Director Howard Brookner’s Burroughs: The Movie opens with a 1981 appearance by William S. Burroughs on Saturday Night Live, “his first television appearance ever,” according to host Lauren Hutton. As the lights fade up, a tall, lanky Burroughs emerges from darkness, sits at a green metal desk, and looks directly into the camera with his piercing blue eyes before reading a passage from his 1964 novel Nova Express. The clip, without explicitly articulating its intent, establishes the two threads that comprise Brookner’s masterful documentary: the author’s elusive work/intelligence and his unusually dexterous physicality.
The film adopts a somewhat conventional approach in exploring these arenas by having interviews with Burroughs’s close friends and colleagues interspersed throughout, but Brookner defies relegating Burroughs to merely a curious or bizarro figure by consistently intercutting scenes of the author walking, sitting, or reading aloud in various locations, whether in new footage, archival clips, or photographs. In an early moment, as Burroughs explains that he was born in St. Louis in 1914 and “wrote descriptions of corn dances in New Mexico” as a young boy, Brookner zooms in on a photograph of young Burroughs, placing his eyes in close-up. Moments later, Burroughs recounts time spent in Tangiers, where he thought “smoking hashish and snorting cocaine” to be a very glamorous life. By focusing on and including passages that focus on Burroughs’s eyes, mouth, and nose, Brookner immediately suggests he’s interested in constructing a documentary that lingers within Burroughs’s writings and wants to understand the works’ sensory registers, with their obsessive descriptions of bodily malformation and abuse.
Brookner stitches together disparate moments in time without providing any consistent demarcation of place or duration, using clips of Burroughs reading at various locations throughout the United States as the connective tissue between more candid conversations involving the author and his contemporaries. There is, however, an early segment in St. Louis, when Burroughs visits his childhood home and surrounding areas, that conforms to a more linear evocation of the author’s recollections regarding his past, but Brookner never lingers long enough within any singular scene or space to settle the film’s overall unease at even being in Burroughs’s presence. As Allen Ginsberg says, “Kerouac said that Burroughs was the most intelligent man in America and I’ve probably repeated that a million times,” a hyperbolic sentiment that could veer the film toward hagiography were Brookner not using the postulation as a means to reveal the chain-link friendships cultivated by the Beats, where friends and lovers were often indiscernible.
When Ginsberg talks about how he and Burroughs fell in love and slept together, Brookner intercuts Ginsberg’s description of Burroughs as “isolated and alone” with vintage photographs of the tall, handsome author standing on a balcony and smoking a cigarette as he looks off into the distance. In a lesser doc, the combination of anecdote and picture would be meant as an encapsulation of a point in time, but Brookner makes no such reduction by avoiding any over-aestheticizing tactic, like the inclusion of music or rapid editing, thus allowing the relationship a dignity that necessitates no further dramatization.
Other segments stand out as more particularly berserk, including a recreation of a scene from Naked Lunch with Burroughs playing the crazed Dr. Benway and Warhol regular Jackie Curtis playing a nurse who bears the brunt of a blood-spurting operation gone awry. But the best, and perhaps most essential, scene comes via a visit to “the place of dead roads,” the title taken from Burroughs’s 1983 novel about a homosexual gunfighter in the American West. Burroughs reads a passage from it comparing city and country life in voiceover while shots are inserted of him driving through a tunnel and standing in front of a mountainous vista. The cumulative effect condenses the Burroughs persona into an image of indefatigable will, an almost immortal figure not for his altruism or good deeds, but the sheer singularity of his vision, both literal and figurative. Burroughs: The Movie tries to understand how Burroughs sees the world, but ultimately reroutes those interests away from investigative revelation and back inward, toward the lively abyss that is Burroughs’s oeuvre.
The Criterion Collection makes solid use of this new high-definition transfer, which boasts commendable image clarity and limited defect considering the film’s status as a long-lost artifact, though the digital restoration lacks the depth of field or sharpness of the studio’s recent 2K and 4K releases. In fact, as a whole, the image and monaural sound are more in line with DVD releases of Criterion’s past—wholly serviceable, but by no means perfect. Nevertheless, while there are a few scratches and defects scattered throughout, there’s little to quibble about given the home-video debut of this doc which, according to Criterion, "was for decades mainly the stuff of legend."
Usually, a great lot of supplements helps to flesh out the film’s production, provides contemporary recollections from cast and crew, and includes a critical examination of the film’s relevance, both past and present. In exceptional cases, the extras rival or even eclipse the feature at hand, which is the case with Criterion’s remarkable assortment of archival and recent materials on William S. Burroughs’s legacy. The most notable here is nearly 70 minutes of outtakes from the film, which includes a scene of Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Lucien Carr sitting around a kitchen table and talking about a half-dozen topics, including "the eloquence of Shakespeare." For any scholar or fan of Burroughs, these clips are indispensible.
Furthermore, Jim Jarmusch provides an informative audio commentary, discussing his memories of working on the film as a sound recordist. He recalls his friendship with director Howard Brookner and being contemporaries at NYU in the late ’70s, as well as other notable filmmakers he met during production, including Tom DiCillo. Though the recollections are fascinating, the commentary’s strongest bits simply involve Jarmusch watching and laughing at certain parts of the film, as when Burroughs plays Dr. Benway in a performance of a scene from Naked Lunch, saying, "I just love this scene...[Burroughs] is a real ham underneath that cold exterior." In a 1985 audio interview with Howard Brookner, the director discusses, among many things, the film’s release and his ongoing interest in shooting Burroughs. Brookner’s nephew, Aaron, gives a new interview recalling his uncle’s interest in making a film about Burroughs and the "punk-rock attitude" the documentary’s production took on.
A half-hour Q&A conducted by Dennis Lim at the 2014 New York Film Festival brings many familiar faces on stage, including Jarmusch and DiCillo, where the discussions primarily divulge further recollections of the "crazy shit" all of them observed while filming. Finally, there’s an experimental edit of the film from 1981 by photographer Robert E. Fulton III and an essay by critic Luc Sante that says Burroughs "will always seems to come from the future as much as he hails from several overlapping pasts."
Once lost but now found, Burroughs: The Movie receives a sterling Blu-ray fix from the Criterion Collection.