The king is dead, long live the court

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Casey Sanchez The New Mex­i­can

IWil­liam S. Bur­roughs: A Man Within, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, CCA Cine­math­eque, 1.5 chiles Wil­liam Bur­roughs is one of the odd­est lights of 20th-cen­tury letters. A wicked and fre­quently disgusting satirist, Bur­roughs’ ground­break­ing 1950s and 1960s nov­els mixed sci­ence fic­tion, gay pornog­ra­phy, hard-bit­ing po­lit­i­cal satire, and even harder drug use (and ad­dic­tion) into works that are still shock­ing a half­cen­tury later. Though he was of­ten iden­ti­fied as the “god­fa­ther” of the Beat gen­er­a­tion, the wealthy, mis­an­thropic, Har­vard­e­d­u­cated man was too strange and cold a beast to em­brace the hip­pie ethos of writ­ers like Allen Gins­berg.

As filmmaker John Wa­ters says in A Man Within, “He was the first per­son to be fa­mous for things you shouldn’t be fa­mous for. He shot his wife; he talked about us­ing heroin; he wrote about gay sex in the 1950s.”

Wa­ter’s quote is tan­ta­liz­ing, but this ramshackle film is ul­ti­mately only concerned with Bur­roughs’ renown among the sub­cul­ture and not the dif­fi­cult, hal­lu­ci­na­tory writ­ing which gave him the fame in the first place. His pro­lific out­put of 16 nov­els seems elided over for a nearly 90-minute piece of ha­giog­ra­phy built on Bur­roughs’ friends and ac­quain­tances and his ne­far­i­ous rep­u­ta­tion as the “pope of dope.”

In one scene, nar­ra­tor Peter Weller joy­ously re­counts how Bur­roughs shot up heroin with an as­sort­ment of HIV-pos­i­tive ac­quain­tances, avoid­ing ex­po­sure to the dis­ease by tak­ing the

nee­dle first — a sup­posed perk of his celebrity se­nior­ity. This sort of punk sneer­ing and pride taken in de­scrib­ing reck­less dan­ger in the most blasé man­ner pos­si­ble seems to per­vade both the nar­ra­tion and edit­ing of this film.

Weller’s voice-overs are merely am­pli­fied by the un­end­ing se­ries of talk­ing-head in­ter­views with other punks, in­die writ­ers, and al­ter­na­tive-artist fans of Bur­roughs. Poet Amiri Baraka, per­for­mance artist Lau­rie An­der­son, and rock­ers Thurston Moore and Iggy Pop all make cameos, drool­ing over their icon. com­posed — us­ing his sig­na­ture “cut-up” tech­nique, in which a straight­for­ward nar­ra­tive is scram­bled by hav­ing its sen­tences sliced and rein­serted through­out the text.

Es­say­ist Mary McCarthy thought it was one of the strong­est works to emerge out of late 1950s, writ­ing, “The best com­par­i­son for the book, with its aerial sex acts per­formed on a high trapeze, its con men and bark­ers, its are­nalike form, is in fact with a cir­cus. A cir­cus trav­els but it is al­ways the same, and this is Bur­roughs’ sar­donic im­age of mod­ern life.”

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