LFF review – William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

October 29, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Festivals with 0 Comments

Another belated review of a film from the London Film Fest…

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
(Yony Leyser, US, 2010)

Burroughs wrote as his name implied: digging deep into his subconscious. Leyser doesn’t take the hint; his flawed doc sticks to the salacious surface of the author’s life

How does a film documentary do justice to a writer – even one with as unorthodox a life as William S. Burroughs? Like the recent study of Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo, Yony Leyser’s effort struggles to rise above hagiographic preaching to the converted – but at least it will have you reaching for the books.

Burroughs’ was certainly an eventful life: the Harvard kid who was given opium by his nanny; the homosexual who shot his wife in a bizarre ‘William Tell’ routine; the intuitive genius who penned Naked Lunch in an outpouring of grief and addiction; the Beat Generation co-founder who loathed the label; and finally the counter-cultural touchstone who inspired countless rock and rollers.

Plenty of ground to cover, then, and there’s an impressive roll call of witnesses to call upon: friends, collaborators, ex-boyfriends and disciples. John Waters is hysterical value pontificating on Burrough’s perceived immorality (“a writer could talk about how great it is to kill people, it’d still be a good book”), while the author’s on-screen alter-ego Peter Weller goes off on one about the difference between standard drug consumption and Burroughs’ full-on mission to become a “walking pharmacologist.”

As in Gonzo, though, there’s the nagging feeling that a conventional talking heads format isn’t the best way of capturing Burroughs’ stream-of-consciousness, so the structure wanders haphazardly in apparent emulation of the author’s fabled cut-up writing method. Then again, it might simply be bad editing, because Leyser lets slip of the biggest issue: why we should care about Burroughs. Despite the Man Within subheading, there’s little cogent analysis of the writing itself, leaving a hole at the centre of a movie that dallies in the more tabloid-friendly fringes of Burroughs’ life. Leyser is content to muse on guns and gay identity – and, occasionally, both simultaneously, as one lover recounts banging his head on the pistols Burroughs kept in bed.

But little is dwelt on at any length, and certainly there are few of the uproarious anecdotes that defined Gonzo – Burroughs, for all his celebrity, was intensely private and a much tricker mindset to capture than the extrovert Thompson. By the end of his life, Burroughs was such a totemic figure that getting photographed with him was a rite of passage for aspiring rebels, but the man himself was a rebel even to rebel sub-cultures; his expression across every shot is of a faintly uncomprehending disgruntlement about being forced to pose in such a demeaning way. The film never attempts to grapple with what was going on behind those eyes, Leyser presumably content to let the books do the talking.

Is Burroughs unfilmable? That’s what they said when Cronenberg tackled Naked Lunch, and certainly the infrequent attempts at using animation to fill in the blanks here fall flat. That said, there’s enough groundwork here could make for a lively biopic, should anybody want to take a punt (with James Cromwell surely a shoo-in to play Burroughs in later years?). Just remember: Burroughs wasn’t just the gun-shooting, drug-taking godfather of rock. He was a writer.

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