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William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
That William S. Burroughs was one of the twentieth century's most influential writers is not in much doubt. His nature - strictly as a man - is a trickier question, and is the one that Yony Leyser attempts to tackle in his ambitious yet focused documentary film.
Resisting strict chronology, Leyser breaks up the film thematically, examining several facets of Burroughs' life in context. This approach has certain advantages, particularly the fact that it affords the viewers an opportunity to see how different sides of Burroughs that might seem to conflict actually mesh in unexpected ways (i.e., his "gentlemanly" appearance and his love of guns). On the other hand, it deprives us of the kind of simple but useful context allowed by chronological presentation; people grow over time, and sometimes it's hard to see how Burroughs changes.
Leyser looks at Burroughs first and foremost as a homosexual. He does this in spite of Burroughs' own resistance of labels and easy categorization. But Burroughs' homosexuality was a fact, and Leyser does his best to investigate what this meant to a man who was notoriously difficult when it came to his emotional life. The voices of some of his companions help fill out a portrait of a quietly loving man who kept his feelings largely to himself, but whose actions could bear deep affection.
Burroughs the writer is also here. Leyser examines Burroughs' ideas, although not in as much detail as I would have preferred. This is the side of Burroughs I am most interested in. Burroughs' cut-up technique is described, although it's a well-known story among his fans. His struggles with censorship - particularly in the case of "Naked Lunch" - are also recounted. More emphasis on process and practice would have been enlightening.
But Leyser is more interested in Burroughs' private life, and there are plentiful excerpts from home movies and private video footage, along with anecdotes from Patti Smith, John Waters, Peter Weller, Thurston Moore, Jello Biafra, and many others. Of particular interest are archival interviews and home footage of Burroughs with Allen Ginsburg.
On balance, Leyser has selected a difficult subject, and does a fine job of outlining the man's difficult-to-access inner life. While discussion of Burroughs the writer is limited, Leyser's film is a sensitive exploration of a layered life.
Image and Sound
Oscilloscope Laboratories presents the feature in an enhanced transfer that looks good but not great. The image is solid as far as compression goes, but it's somewhat weak in terms of color and contrast. This is perplexing given the movie's newness. The stereo soundtrack is good, with music often a powerful presence. Where archival footage is in need of subtitling, it has been provided.
There are a handful of interesting bonus features. First off are a group of three short Deleted Scenes. Home Movies feature latter-day Burroughs at home with friends, hooting, hollering, and drinking. Shotgun Art consists of home footage of Burroughs demonstrating his own peculiar method of painting. Sonic Youth Visit documents the band's 1995 visit to Burroughs' Lawrence, KS, home. Naked Lunch 50th Anniversary compiles footage from an event that seemed to be as much about the David Cronenberg movie as Burroughs' book. There's also a nice Q&A with Director Yony Leyser from the 2010 BFI Film Festival.
Despite its focus on his inner life as opposed to his work, fans of William S. Burroughs will eat up this thoughtful, searching documentary. Recommended.