Monday, November 7, 2011

Film Review--William Burroughs: A Man Within


This is one documentary that I had been waiting to see for quite a while.  
The film aims to reconstruct...as best as anyone can, that is...who William Burroughs was.  This is done through the interweaving of old interviews with Burroughs himself and with current footage of those who knew or worked with him.  Those in this latter category include Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, John Waters, David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant, and Peter Weller, who narrates pieces of the film.  While the 87 minute running time does not afford a truly deep investigation into one of the greatest American writers to ever have lived, you do get to see the critical points of his life and you see them handled through reflections both canny and candid.

You learn about this man, born to affluence and known for wearing three-piece suits, who was anything but a supporter for the establishment.  You hear of his struggles in the 1950s as someone involved in both the queer and drug cultures.  Burroughs tells firsthand of his awful bouts with drug addiction in that simultaneously entrancing and grating voice that he had.  Others recount the tragic accident wherein Burroughs killed his wife.  The film of course highlights his time with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and other luminaries at The Beat Hotel (sweet jehosaphat, what place that must have been) and his eventual authoring of his masterpiece, Naked Lunch.  

Perhaps most importantly, the film details just how much Burroughs influenced modern artists and musicians such as David Bowie, Sonic Youth, and The Dead Kennedys.  Various musicians stress the sometimes overlooked fact that Burroughs, with his refusal to accept reality as we know it, helped contribute to the birth of the punk movement.  I would have liked to have seen more detail on his work with the cut-up method, but as I said, there were only 87 minutes to work with and I doubt anyone else besides this literary composition geek would have been as interested in it.

William Burroughs was...I'll go ahead and say it...the most innovative writer America has ever produced.  Irrespective of that, the viewer is left wondering if Burroughs was ever truly happy.  Heck, his friends wonder about it, too.  His loves in many cases were unrequited, he alienated his own son unto death, and he had more than his share of trials and tribulations with society as a whole.    Yet it may have been at the very end that Burroughs perceived reality as it should be, that is if his final journal entry can be taken as any indication.  He wrote (and I'm paraphrasing here): "What is the ultimate painkiller?  Love.  Love is."

I whole-heartedly recommend this documentary to anyone with a passion for writing or art.  In case you are unfamiliar with Burroughs...and woe to those of you who fall in this category...I have included below one of my favorite pieces of his entitled, A Thanksgiving Prayer:




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1 comment:

  1. Pretty cool how there's so many contemporary artists alive that knew him at one time. One of the advantages of living a long time!

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