Monday, 20 February 2012

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

This documentary from 2010 is an excellent introduction to the life and work of William Burroughs, one the great writers and thinkers of the 20th century. A Man Within gathers together an impressive array of Burroughs' closest friends, lovers and admirers, plus contributions from John Waters, David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant, Patti Smith, Genesis P-Orridge, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Iggy Pop and Laurie Anderson, each of whom offer their own personal take on the man Norman Mailer once declared to be "the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius".


Less interested in making a conventional biography of Burroughs the novelist, director Yony Leyser concentrates on Burroughs the person, or the man within, and largely succeeds. The film is structured in chapters which examine the forces that shaped Burroughs' life and propelled his writings - drugs, homosexuality, guns, the impact of Naked Lunch and Burroughs' own difficulty in connecting with people. Burroughs himself was a mass of contradictions. He wrote extensively about drugs and despite having been a habitual user all his life, Burroughs' writings are full of warnings about their damaging effects, the degradation and the loss of control to the user. Burroughs struggled on and off with addiction ("the strait-jacket of junk" as he called it) and actor Peter Weller remembers a conversation with Burroughs on the set of Naked Lunch where Burroughs stringently warned him off using Percodan.


Despite marrying and fathering a son, Burroughs was homosexual but was the antithesis of the limp-wristed gay. Burroughs distanced himself from the queer movement and remained quietly reserved about his sexuality, only emerging through works like Naked Lunch and Queer, which often took a dark, subjective view of homosexuality. John Waters speaks about Burroughs' sexuality as another example the writer's iconoclasm - "He opened up to me, not gay culture, but gay rebels and couldn't-fit-in gay culture". The film is quite candid about Burroughs' relationships with men and includes a marvellous snippet of archive footage of Burroughs and Warhol in a rare moment discussing homosexuality over dinner.

John Waters on Burroughs - "He was the first person that was famous for the things you were supposed to hide. He wrote poetry about assholes and heroin"
The most notorious chapter from Burroughs' life remains the accidental shooting dead of his wife in Mexico City in 1951, which Burroughs darkly referred to as the catalyst for his writing career. Rather strangely this tragic event in Burroughs' life did not deter him from guns and along with his beloved cats, became an permanent fixture of his life. The documentary features a lot of footage of Burroughs at the target range and shows the writer working on his so called shotgun paintings, created by Burroughs shooting a can of paint, with the ejecta splashing across a nearby canvas. Interviewed for the film is one of Burroughs' gun dealers who shows an elaborate silencer Burroughs had made in his basement so he could shoot off his guns and not disturb his guests upstairs, while Marcus Ewert, Burroughs' lover relates an anecdote about the writer keeping guns in bed with him - they were of course fully loaded.

Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch: The Man is carried in naked by two Negro Bearers who drop him on the platform with bestial, sneering brutality. The Man wriggles. His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach...
Named by Jack Kerouac and published in Paris in 1959, (The) Naked Lunch Burroughs' seminal work brought with it international notoriety and a devoted following. Friend and collaborator John Giorno recalls the legion of fans that would arrive at the Bunker, Burroughs' home on the Bowery, New York's Lower East Side, bringing with them copious amounts of drugs. (Giorno amusingly reckons that Burroughs' insistance on taking the first shot saved him from contracting AIDS). In the 70's Burroughs was regularly having dinner with luminaries like Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, Nicholas Roeg, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry and Richard Hell. Burroughs was a supremely intelligent and eloquent raconteur but emotionally withdrawn. Perhaps it was his unrequited love for Allen Ginsburg, but Burroughs preferred sex with professional young hustlers, where there was little chance of heartache. Even Burroughs' relationship with his son (seen here in rare footage) was problematic and ulitmately unresolved - William Jr. died from liver cancer in 1981 aged 33.

Beat happening - William and Allen, seen as part of the documentary's well chosen archive footage
If the film has a flaw it's the brief running time - at 80 odd minutes the film feels a little too lean. It would have been nice to hear more about Burroughs' novels post-Naked Lunch, like the Nova Trilogy, comprising of the novels, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express, which all feature the most radical use of the cut-up. Also there's little about Burroughs' impact on Cinema, the experimental films he made in collaboration with Antony Balch in the '60's, the 1984 German film Decoder which took inspiration from Burroughs' Electronic Revolution essay (and features a cameo by the great man himself). Also, more time should have been allocated to David Cronenberg, whose 1983 film Videodrome is one of the best cinematic interpretations of Burroughs' ideas, not to mention Cronenberg's own film of Naked Lunch which brilliantly fused the novel with episodes from the writer's life. These minors gripes aside, A Man Within, with its soundtrack by Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore and fabulous footage of Burroughs remains an essential document.

Cronenberg on Burroughs - "I think Burroughs' writings particularly Naked Lunch were quite revolutionary... It wasn't just homosexuality, it was alien sexuality"
My copy of A Man Within is the UK edition courtesy of Artefact Films. The DVD features a decent enough 1.78 anamorphic transfer. Much of the archive footage looks expectedly beat up and worn depending on the source, while the newly filmed interviews look fine (if not exceptional). Audio is good, and helpfully some of the audio on the rougher archive footage is subtitled. Extras includes 16min of Home Footage with Burroughs relaxing in Kansas with friends (among them Steve Buscemi), 3mins of murky handheld looking footage of Sonic Youth paying a visit to Burroughs' farm, plus 2min of Burroughs creating his shotgun paintings. Overall a fine DVD but the US edition on the Oscilloscope label is better, packaged in a very nice foldout sleeve, and containing some additional extras, including a 15min featurette on Naked Lunch's 50th anniversary held in Chicago in 2009.

11 comments:

  1. I confess to not having read any of Burroughs' work but that was a very well written review on that documentary. I'll have to check it out when I can. I've been meaning to watch David Cronenberg's adaptation of 'Naked Lunch' again. It's been donkey's years since I last saw it.

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  2. Many thanks Dave. It's been years since I saw Naked Lunch too. I should have picked up the Criterion DVD ages ago but somehow I never did. I'll wait for a Blu. It's not easy to recommend a Burroughs book - his writing is difficult and challenging, and it may take a few attempts to acclimatize yourself to Burroughs' world, but I find his writing can induce altered states without the necessity of getting high...

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  3. Sounds like a good doc, Wes. Didn't Burrough's inspire the band Steely Dan (they took the name from one of his novels, I think). Great write up, Wes, will look out for this. Also looking forward to the new doc on Roger Corman.

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  4. Many thanks Jon. Steely Dan did indeed take their name from a dildo device described in Naked Lunch. And British psych/fusion outfit Soft Machine took their name from the title of Burroughs' 1961 novel.

    Yeah, I'm looking forward to seeing that Corman doc - is it out yet ? His memoir How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime is well worth seeking out. It's become a cliche of mine to say this but the Academy should have given Corman an honourary Oscar years ago (for what it's worth)

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  5. I agree, Wes. Corman probably did more for modern Hollywood than anyone else. The doc is out in cinemas now, not sure when the DVD release is. There's also a good 'unauthorised' biography by Beverley Gray.

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  6. I look forward to seeing it. I love documentaries about films and film people. I seem to remember that Corman biog reviewed in Video Watchdog, and it got a good review - no small acheivment as Tim Lucas can be quite tough with book reviews... The title of Corman's memoirs is a bit of a cheat as he did lose money on Corman's own The Intruder / I Hate Your Guts and Monte Hellman's Cockfighter, both among the best of his films/productions. My favourite Roger Corman is still The Trip, which I think is an extraordinary film...

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  7. I've not seen The Trip, although I love Cockfighter and Hellman's two early films with Jack Nicholson: Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting. I think (not sure) they were made for Corman.

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  8. I'm sure you can pick up the UK DVD of The Trip for next to nothing - it's well worth it. Yep, those two westerns are great, even the relatively conventional Ride in the Whirlwind seems apart from other westerns of the day, while The Shooting is on another level altogether - it's a mesmerizing film. If my memory is correct, I first saw that on one of Alex Cox's Moviedrome nights - wasn't film programming on TV much better back in the pre-DVD age ? It seems like a contradiction considering so much has been available since, but there's never been anything like Moviedrome in recent years. Oh, and China 9 Liberty 37 is a great film as well - I think it's still unavailable.

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  9. Yep, saw China 9 Liberty 37 on Moviedrome. Two Lane Blacktop was the one that really blew my mind though - the totally stripped down spareness of the storytelling where you had to really watch carefully for any little clue as to what the characters are about. A real lesson in understatement. TLB was the first Region 1 DVD I bought - in a limited edition tin set which includes a miniature 55 Chevy key chain!
    Hellman would a great subject for a retrospective, Wes...

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  10. A Hellman retro is a great idea... funnily enough I had planned doing something on Hellman's much maligned 1974 film Shatter as part of the Hammer season, but I wouldn't mind revisting the Warren Oates films again. I might look around and see if I can lay my hands on Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), Back Door to Hell (1964) and Iguana (1988). Anchor Bay's DVD of Iguana is missing an entire sequence, and I don't think it's ever been corrected.

    I have the old Anchor Bay Two-Lane Blacktop as well, (although not in a snazzy tin case) and it was one of my first US imports too, back in 2000 ! I waited years to see that film. I really should upgrade to the MOC Blu-Ray...

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  11. The Hellman retro sounds great, Wes. I haven't seen any of those films you mention (or Silent Night, Deadly Night for that matter). A complete Hellman retrospective would be something to behold!

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