The king is dead, long live the court
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.”