Review: ‘William S. Burroughs: A Man Within’

Docu does real justice to the Beat writer, gun nut and literary icon.

For a guy who always looked cadaverous, William S. Burroughs has been overripe for the kind of substantive, stylistically simpatico docu treatment he gets from helmer Yony Leyser, whose “William S. Burroughs: A Man Within” does real justice to the Beat writer, gun nut and literary icon. Specialty/arthouse release would seem a real possibility, especially in urban centers, and more especially New York.

Burroughs, heir to an adding-machine business and a family that lost its money, was Harvard-educated and conservative in his attire, and became famous before any of his peers, says director John Waters, “for all the things you were supposed to hide: He was gay; he was a junkie; he shot his wife … ” Burroughs was indeed a scandalous personality, but his literary works — such as “The Naked Lunch,” “Queer” and “Junkie” — have become landmarks of American literature. And as the movie shows us, his influences ranged from beatniks to punks, from rockers to poets to performance artists, and to the language itself: “Heavy metal,” “Blade Runner,” “Soft Machine” and “Steely Dan” were all coined by Burroughs. “He was like another kind of Bible,” says old friend Patti Smith.

He was also an inhabitant of the American drug culture when there really wasn’t one, and really did shoot his wife: Drunk and doing a William Tell, he put a bullet through Joan Vollmer’s head in Mexico. Although Burroughs’ public persona was dour, his public voice a drone, and his hat and velvet collars in direct sartorial contradiction of the happy hippie-ish stylings of, say, his good friend Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs mourned. And he admitted that the shooting (for which he never served serious time) made him the writer he was.

Leyser is clearly a Burroughs acolyte, and he taps into the man’s sensibility: The abstract stop-motion animation by Aimee Goguen and Dillon Markey creates aptly crazy interludes between interviews and archival bits, which include avant-garde movies Burroughs made when was a relative youth (even if he never quite looked like one). There is a wealth of anecdotal material. Like his subject, Leyser strives to disengage from the conventional, while still being lucid. He succeeds admirably.

Animation and music are excellent in an otherwise fine production package.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within


A Yonilizer Prods. and BulletProof Film presentation. (International sales: Submarine, New York.) Produced by Yony Leyser. Co-producers, Carmine Cervi, Ilko Davidov. Directed, written by Yony Leyser.


Camera (color/B&W), Eric Burton; editor, Ilko Davidov; music, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore; sound, Andy Wenrich, Dustin Camilleri; animation, Aimee Goguen, Dillon Markey; associate producer, Scott Crary. Reviewed at Slamdance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 26, 2010. Running time: 90 MIN.


William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Regina Weinreich, Patti Smith, Amiri Baraka, John Waters, Peter Weller, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.
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