1944. As lore would have it, Kammerer (Michael C. Hall in the new film) declared that he’d have to die to stop, and Carr (Dane DeHaan) obliged him, pushing his stabbed body into the Hudson, then later burying Kammerer’s glasses and throwing the bloody Boy Scout knife into a subway grate.
Seeking refuge with Burroughs (Ben Foster), who knew Kammerer from St. Louis, and then Kerouac (Jack Huston), Carr turned himself in the next day. Kerouac was jailed as an accessory, but Carr was released with little jail time — in those days, killing your homosexual stalker was at best a minor crime. Making good on a promise to Carr, the estates of Kerouac and Burroughs refrained from publishing the book until after his death in 2005.
The sensational narrative proved a fertile beginning for the two emerging writers — it was rich, pulpy material for Burroughs’ and Kerouac’s early attempts at fiction. Kerouac re-imagined the murder many times throughout his many novels, which he collectively named “The Duluoz Legend.”
The West Coast-based novel “Big Sur” — Michael Polish wrote and directed the film version — comes at a later point in his oeuvre, after the overnight success of “On the Road” led to greater fame and, with it, greater drinking. In the book, Kerouac recounts how girls would climb into his windows hoping to bed him, confusing the author with the sexed-up Dean Moriarty. His despair at the public not realizing that he was merely an observer looking for the “hearthside ideal,” the girl next door — not babes to fuck — and that he was a writer in the grand American tradition led to a “crack-up” in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s (Anthony Edwards) cabin in Big Sur. Ultimately, Kerouac’s stand-in Jack Duluoz (Jean-Marc Barr) makes his way to San Francisco, partying with friends and hallucinating death.
Filmmakers continue to be drawn to the material. Steve Buscemi’s long-in-the-works adaptation of Burroughs’ “Queer,” with a screenplay by Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”), may be ready for Sundance 2014. (Buscemi makes a memorable appearance in “On the Road” as a gay driver who gives Dean and Sal a “lift.”) This mid-century literature was emblematic of America’s romance with the road’s infinite possibilities, as open and adventurous as many of the Beats’ sexual tastes. Perhaps independent-minded filmmakers are trying to push through the cynical attitudes and unpromising futures audiences’ are facing today, that the real freedom the Beats seemed to embrace is out of reach.
Whether those audiences are as fascinated remains a major question. “Howl” couldn’t clear $1 million in grosses in the U.S., and it is too soon to say what “On the Road,” which won’t open in wider release until March, will do at the box office.
But more than half a century since the flowering of the Beat generation, it may just be that this past year, when more and more states legislate in favor of gay marriage, Beat themes — youth at odds with mainstream culture, open physicality, liberation of visual images and language — are fresh again. Subversive and scandal-ridden in the post-War era, now they are simply sexy.
Regina Weinreich is the author of “Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics” and editor of his “Book of Haikus.” A co-producer-director of the documentary “Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider,” she also has written widely on William Burroughs.