Directed by Howard Brookner
Howard Brookner’s extraordinary portrait of William S. Burroughs was all but lost following its original release in 1983. Now recovered and restored, it offers an intimate insight into the life and work of one of America’s most celebrated and controversial writers. Covering his time spent in New York, Tangier, London and Mexico, from “full out junkie” to literary giant, the documentary is notable for its experimental style and unprecedented access to Burroughs, as well as interviews with his Beat Generation contemporaries, including Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Herbert Huncke and Bryon Gysin.
Burroughs: The Movie started life in 1978 as Brookner’s senior thesis at New York University and one of the film’s many quirks is that the technical credits include illustrious classmates Jim Jarmusch as sound recordist and Tom DeCillo as the principal cinematographer. After forming a close friendship with the director early on, Burroughs lent his enthusiastic support to the project and filming continued for another five years, capturing revealing interviews, social gatherings and reading tours, as well as staging scenes that fall somewhere between dramatic readings and experimental shorts. True to the author’s style, the result is an anarchic, hilarious and contentious documentary, raw in style but quite unlike anything you will have seen before.
Burroughs is known for his eccentricity almost as much as his writing and shows many sides to his personality over the course of the film. Huncke, who featured in Burroughs’s debut novel Junkie, says in an interview, “I didn’t feel comfortable at all with Bill,” and others allude to his difficulties socialising and aversion to parties. Frequently, he comes across as reticent and awkward, particularly when he revisits his hometown St Louis, dressed compulsively in drab and ill-fitting grey suits. However, when he is able to relax or has a part he can throw himself into, he demonstrates a sardonic sense of humour, his curious frame – which varies from scrawny and frail to stocky and piercing – shuddering into life. Ginsberg, his former lover, speaks about finding his “soft centre”, while his friends feel similarly privileged to count themselves among the few who know him well.
Brookner largely avoids extended narrative sequences, preferring to let Burroughs’s own language do most of the talking. However, he does expand on two critical episodes in Burroughs’s life, the death of his son, Billy, in 1981 and the killing of his wife, Joan, in 1951. These sections are also the most problematic, treating what can only be taken as partisan accounts of the events without any genuine degree of criticism. Burroughs famously shot his wife in the head at their home in Mexico City and was convicted of murder in absence after fleeing his trial. Ginsberg gives his own interpretation of events, that Joan was suicidal and just looking for a way out, while Burroughs reiterates his long-held view that the “Ugly Spirit” took over and his life from then on has been spent resisting against it. There is little doubt that the incident sparked his serious writing career but, by gauging it solely in respect to his literary development, the film comes across as more a hagiography than an objective documentary.
In Brookner’s defence, this apologetic approach is far from uncommon when it comes to Burroughs and in many ways is vital to understanding him as an individual and public figure. His relationship with his dark past is key to understanding his self-perception and the enduring allure of his uncompromisingly autobiographical fiction. Rather than simply trying to explain the myth, Brookner embraces it wholeheartedly, immersing his film in the literary cult it has inspired. Like the ecstatic fans who attend his sellout readings, it makes the case that, despite his bizarre behaviour, despite his demons, Burroughs in the 1980s is being reborn as a major literary figure – he is midway through writing his last great trilogy – on some level perhaps worthy of the epithet endorsed by Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, “the most intelligent man in America”.
The film jumps around from scene to scene, providing little context beyond locations and interviewees’ names. To some extent, this imitates the cut-up method that Burroughs developed alongside the writer and artist Bryon Gysin for Naked Lunch and The Nova Trilogy but the editing also shows the filmmakers’ inexperience. There are digressions on subjects like the weapons Burroughs keeps in his house and his technique for managing his orgone levels – both of which he seems to take rather seriously – intercut with interviews, readings and standalone footage, including a surreal performance piece in which he plays one of the many mad doctors that feature in his novels. It is off-kilter but never by any means dull, held together by its eminently watchable subject.
The film gives the overall impression of a man who is virtually indistinguishable from his work and really has put his entire life into it. He reads like he is possessed, in his harsh Midwestern drawl, determined to produce an effect that he is never concerned to do in his everyday speech. When he is asked in a Radio One interview how he anticipates dealing with death, he says that can only quote from his most recent book, The Place of Dead Roads: “Immortality is the only goal worth striving for.” He no doubt intended it to be taken more literally but Burroughs: The Movie – more than twenty years after it was completed – should now give him that little bit more.
– Rob Dickie