DIRECTED BY: Yony Leyser
PLOT: A portrait of the life of the literary outlaw told through archival footage, rare home movies, and interviews with friends, admirers and followers.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Its subject is weird, but despite the brief avant-garde sequences used as buffers between the praising heads, its method isn’t.
COMMENTS: With his quick wit, cadaverous features, and patrician drawl, William S. Burroughs projected a mighty persona. His writings were full of ironic distance, parody and outlandish stream-of-consciousness surrealism, only occasionally punctured by confessional. The romantic myth that grew up about him—the artist tormented by guilt, addiction, and public ostracism, who strikes back at society by rejecting all forms of authority—was so powerful that it became far more influential than his actual writings.
The subtitle of this documentary—A Man Within—suggests that we may get a peek under that dapper three-piece armor Burroughs wore in public and see the real, naked man underneath. Yony Leyser’s freshman documentary is partially successful at that task; he gives us unprecedented access to Burroughs’ home movies (showing him as an old man smoking a joint before going out to fire a shotgun) and reminiscences from those closest to him, including several former lovers. The portrait that emerges is of a man who may have suffered as much from loneliness as from drugs and remorse; the man we see here has difficulty forming relationships with men he’s attracted to, and prefers to seek the companionship of street hustlers and boys too young and foolish to break his heart. Topics covered, in jumbled order, include Burroughs’ upper class upbringing; his role as godfather of the Beats; his homosexuality and his refusal to join the “gay mainstream;” his lifelong relationship with heroin; his love of snakes and guns; the accidental killing of Joan Vollmer while playing a drunken game of “William Tell”; Naked Lunch and its censorship battles; his troubled and tragic relationship with his son (who drank himself to death in an attempt to emulate and impress dear old dad); his second role as spiritual godfather, this time to the punk rock movement; and his declining years, when he appears to finally find some peace.
There’s even time for a little bit of Burroughs’ actual writing: his hilariously cynical Thanksgiving wish (“thanks for the American dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through”) and a few excerpts of the author’s delightfully dry readings of his own works. Still, a neophyte watching this documentary will come away with little sense of Burroughs’ actual literary importance; for example, he’ll still have almost no idea what Naked Lunch was about (although to be fair, the same could be said of someone who’s read the novel several times).
Bolstering the doc’s weird credentials are a series of bizarro bumpers between interviewees: animated wire frame sculptures used to introduce chapters, manipulated and superimposed stock footage, what looks to be a segment from an archival experimental film featuring Brion Gyson’s trippy spinning light “Dream Machine,” and snippets from 70s-80s era punk-surrealist music videos incorporating Burroughs’ image and mystique (one of these, “Rub Out the Word” by Roger Holden, is included as an extra on the DVD). Sometimes footage is chopped up with Burroughs speaking a few words at a time, then jumping to another part of the monologue, cut-up style. All in all, these intermediary sequences give the documentary an arty, bohemian feel that’s in complete harmony with its subject. Musical accompaniment is provided by Sonic Youth, Patti Smith, and traditional Moroccan Sufi trance music from the Master Musicians of Jajouka.
Have no doubt, this is an encomium and not an exposé or unbiased examination of Burroughs life. All interviewers are friends and admirers, and no one has an unkind word to say about the master. (For a man who went out of his way to offend and provoke everyone, it appears Burroughs made remarkably few enemies; or perhaps he just outlived them all). What may be the central event of Burroughs life—the homicide of Vollmer, a killing for which the writer was never punished outside of his own head—is almost glossed over. To make the hagiography complete, Waters officially canonizes Burroughs in the movie’s finale. It’s more tribute than documentary, and as such will be well-received by fans, worshipers, and those inclined to become fans and worshipers.
William S. Burroughs has links to two Certified Weird movies. Besides the obvious Naked Lunch connection, his hipness was harnessed when he was chosen to narrate the edited version of Häxan that toured college campuses in the late 60s as Witchcraft Through the Ages.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Beat novelist and poet, junkie, expatriate, homosexual, lousy shot, punk-rock godhead, scenester, weird old man, and more, the subject of Yony Leyser’s very capable documentary ‘William S. Burroughs: A Man Within’ carried multitudes inside him, despite the film’s title.”–Ty Burr, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)