Brian Jacobson
MFF’10 Preview

Williams S. Burroughs – A Man Within

By - Sep 29th, 2010 04:00 am

In a way, reading William S. Burrough’s words is better than listening to his croaking voice read the lines aloud — which happens often in Yony Leyser’s 87-minute portrait of one of the most seminal American ex-patriated writers in our history.

The highly independent production of William S. Burroughs: A Man Within was finished in 2009 and has enjoyed occasional screenings at festivals like Slamdance. It traces the man’s life and touches occasionally on his work and when it was going in certain directions, but keep in mind that it’s no historical document or primer.

David Woodard and Burroughs standing in front of a dreamachine invented by Brion Gysin. Photo by Riefenstahl via Wikimedia Commons.

The documentary doesn’t have a definitive direction like a Ken Burns historical documentary, intriguing monologues from key players ala Errol Morris, the storytelling nuance of Andrew Jarecki, or the road traveler wisdom of Werner Herzog.

However, there is the archival footage of Burroughs and reactionary interviews from friends, lovers, and artists of note like John Waters. It does document a personal life history you may not be aware of.

The best sections are the ones that seem like outtakes from joint interviews with Allen Ginsberg, with whom the bisexual Burroughs was very close. It’s this aspect of the writer’s life that is often glossed over (historians like to go right to the fatal drunken ‘William Tell’ game in Mexico) in print, and that should face the greatest re-examination of his work.

There also needed to be a lot more delving into his family’s rich background, early travels with Jack Kerouac and later meeting Brion Gysin, and the fate of his son William S. Burroughs, Jr. And given the nature of the subject, the film could have been more experimental —  most of the experimental footage and readings that do exist here are collected from previous filmmakers’ attempts at art film in the late 1950s and again in the late 1980s as the country rediscovered the enigmatic yet doleful old man.

For literary enthusiasts, and those that went to see the Howl special screening, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within may be a nice footnote. For everyone else, it may lack the dynamic pacing or depth that we have come to expect from the modern documentary movement.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within plays tonight, Sept. 29, 9:30 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre and again on Oct. 1, 5:30 p.m. at the Marcus North Shore Cinema. For tickets and info, click here.

Categories: Movies

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