So many documentaries have been made about William S. Burroughs that once you’ve seen one, you’ve probably seen them all. They usually start with photographs of Old Bull Lee standing slightly aloof from his younger Beat Generation contemporaries, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, in New York City during the 1950s. They usually obsess over Burroughs the Icon, the Godfather of Heroin Chic and the inspiration for so many rock stars and wannabes.
Yony Leyser’s William S. Burroughs: A Man Within does all that, but goes beyond the surface to prick the skin of this cultural icon, ploughing for truth like a fresh vein in a junkie’s arm.
The film begins typically, tracing the genesis of the Beat Generation against the backdrop of optimistic domesticity that defined post-WWII America, the resistance to which drew these disparate figures together. The standard biographical stuff is touched on, but all very quickly, offering a footnote for the unfamiliar and a refresher for fans. Once the romantic black and white photos are dispensed with, the film sets itself apart by putting all the aberrant parts of this fascinating man under the microscope.
As Peter Weller, the actor who played Burroughs in the film version of Naked Lunch comments, “He was famous for all the wrong reasons, he was gay, he was a junkie, he shot his wife and he wrote… about assholes and heroin”.
All those things that should’ve made Burroughs repulsive are put into context through his writings. Through his novel Queer, we learn about his sexuality and penchant for teenage boys, and likewise Junkie documents his experiences with heroin. Before Burroughs, neither queer culture or drug culture had been so intimately exposed, especially not to button-down white America.
Though considered a revolutionary gay figure, Leyser uses interviews with past friends and lovers to demonstrate Burroughs’ uneasiness with his sexuality. He saw himself apart from the gay movement, even to the point that he didn’t believe himself to be homosexual. Instead, Leyser offers the very succinct notion that Burroughs is actually an alien figure, so incredibly different that he fits nowhere but within himself.
And this is just one of the things Leyser’s film manages to demystify. By the end, ‘Burroughs’ is as deconstructed as his cut-up writings. Through interviews with Patti Smith and Iggy Pop his influence on punk music is examined, while his ex-boyfriends – including an 18 year old who was passed on from Ginsberg – speak of a lonely, frail old man. This vision of Burroughs, so far removed from the gun-toting, joint smoking, pill-popping provocateur, is one of the film’s highlights. Leyser presents us a Harvard educated gentleman who through a lifetime of drugs, murder, fucking, music, poetry and art, emerges in his later years as a lonely old cat man who believes himself incapable of love.
This image is far from the icon that rockstars shimmed up to in order to steal some of his cool. This self-serving exploitation is best shown when U2 visit Burroughs. We see the Edge striding ahead of this feeble old-timer, grinning incipiently at the camera, eagerly enamoured with himself for being seen with the shuffling skeleton, and you start to realise the sycophants surrounding Burroughs didn’t give a fuck about the man – just how his image could legitimise their own.
This is a man who killed his wife, who was a heroin addict, a terrible father, a man who could never align his upbringing with his sexuality and outlived friends who were picked off by AIDS, addiction and age.
But although Leyser disrobes Burroughs to show the dirty old man beneath the suit, he also manages to demonstrate how all his neurosis and abnormalities made him such a compelling and subversive figure.
Rating: Four stars
William S. Burroughs: A Man Within Directed by Yony Leyser
With John Waters, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Gus Van Sant, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Sonic Youth, Laurie Anderson, Amiri Baraka, Jello Biafra, and David Cronenberg
USA, 2010, 81 mins
Special Features: Deleted scenes featuring Burroughs’ shotgun art; Burroughs’ home movies with Patti Smith, Steve Buscemi, Allen Ginsberg, Sonic Youth and others; readings by Burroughs and Patti Smith; Naked Lunch 50th anniversary celebration; Q&A with director Yony Leyser at BFI London Film Festival 2010; Bill and Anna, a short film by Yony Leyser; theatrical trailer
Available to rent or buy through Madman Entertainment