Shot over five years by filmmaker Howard Brookner and finished in 1983, Burroughs: The Movie had vanished from the film landscape for over thirty years until the late director's nephew, Aaron Brookner, found a print and had the picture restored. The project began in 1978 when Brookner contacted his subject and got permission to interview him on camera for a university project and it was fleshed out from there until it reached the form we have it in now. The results of the restoration have led to this new release from The Criterion Collection that not only offers up the movie itself, but which contains an impressive collection of supplemental material to accompany it.
As to the feature itself, it's a documentary about William S. Burroughs shot in fairly intimate settings. It does an interesting job of getting as inside Burroughs' head as any movie can, and so too does it feature input, on camera no less, from some of his associates, friends and fellow artists/writers such as Patty Smith, Allen Ginsberg and Terry Southern. Getting as close to Burroughs as Brookner was able to over this five year period is quite an accomplishment as the man was notoriously reclusive, but he did it and the footage, shot by an inexperienced filmmaker in his early twenties, exists as proof. Put together the way it is, Burroughs: The Movie is more of a series of snapshots and moments with the infamous writer than it is a typical biographical style documentary, but there are so many odd and unusual moments contained here that anyone with even a passing interest in the man's life and work should find themselves fairly enthralled by all of this. Of course, the fact that the movie has been impossible for see for thirty-plus years adds to the allure, as we really are getting something special here, but the work speaks for itself.
At the same time, while it's obvious that Brookner was able to get quite close to his subject and to at least partially earn the man's trust, it's equally clear that Burroughs is only revealing what he wants to reveal to the camera and in turn to us. As the movie explores his past, his family life, his childhood and his different personal relationships there are times where you can see the man put his guard up. This doesn't happen often but it does happen, and when it does Burroughs is quick witted and seemingly eager to change the subject. As the movie progresses and the subjects change, we learn about his take on writing, his issues with substance abuse, and of course, we even touch on the infamous William Tell incident in which Burroughs shot his wife. The film also allows Burroughs to go off now and then, at one point getting very worked up about starting a militia of sorts to protect homosexuals which contrasts in interesting and humorous ways with Burroughs reacting to the way that his public persona is looked at by the mainstream. Burroughs' sense of humor is a big part of what makes him such an interesting subject, actually, and a lot of that comes through in the footage that Brookner captures in this feature. As all of this plays out, we learn about his relationships with his family, about his interest in eastern mysticism and its ties to philosophy, about his love life, his friendships (Ginsberg being key here) and his obvious antisocial leanings. Yet throughout all of this, there's a very definite and seemingly intentional sense of loneliness. Burroughs we obviously well-known but seems content, at least on the surface, to stay squirreled away in his small Manhattan abode, hiding from much of the outside world and letting in only the parts that either interest him or are essential to human survival.
In terms of polish, the production is lacking and it's very clear that Brookner was figuring things out as he went along. The movie is edited with no regard to style or grace and things can and do jump around in odd ways, but then, when you figure the way that the film's subject handled much of his writing and led his life, this doesn't feel inappropriate at all.
Burroughs: The Movie hits Blu-ray in 1.33.1 in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and it looks about as good as it probably can under the circumstances given that this was shot over five years using different formats (VHS, 8mm and 16mm being the primary choices employed). As such, quality can and does shift from one sequence to the next but it's hard to imagine things looking a whole lot better than they do. Grain is constant and often times very heavy but the detail is there when it should be (clearly the VHS sourced scenes have a weaker showing in this department). Colors look okay in the color scenes, they don't really pop but they reflect the format used, while the black and white bits show decent enough contrast. The disc is well authored in that there are no problems with any compression artifacts while the transfer is free of any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement problems. This is a good transfer of some tricky source material.
English language audio is offered in LPCM Mono with optional subtitles available in English only. Again, this is a case of Criterion doing the best they can with what they have to work with and what we have seems to be a pretty accurate reflection of the elements available. Some of the audio was recorded on a portable cassette player, so keep your expectations in check. This is all pretty clear though, easily understandable and there's only minimal hiss here and there. Don't expect much range, most of this sounds fairly flat, but it works and it suits the roughshod nature of the production.
Extras kick off with a new audio commentary by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who handled the live sound recording on the film while it was in production. Jarmusch is an interesting subject in his own right so it is t the disc's benefit that he talks about his personal experiences working on the film with Brookner and his own interactions with Burroughs himself. This is well paced and full of some interesting information and, as you'd expect if you're at all familiar with Burroughs, some amusing and downright bizarre anecdotes. It serves as a pretty revealing document of what it was like working on this project and the unusual history behind it.
The disc also includes twenty-four minutes of excerpts from an audio interview with director Howard Brookner recorded in 1985 by conducted by William S. Burroughs biographer Ted Morgan. This too is an interesting piece that offers some welcome background information on how this movie came to exist, how Brookner became interesting in Burroughs and what his own relationship with the man was like. New to this release is Howard And Uncle Bill, a sixteen minute interview with filmmaker Aaron Brookner, the director's nephew, who worked on getting his uncle's film properly restored and back out into the public arena. He speaks here about his thoughts on the film and its importance and offers some details as to what went into making this release happen. Related to this is twenty-seven minutes of material shot when the restored version of the movie played at the 2014 New York Film Festival where Jim Jarmusch, Aaron Brookner, Tom DiCillo, and James Grauerholz (who was quite friendly with Burroughs before he passed away) held an interesting Q&A session with a fairly large audience in attendance.
Criterion have also assembled a collection of outtakes from Brookner's original footage. We get twenty minutes of material excised from the feature shot in New York, fourteen minutes of Burroughs on weapons, an eight minute section called the Nova Connection, fifteen minutes of assorted interviews and then eleven minutes on travel. If you enjoyed the feature, take the time to check these segments out as some of them are quite interesting.
Also worth checking out is twenty-four minute ‘experimental cut' of the movie that Brookner had put together in 1981 by his friend, an inventor and photographer named Robert E. Fulton III. This is obviously not as detailed or as in-depth as the feature version of the movie it does present an interesting and decidedly bizarre alternate version of the film for those who just can't get enough Burroughs. Menus and chapter selection round out the supplements on the disc itself, but inside the clear plastic Blu-ray case is an insert booklet that contains an essay on the film written by Luc Sante and a collage of related artwork by artist Alison Mosshart.
Criterion's Blu-ray release of Burroughs: The Movie does the best job that it can with the material but the fact that this movie has had a release at all will be reason enough for some to celebrate. The audio and video quality is just fine for what it is, while the extras do a great job of rounding out the feature itself. Burroughs fans should consider this essential but even those who don't obsess over the author should give this one a shot. It's an earnest and worthwhile portrait of a fascinating counter-culture icon. The film is at times quite funny, at other times more than a little tragic but like its subject, never less than fascinating. Highly recommended.