William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
by Jon Bastian
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William S. Burroughs was, arguably, one of the most interesting figures of the 20th Century. I will freely admit that he was a major influence on me – I read most of his novels in my formative years, devoured Ted Morgan’s 1990 biography Literary Outlaw, and even wrote a play about Burroughs’s little misadventure in Mexico in 1951, in which he put a bullet in his wife’s head – an incident which, ironically, he always claimed is what made him a writer in the first place.
So, it was with great expectation and excitement that I received a copy of William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, Yony Leyser’s 2010 documentary about the father of the Beats, the godfather of punk, a man who has had more influence on pop culture and the world you live in now than you would ever suspect. I’m glad to report that this Burroughs fan-boy was not disappointed by the documentary. In fact, if you’re a fan of Burroughs, this is an absolute must-own piece of his legacy. If you’ve never heard of him, then this is the perfect primer and introduction. True, the film mostly deals with Burroughs after the incident event in September 1951. If you’re fan, you already know the story of his early years. If you’ve never heard of him, here is all you need to know and more.
The documentary is divided into rough chapters, covering the Burroughs phenomenon, starting with the simplistic sketches of the man as Beat Pioneer, then gradually deepening, through his literary work, his relationships, his 80s renaissance as the Eminence Gris of the Punk Rock world, and his later years in Kansas. But it’s clear from the beginning that Burroughs was the original outsider artist, unapologetically a gay junkie from his literary beginnings. Although Gore Vidal published his famous gay novel, The City and the Pillar, in the late 40s, the big difference was that Vidal’s novel treated its anti-hero, Jim Willard, with a sort of arm’s-length disdain. Willard never admits to being homosexual, despite what happens to him in the novel and, ultimately, he suffers the required fate of gay characters of the era – self-destruction. In Burroughs’s work, everyone is self-destructive, but everyone is also liberated.
What also sets this documentary apart is the sheer breadth of material and interview subjects. Leyser had access to a wealth of Burroughs archival footage, including interviews and home movies, and the obligate talking heads are famous in their own rights – John Waters, David Cronenberg, Peter Weller (who also narrates), Patty Smith, Iggy Pop, Amiri Baraka, Jello Biafra, Laurie Anderson, and Genesis P-Orridge. Central to the narration, though, is James Grauerholz, who came to Burroughs as a fan-boy, then spent the rest of Burroughs’s life as his lover, secretary, literary executor and, quite possibly, the man who kept him alive as long as he lived, which was well into his 80s. This is perhaps the greatest irony of all – that this junkie addict who did everything possible to kill himself managed to outlive most of the original beats, and quite a few of the original punks.
The DVD presentation itself is beautiful, and Oscilloscope Laboratories is a distributor worth keeping an eye on. Bonus features are extensive, including deleted scenes, Burroughs home movies, pieces on his artwork and visit with Sonic Youth, and much, much more. Also, I wouldn’t ordinarily gush about DVD packaging, but the presentation itself is amazing. Made of recycled materials, and yet avoiding the feel of cheap, the single DVD is presented in an 8-panel fold out with slipcase that includes gorgeous artwork, and bonus interviews with Richard Hell and David Byrne. All around, it’s a classy presentation worthy of something that the Criterion Collection would put out, but without their hefty premium price tag.
So, summary. If you love Burroughs, you need this. If you’ve never heard of him, you should have, and this is the perfect place to start. We lost him nearly fourteen years ago. William S. Burroughs: A Man Within brings him back to his well-deserved place as a pioneer and a visionary – every criticism he had of American society from 1951 until his death is still weirdly, appropriately accurate, and they need to be heard again. And again.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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