My introduction to Kill Your Darlings had been through Tumblr. In a GIF, Daniel Radcliffe is naked, fucked into the mattress by Dane DeHaan. For a queer kid at the tail end of high school, there was something powerful to seeing the boy who grew from Harry Potter (2001-11) to The Woman in Black (2012) and Horns (2013), and the actor from Chronicle (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), together as a couple.
But the process of ripping a file and making a GIF, no matter how banal, is an act of decontextualisation. The person who made the GIF made a sexually charged sequence out of a brief scene, filling in the gaps within the mind, removing the intercutting that undermines the sexual nature of the scenes. Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) being anally penetrated is juxtaposed against an undeniably phallic act of penetration: his sexual partner, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) is stabbing, and subsequently drowning, his former lover, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) – a knife penetrating the skin. The sequences are atemporal – a sex scene that is fantasy (it appears nowhere else in the film, unlike the other flashbacks that are replayed in reverse, as drug-fuelled The Man from Another Place reverse speech) – or a secret between friends shadowed by unspoken desire and a resistant kiss – recontextualised in the knowledge that a man to direct attention towards is no ideal lover, set to the backdrop of an equally atemporal and anachronistic 2005 remix of The Pioneers by Bloc Party.
The Tumblr GIF set is not the film, but a wilful decision to alter the text in an act of thirst. The importance is not the film, but the politics (and liberation?) of getting straight men to represent queer sex scenes on film. The film has far more erotic scenes, with less naked flesh but more suggestion: with his bare ass pointed towards the camera, Ginsberg masturbates at the typewriter, in a drugged haze of the creative process of trying to write, with the threat of being walked in on. Any writer can likely relate to this cute scene: the need for release to engage mental functions.
In another scene, Ginsberg engages a girl, Amanda (Brenda Wehle), at the counter of the library for a quick hookup with a witty pickup line, in order to create a diversion for Carr and William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) to steal a key and retrieve the restricted books deemed too illicit by the faculty at Columbia University: physical sexuality in exchange for the destigmatisation of literary sexuality. As his penis is sucked, Ginsberg makes eye contact with the fleeing Carr, a power play of eyefucking, managing to cum at the count of 9 seconds, as a boy that’s likely never fucked before, with a girl that claims to have never fucked a Jew before. It’s a charged line that reflects a sense of tokenism of identity and prejudice while trying to deny anti-Semitism: how important really is circumcision (an act that persists far outside of Judaism within American society); how many of the four guys she fucked could have been Jewish without realising their religion or cultural and ethnic identity? (Krokidas himself has Jewish heritage.) But also, how easy is it to suck a dick to orgasm within 30 seconds? Unable to depict female pleasure, we never experience Amanda come; we only see her top lifted up. In the commentary track, Krokidas and co-screenwriter Austin Bunn discuss the inspiration for this scene from 80s teen comedies, which are known to have their own misogynistic problems.
The mechanics of Ginsberg and Carr’s encounter don’t function as sexual: just as an act, going directly into penetration, without the timing (time passes through interspersing) to depict the resistance of bodies, the difficulty, pain, thrusts, lubrication. It’s meant to just be there. It’s surrounded by death and the incredible shot of Ginsberg’s naked, empty, blank shower body, unable to comprehend and recontextualise the sex.
The thirst of Tumblr GIFs often take sequences of non-sexualised nudity, toxic and abusive relationships, sexual abuse – presenting human biology and rape as casual things to get turned on and masturbate over. It’s rare to see loving sex scenes represented. In Tumblr discourse, Call Me By Your Name (2017) is reduced to diverging poles of dissections of age gaps, statutory rape and abusive relationships, or screenshots and GIFs of cum, bum, peaches and blowjobs, as Katherine Connell writes about in Another Gaze, with GIFs placing the film’s queer sexuality on “an eternal circuit, extending our view of the naked gay body that is so avoided in the film”. As Connell elaborates:
GIFs appropriate the strategies of cropping, cutting, and framing […] disrupt[ing] the flow of narrative by isolating short clips. In these moments, GIF viewers must confront the film in new ways.
Maurice (1987) becomes desired as scenes of kissing, bouncing penises and ass shots. Imagine that desire before home video and streaming made nudity and sex scenes so easy to rewind, freeze frame and, if one is so inclined, get off to.
You might question why I’m approaching this film from this way. But Tumblr is one of the main things that helped shape my identity growing up as a teenager. It’s why I eulogised the porn ban on a Medium post and continue to work around the platform’s limitations as much as I can.
But seeing this film as an adult, at a distance from Tumblr thirst, may be something I missed out on as a teenager, but also something I gained more from. The idea of murder may be removed from most people’s friendships or sexual encounters, but many, many people know the experience of fucking somebody that turns out to be not who they thought they were – whether they’re toxic, abusive or awful. The archaic, homophobic nature of “honor killing” that persists to this day in incredibly recent cases, its intersection with repression, desire and one’s own sexuality.
I’ve yet to properly read a Beat book, but I’ve fallen in love with the movement, whether with Gus Van Sant’s intersections with Burroughs in Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and The Discipline of D.E. (1982), Ginsberg in Ballad of the Skeletons (1997), or Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991) characterising Burroughs’ creative process, unique mind and with his own oversight of the production, or the wonderful remixing of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch words in the incredible album Let Me Hang You (2016). Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac et al. have always been ready for filmic versions.