William S. Burroughs is reframed in Yony Leyser’s new documentary.

Burroughs’ Story Still Stranger than Fiction

Dennis Harvey March 11, 2011

At times William S. Burroughs seemed less the author of fiction than a creation of it.  A man who looked as well as sounded like a Nebraska Presbyterian minister issuing poetic profanities with a cracked-wheat Midwestern drone: Was it a complacent post-WWII’s public's worst nightmare? One so memorable it had to somehow assume flesh and live to the ripe age of 83? If a novelist had invented the self-identified “queer” and decades-long junkie who accidentally killed his wife and was the hero of various avant-gardes from the Beats to the punks, we might accuse him or her of overreaching.

It's a legendary persona that comes with a checklist of career highlights—hanging with pre-fame Kerouac and Ginsberg in the 1940s, inventing the “cut-up” literary technique with Bryon Gysin, Naked Lunch's legal battles against censorship, etc. They constitute a familiar story many of us don't necessarily need to hear again. Or see again—and if you've been a Roxie habitué for a decade or three, you have probably already seen enough movies about the Beat Generation and its luminaries to last a lifetime.

Of course, that yawn you might stifle at facing yet another dig into over-tilled thematic soil can always be eradicated by a genuinely fresh take. Which brings us to 25-year-old curator, photographer and video artist Yony Leyser's new documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, which opens at (yup) the Roxie this Friday. This fascinating, impressionistic exercise naturally touches on its subject's obvious timeline focal points. But as the title hints, it's primarily a Rorschach of the man behind the biographical outline. Structurally wayward, this 98-minute appreciation nonetheless brings a great deal of insight, from the late Burroughs himself (in archival footage) as well as a starry range of interviewees.

The latter are primarily close friends and associates, including a few San Francisco personalities (RE/Search's V. Vale, poet Diane di Prima); fellow writers Amiri Baraka, Anne Waldman and John Giorno; musical collaborators like Laurie Anderson, Jello Biafra, Genesis P-Orridge and Patti Smith (who admits she had a "huge crush" on Burroughs); a couple biographers, and at least one ex-boyfriend. Then there are his gun handler, his gun dealer and his "snake master"—the man was obsessed with weaponry of all kinds, keeping poisonous serpents and seldom being without a loaded weapon on his person, even while asleep.

Filmmaker John Waters proves a particularly insightful (and frequently hilarious) commentator, noting that in the button-down 1950s Burroughs managed to be "famous for all the things you're supposed to hide"—being gay, a drug user and guilty of manslaughter for starters. While important for gay history and rights struggles, he never identified with that (or any) "movement," instead setting a prototype for what Waters terms "gay rebels that couldn't fit into gay culture."

His attraction to much younger men, often hustlers, is described by the man himself as springing from his upper-class upbringing in the early 20th-century American Midwest. Then, when homosexuality existed at all, it was something practiced in secret with people safely well outside one's own social class.

There are clips from a couple shockingly personal conversations Burroughs had on film with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol, in which he squirms through questions asked about his experiences with sex and intimacy—topics he could be brutally frank about in print, but which clearly still struck a chord of shamed discomfort in person. A surviving ex-b.f. says he found it much easier to show love toward his half-dozen cats than anyone he shared bed with. As a teen he'd been sent to a boarding school where his involvement with another boy had forced his scandalized withdrawal—no doubt a deeply scarring life chapter.

So was the death of his wife Joan Vollmer in 1951 during a drunken game of "William Tell"—he'd aimed for the gin glass on her head and missed. This occurred in Mexico, and he left the country without serving any prison time. Nonetheless, he was convinced this instance of "possession" by "the Ugly Spirit...maneuvered me into a life-long struggle, in which I have no choice but to write my way out." It also doubtless reinforced a cautious distance from emotions that he once defined by saying, "Neither in life or writing can I achieve complete sincerity." His wit, irony and shock value were like calluses on an embattled soul. His literary agent Ira Silverberg says, "There was a very lonely man under that three-piece suit."

A Man Within free-ranges from discussion of its subject's fascination with altered consciousness to pondering his status as "the godfather of punk," sometimes recording projects with the likes of Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth. Director Leyser helps tie together his loose bundle of biographical and analytic errata with brief animated sequences. The results may be a tad messy in classic narrative-arc editorial terms, but they're never less than absorbing, and perhaps suit the complex, confounding Burroughs better than a more conventional approach could.

A Roxie Q&A with director Yony Leyser on Tuesday, March 15 will also include Marcus Ewert (Burroughs' last boyfriend) and V. Vale (publisher of RE/Search).

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