The Beats have always been a school of writers that I've been more interested in as personalities than I have been in reading their work. I particularly have no affinity for the writing of William S. Burroughs, whose offbeat cadence might make him interesting to listen to, but when applied to the written page, turns into so much gobbledygook. It inspires almost a weird dyslexia for me, like I am staring at a random jumble of letters that refuse to get into the proper order.
I share this with you by way of underlining what an achievement it is, then, that Yony Leyser has made me understand the man and his work as I never have before. His film William S. Burroughs: A Man Within valiantly tackles the mercurial personality of the notorious writer, and it is surprisingly effective at unraveling the knotted persona the author created for himself.
Born in 1914, Burroughs first came to prominence in the 1950s, alongside other writers of the "Beat Generation," like Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. As A Man Within points out, however, Burroughs was never quite in line with the group, he was an outsider even in a band of outsiders. He fearlessly wrote about his drug addiction and his homosexuality at a time before either had been romanticized or even remotely accepted, and throughout his life, he kicked against any defining structure. To be William Burroughs was to remain undefined.
Armed with that knowledge, Leyser steps into the arena undaunted, ready to wrestle with this cagey character. He's outfitted himself with a cadre of weapons: archival footage of Burroughs; new interviews with friends, contemporaries, and admirers; and of course the man's writing itself. Leyser and his editor, Ilko Davidov, sift through all of this and shake out the gold, and for the most part, do a great job of it. A Man Within is best when it stays focused on that particular idea, that there is a person hidden behind the personality. Segments on Burroughs' early childhood, his romantic life, and his tragic shooting of his wife during a game of "William Tell" cover ground that maybe has been covered before, but Leyser makes fascinating connections between these events and the coded themes of Burroughs' books. In terms of his later life, there are also excellent segments about the author's love of guns and cats, his failure as a father, and stories from lovers and assistants who knew him in his final years.
Where A Man Within isn't nearly as good is when we stray off the main subject and get deeper into how he influenced pop culture and, particularly, the world of music. Even as an old punk fan, I was a little bored by the sycophantic reverence that subculture bequeathed on Burroughs. Granted, the commentators for that specific era also provide a lot of the great insight elsewhere in the picture. Some of the talking heads Leyser turned up include Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, John Waters, Jello Biafra, and Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth. Even if this stuff doesn't do as much to expose the man behind the myth, it does validate the myth. If nothing else, Leyser does make the audience believe that Burroughs was every bit the rebel others believe him to be.
There are optional English subtitles, as well.
In the extras department, we get plenty more about Burroughs' home life and his later attempts at painting. For the latter, there are three deleted scenes that further explore his visual art, including Burroughs sharing his theories on the subject, and also another demonstration of his shotgun art--shooting paint cans placed in front of plywood and capturing the splatter--here accompanied by music from Husker Du. There are just over 15 minutes of home movies, which include the author hanging with his friends, such as Patti Smith and Steve Buscemi (who does not appear in the main feature), and an added movie of Sonic Youth visiting Burroughs, which is put together and narrated by the band and was excerpted in A Man Within. The music connection gets added coverage via a video of Patti Smith reading "Psalm 23 Revisited" (Patti also performs impromptu in the home movies). Finally, there is a "music video" called "Rub Out the World" that features Burroughs reading "The Last Words of Hassan Sabbah."
The Naked Lunch 50th anniversary featurette (about 15 minutes) celebrates the book and David Cronenberg's movie adaptation, and it has tributes by poets and other fans and friends plus an excerpt of Peter Weller reading. (Weller also narrates A Man Within and appears on camera.) It was shot in Chicago in 2009.
For those looking to hear more about the documentary, Yony Leyser answers questions at the BFI (just over 10 minutes), giving a little more insight into the project.