William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
The many men within Burroughs
"Every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his advantage.’’ William S. Burroughs said that, and he should know. Beat novelist and poet, junkie, expatriate, homosexual, lousy shot, punk-rock godhead, scenester, weird old man, and more, the subject of Yony Leyser’s very capable documentary “William S. Burroughs: A Man Within’’ carried multitudes inside him, despite the film’s title. All of them were alienated at least and alien at most. “He was not easy to like,’’ says someone here about Burroughs, but, oddly, he was easy to love. The movie explores that contradiction but doesn’t come out the other side.
Mostly, “A Man Within’’ is a breezily stylized, very enjoyable trot through the writer’s life, theme by theme, era by era. Because there’s a wealth of archival footage, Burroughs’s complicated friendship with Allen Ginsberg pops up a lot; the two were interviewed together so often over the years that they start to look like co-anchors of a mythical “Bill and Al Show.’’ I’d watch it.
The talking heads here are choice: art-rockers like Laurie Anderson, punk icons like Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and Sonic Youth, filmmakers John Waters and Gus Van Sant, poets Amiri Baraka and John Giorno, ex-lovers and executors — the list goes on, all the way down to Burroughs’s gun handler (we learn the writer’s weapon of choice was a .38 Smith & Wesson snubbie) and a snake master (he had a thing for toxins).
They all circle around his talent, his legacy, and his darkness. Of course one chapter of “A Man Within’’ has to deal with Joan Vollmer, the wife Burroughs shot and killed in a drunken 1951 Mexico City game of William Tell. The act sent him into self-willed exile and, he noted with mortification, made him a writer. A section on his son, the sad and short-lived William Burroughs Jr., feels cursory and embarrassed.
At least it’s there. What Leyser doesn’t give us much of is Burroughs’s authorial voice. A montage early on in which the writer reads a caustic “Thanksgiving prayer’’ (“Thanks for the American dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through. . .’’) gives a hint of how unforgivingly fierce Burroughs could be, but there’s nothing heard from his most famous novel, 1959’s “Naked Lunch’’ (“when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork’’), and while Burroughs’s cut-up technique is discussed, we don’t hear it in action, despite such novels as “The Soft Machine’’ being written using the process.
The Soft Machine was also the name of a 1960s rock band; the members of Steely Dan took their moniker from “Naked Lunch’’ (it’s the name of a, uh, sexual apparatus); Smith is on board to confess “I always had a crush on William.’’ Why did Burroughs become a devilish saint to a generation of musicians? Because he survived, for one thing, but also because the extremes of human experience and perception he wrote about were valued by the punks as they tried to punch their way out of the culture.
But, yes, in the process they glamorized his heroin addiction, his love of firearms and very young men. “The Man Within’’ confronts the romanticization of William S. Burroughs even as it romanticizes him, admittedly hard not to do given the author’s status as a CBGB-era rock star/genius/living fossil. But it’s more than Burroughs himself did. The author refused to be considered the godfather of punk or gay liberation, once declaring “I’m sure as hell not part of any movement.’’ That lifelong insistence on alienation — his and ours — was Burroughs’s greatest gift as a writer, and this film doesn’t fly quite close enough to get burned by it.