Dec 1 2010

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

Ambitious, but unfocused. 2.5 out of 4 stars.

How does one even begin to describe the living conundrum that was William S. Burroughs?   Writer, artist, cat lover, homosexual, junkie, gun enthusiast, godfather of punk rock, yet he never really fit into those molds either.  William S. Buroughs: A Man Within attempts to answer these questions, and although it offers an insight into who Burroughs was, it focuses too much time on the legend and less on the man himself.

When it comes to biographical documentaries, or even biopics, for that matter, films will often pay attention to the legacy of their subjects rather than the subjects themselves.  Although the legacy is important to capture within films like these, it should also remain implicit within the film.  The legend of the man or woman in question is something most people probably know already, especially those attending the film.  Thus, these films tend to tell us what we know (what he/she was), but not what we would like to discover (who was this icon?).          

Documentarian Yony Leyser is, no doubt, a huge admirer of Burroughs, and for better and for worse, it shows.  A Man Within covers virtually every facet of Burroughs’ long and fascinating life, and explores just how much influence this man had over everything: poetry, prose, art, music, film, culture, society, life.  Yet by documenting his effect on all these things, the film barely scratches the surface of Burroughs, who is far more interesting than anything he ever influenced.

Which isn’t to say we learn nothing of Burroughs.  Those who have only read Naked Lunch will be entertained by the insight into his personal life, and how they affected his work.  One of the most interesting things about Burroughs was his love-hate relationship with his own drug use; it isn’t news to discover that Burroughs was a heavy drug user, but we also learn that Burroughs had no illusions about the nature of what he was putting into his body: junk.

Burroughs’ homosexuality is of particular interest in the film and is closely interwoven into everything about Burroughs.  Raised in a Midwestern Middle class environment in the earlier part of the Twentieth Century, Burroughs’ somewhat begrudging acceptance of his sexuality highlights his sense of ambivalence towards everything else around him.  This chapter of the film also highlights Burroughs’ aloof attitude towards his surroundings; an odd quality for a man who appeared at the center (or maybe just off-center) of so many cultural movements during his lifetime.

There are a slew of individuals interviewed for the film; some of them offer an insight to Burroughs, others provide very little beyond merely appealing to his legend.  Film director John Waters, of all people, is by far the most engaging interviewee in the film, and goes into great detail in describing Burroughs and his impact on society.  Actor Peter Weller (who portrayed Burroughs alter-ego in the film Naked Lunch) and Burroughs’ ex-boyfriend Marcus Ewert each have a few anecdotes about their time with Burroughs, and in doing so, offer a rare glimpse of Burroughs as a human being.

There are several interviewees, on the other hand, that the film could have done without, and appear to have been thrown in for the sake of showing off how eclectic Burroughs’ interests and social circles were (was the interview with a snake-wrangling acquaintance of Burroughs really necessary to the film?).  There are also several punk rock musicians who are featured in the film, and provide two of the films’ greatest weaknesses.  Although Burroughs served as some kind of guiding force for the punk movement, the documentary forgets that Burroughs is its subject, not punk rock.  The second, and maybe the more infuriating of the two, is how most of the musicians’ interviewed are a little too self-involved, and spend more time telling stories about themselves with Burroughs in them, instead of the other way around.  Patti Smith is the chief offender in this respect, who at one point, credits herself as giving Burroughs peace of mind concerning a dark period of his life via one of her spoken word performances.

However, in trying to fit in everything about Burroughs’ life into one movie, they rush through some of its pivotal moments, including how he accidentally killed his second wife in a William Tell-gone-wrong scenario, and the writing of Naked Lunch.  There are also a few videos of Burroughs with fellow Beat poet Allen Ginsberg that are fascinating; we could have seen two old Beats wax spontaneous poetic.  Unfortunately, Leyser tends to let others speak for Burroughs instead.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is an ambitious documentary which tries its hardest to cover everything about a very complicated man.  In a way, the film succeeds; they do manage to run through the life of Burroughs.  The problem is, why would anyone want to run through the life and ideas of a man as fascinating as William S. Burroughs; cliff note coverage seldom does anything or anyone justice.  If the film had focused its gaze on a particular time in Burroughs’ life or studied a common theme in his work, we might have actually gotten to see the man within the myth.

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