Judge Gordon Sullivan rarely goes to lunch naked.
"A tender, vibrant portrait of the Beat Generation icon."
William Seward Burroughs is a titan in the literary world. Scratch that—he's a titan in twentieth century popular culture. He emerged in that odd time (roughly 1959 with Naked Lunch), when it seemed that formerly marginal groups (poets chief among them) could really direct the zeitgeist. Because of this, Burroughs' effects have been felt not only in the work of other novelists, but he contributed significantly to musicians, filmmakers, and poets. What makes William S. Burroughs: A Man Within stand out from the crowd of Burroughsiana (including multiple biographies, scholarly books, reprints and anniversary editions, in addition to several documentary films) is the careful way it traces both Burroughs' life and influence with the help of numerous artists famous in their own right. With a strong combination of fresh faces to lure in those new to the world of Burroughs and enough archival extras to lure in the jaded Junkie fans, A Man Within succeeds as a fine biographic documentary.
William Seward Burroughs was born the scion of a well-to-do St. Louis family in 1914, the heir to a technological fortune (the Burroughs Adding Machine was developed by his grandfather). He was educated at Harvard, but the respectable facade hid a tendency toward homosexual liaisons and heavy drinking. He married Jean Vollmer and lived with her in Mexico, where he shot her in an apparent accident, killing her. This was his start as a writer, and would initially win some fame as a kind of godfather/mentor to the Beat Generation of writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He won international attention with Naked Lunch, which was the subject of the last major literary censorship trial in America, and book after book of obscene and experimental prose followed, including his famous "Nova" trilogy. By the late 1960s, Burroughs was completely ensconced as a king of cool for everyone from the literary establishment to the gutterpunks who would go on to influence the musical landscape of the 1970s. Before his death in 1997, Burroughs would amass a coterie of admirers that included some of the greatest names in twentieth century culture.
For my money, A Man Within is a slam-dunk documentary on an important cultural figure. The film mixes new interviews with Burroughs friends and admirers (which I'll return to shortly) alongside archival footage of the man himself, often using short films as interstitial transitions. The film hits the highlights of Burroughs' life, from the early rebellions to his retirement in Lawrence, Kansas. Along the way, we learn about the various biographic details, how Burroughs influenced the culture around him, and his own feelings about his fame and his writing.
The reason that A Man Within is such a triumph is that it's one of the few documentaries I've seen about a figure like Burroughs that can easily appeal to groups who are either totally ignorant of Burroughs or who have amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge about him. I hope that the participation of people like John Waters, Jello Biafra, Sonic Youth, Peter Weller, Iggy Pop, and Patti Smith gets their fans interested in the work of Burroughs. Their appreciation helps put Burroughs' life and work in a larger cultural context. Meanwhile, hearing from Burroughs stalwarts like James Grauerholz, John Giorno, and Laurie Anderson makes the documentary feel like old home week for fans of the author's work. For those tired of hearing the same Burroughs stories trotted out, the film includes enough diverse archival material to keep the attention of Burroughs fanatics. Whether it's an excerpt from an audio interview with Andy Warhol or home videos of Burroughs playing with guns, old fans will almost certainly find something new.
If I have one complaint about the movie, it's that it's a total love-fest. Sure, no one sugarcoats the fact that Burroughs shot his wife or abandoned his son, but everyone also seems reluctant to take him to task for that. In that sense the film isn't exactly a balanced portrait, but on the plus side it does allow the viewer to reach their own conclusions about Burroughs from his biographical details. The film might be so generally positive because Burroughs himself was his harshest critic, admitting on camera that he's unworthy of love.
On DVD, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is presented in a handsome package worthy of its namesake. The DVD itself is housed in a cardboard sleeve (containing essays by musicians Richard Hell and David Byrne), which is itself housed in a cardboard slipcase. Photos are reproduced on the cover and inner sleeve, and the whole thing feels well designed. The disc itself is solid as well. The transfer does a fine job with the material, much of it varied in quality. No serious authoring or compression problems mar the look, and despite the variety of the material it all looks appropriate together. The audio does a similarly fine job combining everything from vintage recordings to contemporary interviews into an easily audible stereo track.
The extras are where things shine for hardcore fans of Burroughs work. We start with three deleted scenes about Burroughs forays into painting, followed by 16 minutes of home movies that really just allow us to watch Burroughs be Burroughs in his home. We then get a short bit of footage of Burroughs' "shotgun" art (where the author would attach paint cans to improvised canvases and then shoot them with a shotgun to spray paint on said canvas). Fans of Naked Lunch get 15 minutes of footage from the recent fiftieth anniversary party held for the book, including readings by Peter Weller and others. Burroughs' multimedia experiments again come to the fore in "Rub out the Word," a music video featuring a Burroughs spoken word piece. Another spoken word piece is read by Patti Smith in "Psalm 23 Revisited" (which she wrote for Burroughs) and the extras round out with a 12-minute Q&A with the film's director.
A Man Inside is a film sure to please both diehard fans of William Burroughs' writing, while still offering a pretty solid overview for those unfamiliar with his work. The wealth of talent involved in the interview process along with the archival footage included in both the feature and the extras make this disc very easy to recommend to anyone looking to gain a deeper understanding of twentieth century culture.
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