William S. Burroughs was one of the most celebrated American authors of the second half of the 20th century, but he was nearly as famous for being the counterculture's leading curmudgeon for close to 40 years. He was a friend and confidante of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; however, Burroughs and his work never really fit in with the Beat movement. He was an out-of-the-closet homosexual years before Stonewall, but was too contrary and cynical about human relationships to be widely embraced as a hero by the gay liberation movement. Though Burroughs used drugs of all sorts most of his life, the severity of his writings on heroin and yage made him a difficult hero for the drug culture. And while the nihilistic surfaces of Burroughs' writing and his eager embrace of the forbidden made him a hero to punk rockers, it was clear to most who knew him that he had no real interest in rock music, which ran roughshod over his own affected elegance. In his life and in his art, Burroughs was a man who followed no rules but his own, and woe unto them who came up against him and his vision of the world.
For good or ill, Burroughs was a fascinating man who lived a wild life, and filmmaker Yony Leyser had the raw material for a truly fascinating story at his disposal for his first feature film, the documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within. However, while the film presents a compelling portrait of Burroughs himself, the matter of his writing and why he made a difference as a literary figure curiously doesn't enter into the picture all that much.
William S. Burroughs was born to a well-to-do family in 1914 (his grandfather made a fortune selling adding machines and other office equipment), but early on he proved to be the black sheep of the family. His exploits included a drug- and sex-fueled exile in Tangiers, marijuana farming in Mexico, trafficking stolen goods in New York, and a shocking incident in Mexico in which he shot and killed his wife while trying to shoot a glass off her head, apparently while under the influence of alcohol and speed.
It was after the death of his wife that Burroughs began to commit himself to his art, and with the publication of his novel Naked Lunch in 1959, his deft use of language, his acidic wit, and his mordant view of the world around him made him the talk of the world's literary cognoscenti. William S. Burroughs: A Man Within touches only briefly on Naked Lunch and its impact, and most of his 17 other novels aren't even mentioned in the film. Though some of the film's most striking moments come from readings in which Burroughs recites his own work in his dry, craggy monotone, Leyser has placed his focus on the man behind the work, and there's little arguing that it's still an absorbing tale.
Leyser has divided his film into sections that individually deal with the myriad obsessions of Burroughs' life and how these pieces added up to the man the world came to know. The bulk of the film is made up of interviews with friends, colleagues, lovers, and admirers ranging from John Waters, Patti Smith, and Laurie Anderson to Burroughs' gun dealer and a guy who raises and trains snakes. Through the accumulated interviews, Leyser examines Burroughs' early, unsuccessful relationships and how they colored his view of sex and love; his outlook on class and his own pretensions to upper-class civility; his obsession with weapons and how they reflected his paranoia; his friendship with Brion Gysin, and his fascination with Gysin's dream machine and the cut-up method; the impact drugs had on Burroughs' work and his inability to stay away from opiates; the short life and tragic death of his son, William S. Burroughs Jr.; his influence on rock musicians; the visual art techniques he adopted late in life; and his belated acceptance of the possibility of love.
Leyser's film takes a little while to find its focus, but once its episodic structure begins to cohere, the director shows that he knows how to draw out his subjects, and the combination of new interviews and archival footage of Burroughs reading his work, answering questions, and padding around the house adds up to a insightful picture of a complicated man with a deeper soul than one might imagine. It's a shame that Leyser doesn't deal with Burroughs' work as well as he deals with his life, but William S. Burroughs: A Man Within does manage to tell us something fresh and worth knowing about a controversial giant of 20th century culture, and hopefully this resonant study of the artist will lead more people to explore his art, which remains a brilliant, uncompromising legacy.
releases for William S. Burroughs: A Man Within on AllMovie
William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010)
William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
|February 15, 2011