Judge Gordon Sullivan's Words of Advice: If it's brown, flush it down.
"A compelling portrait of one of our most enigmatic public figures."
If it were necessary to preserve one artist for posterity to stand in and for the 20th century, William S. Burroughs would be near the top of my list of choices. First, because he was experimental. He worked in numerous genres and wasn't afraid to bring new techniques to his novels. Second, because he was a multimedia artist. He's most famous for Naked Lunch, but Burroughs was invovled in the making of films, spoken word albums, musical collaborations, and visual arts like painting. Although he never pushed any of these experiments as far as he pushed the novel, his eclecticism seems appropriate to the 20th century. Third, he's just plain influential. From musicians to directors to other writers, so many people have been touched by Burroughs work. He was an elder brother to the Beats (and therefore is at least partly to blame for the subsequent free-love movement, although he has little direct connection) and a godfather to many punks before influencing the sonic avant-garde in the '80s and '90s. Finally, he's international. His travels in America, Europe, and Morocco have obviously influenced his work, making him a truly international artist even as his work seems to so often address an American situation. It's unsurprising then, that Burroughs has been the subject of documentaries, and thanks to Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs On the Road, audiences can see what the great author was like in performance.
Burroughs career had an odd trajectory. He made something of a splash when Naked Lunch was first released in 1959, but he was largely absent from the cultural scene from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. After stint in London he returned to New York City in the mid-70s, and put himself among the cultural intelligentsia like Andy Warhol. Through that association and a string of speaking tours he raised his profile considerably. When he returned (and embarked on these tours) he was no longer the young, experimental writer, but had morphed into a strangely paternal cultural critic, and his satirical streak was as wide as ever. In 1983, one of Burroughs' speaking tours brought him to Copenhagen, and much of his visit was filmed. This footage languished for 20 years, until filmmakers Lars Movin and Steen Moller Rasussen discovered it. The footage wasn't enough to warrant its own release, so the pair decided to combine scenes from Burroughs tour with reminisces by friends, colleagues, and scholars to present a picture of Bill Burroughs.
Words of Advice is a very rare thing in documentary: a film that will appeal equally to the uninitiated and the long-time fan. Whereas most documentaries either present a superficial overview of the subject suitable for newcomers or dive directly into esoterica, Words of Advice balances the never-before-seen footage (sure to appeal most to longtime fans) and more general interviews (that provide a nice intro for new viewers).
The 1983 Copenhagen footage is simply a treasure. Watching Burroughs read (even at the age of 69) is a treat, as he's obviously enamored of his material, and he animates it as only he can. As biographer Barry Miles has pointed out, "Many people have said they didn't really understand Burroughs until they heard that voice the voice of a banker saying all those outrageous things." He's right; there's something in the cadence of Burroughs' speech, his dry, clipped voice and the way he draws certain syllables out that makes his most prosaic passages outrageous and his most outrageous seem prosaic. The ardent fan might wish he read from more diverse material, as this reading focused on the then-new Red Night or Last Trilogy, but that's just nit picking. The footage isn't solely confined to Burroughs' reading, however. We also see footage of one of his in-store appearances. He seems much more relaxed and natural with his eager fans than I would have expected. There's also a few snippets from an interview he did for a local television show.
These moments with Burroughs are intercut with interview footage from numerous sources. They include several scholars (including Ann Douglas from Columbia University), friends/colleagues like manager/editor James Grauerholz and poet John Giorno, and assorted individuals like the man who owns the bookstore that Burroughs appeared in during the 1983 tour. There's no unified attempt to tell Burroughs' story or present a standard biographical portrait. Instead, the scholars tend to discuss why Burroughs is important and how he fits into contemporary culture, the friends and colleagues reminisce about the man and his habits, while the miscelanous group provides insights into Burroughs appearance in Copenhagen.
The DVD looks as good as it can considering the source. The original 1983 footage seems to be in remarkably good shape, and the contemporary footage seems to have been shot with digital video. So, there's a bit of noise, and colors accuracy isn't much to write home about, but none of these problems detracts from the program. The audio is a simple stereo mix that keeps the talking audible. Subtitles would still have been nice, but I never had serious trouble understanding anyone. Interestingly, this disc is a flipper. One side is formatted for the NTSC standard, and the other is PAL. The PAL side includes Danish subtitles. Extras start out with the inclusion of the "almost complete" footage of Burroughs reading in Copenhagen on October 29th, 1983. There's also a few more extended remarks from Ann Douglas and a pair of short tribute films.
Words of Advice is a remarkable document that clearly shows William S. Burroughs in his prime, while also giving a glimpse into why he's so important to our culture. Fans of the author are going to want to own this fantastic release, if only for the 30 minutes of Burroughs reading available as an extra.
Words of Advice is free from any guilt.
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