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William Burroughs: A Man Within (2010)
Directed by:  Yony Leyser
Distributed by:  www.williamsburroughsthemovie.com
Run time:  87 minutes
Country:  USA

Review by: Wik Wikholm
Reviewed on: June 01, 2011

Nothing in the documentary film William S. Burroughs: A Man Within would lead anyone to imagine that Burroughs (1914-1997) was a nice or even likeable man. Instead, the film depicts a self-described outsider who accidentally shot his wife to death in 1951 when both were drunk; abandoned his children after his wife’s death; surrounded himself with people who adored and even loved him, but to whom he never became close; was an openly homosexual man who preferred sex with hustlers to avoid the pain he saw as the inevitable outcome of genuine intimacy; and never overcame the heroin addiction that inspired several of his novels including Junky (1953) and, most famously, Naked Lunch (1959), a book that glamorizes drug use even as it reviles the control drugs exert on an addict’s life.

The film provides only the necessary rudiments of Burroughs’ biography, including his introduction to opiates by a nanny his wealthy parents employed. It is primarily devoted to Burroughs as a leading Beat writer who, along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, helped construct the Beat Generation, was an important gay icon, inspired the counterculture of the 1960s, and was the muse and godfather of Punk Rock. The film includes revealing contemporary interviews as well as archival film of Burroughs, Ginsberg, John Waters, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Gus Van Sant, Andy Warhol, and two Burroughs biographers who amply support the film’s contention that Burroughs had an enormous cultural impact that lasted from the 1950s into the 1990s. The film also includes interviews with several people it labels "companions," though it is hard to tell whether filmmaker Yony Leyser uses the term to mean lover, starfucker, or something else.

Even though the film demonstrates that Burroughs influenced almost every late twentieth-century countercultural movement, he refused to be labeled "beat," "gay," "hippie," or "punk" so he would not be subjugated to the rules or expectations the labels impose. As glbtq.com contributor Scott McLemee notes, Burroughs "anticipated such post-structuralist thinkers as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida" in his pursuit of pleasure and unlimited freedom and his bitter cynicism about and opposition to any social structure, relationship, or label that would constrain that pursuit.

The film, narrated by actor Peter Weller, uses visual art, graphic design, video interviews, a soundtrack by Patti Smith and Sonic Youth, and films of readings by Burroughs in a deliberately unsettling way that may seem haphazard at first, but, when finally understood, reveals a nod to the aesthetics of the Beat Generation. It is an excellent introduction to Burroughs as a personality, writer, and artist and effectively portrays his impact on the people around him and his significance in American cultural history.

Where to Find this Video

A consumer edition of the DVD is available from video retailers and the video is distributed on Netflix' streaming service. For educational or public exhibition licensing, contact the filmmaker at williamsburroughsthemovie.com.
 
Related Encyclopedia Entries
Beat Generation
Burroughs, William S.
Documentary Film
Ginsberg, Allen
Kerouac, Jack
Van Sant, Gus
Warhol, Andy (as artist)
Waters, John
About Wik Wikholm
Wik Wikholm is the publisher of glbtq.com. He is always on the lookout for engaging, informative documentaries about all aspects of glbtq life and culture. You can reach him here.

 

 

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