Released in 1983, Howard Brookner’s documentary about William S. Burroughs was an expanded version of the director’s 1978 senior thesis project at NYU. Burroughs gave Brookner his complete cooperation during the making of the film, and the result is a unique cinematic artifact, a wholly transparent visual biography of a literary giant. It might come as a surprise that a writer of Burroughs’s stature would offer such unlimited access to a student filmmaker, given Burroughs’s legendary status now as the patron saint of the Beats. But the film reminds us that in the early 1980s, his rediscovery in America was just underway, and it bears witness to this quiet renaissance. Brookner’s inexperience is evident in the film’s uncertain pacing and stilted editing, but his youthful enthusiasm for his subject and willingness to play with the documentary form, a mirror of the writer’s own experimental style, mostly compensate for these shortcomings.
St. Louis produced two of America’s strangest and most compelling literary figures. Like T.S. Eliot, Burroughs cultivated a ghoulish public persona and disowned his Midwestern roots to become a queer, cosmopolitan aesthete. In the film, Burroughs visits his hometown and smiles winsomely at the recollection of being called a “walking corpse” by a childhood acquaintance. While there, the writer seems most comfortable reminiscing with his family’s former gardener about the latter’s dead son. On the other hand, Burroughs listens in bemused silence as his brother, Mortimer, chastises him for the “disgusting” language in Naked Lunch. Nevertheless, one gets the distinct impression that the writer carried this world inside of him everywhere he went, never fully divesting himself of its suffocating hold.
Back in New York, where Burroughs lived when the film was being made, he’s shown awkwardly reminiscing with his famous friends. As always, Allen Ginsberg livens things up, vividly bringing the early years of their friendship and literary success to life with his uniquely Rabelaisian presence, at once self-deprecating and disarmingly sincere. But the film’s most interesting dynamic is the almost Oedipal relationship between Burroughs and his two boys, William Burroughs Jr. and the adopted James Grauerholz. If Burroughs Sr. was the Socratic erastes of the Beat Generation, initiating his younger companions into the mysteries of literature and Eastern mysticism, then Grauerholz was its late-period eromenos. Grauerholz was initiated into the group by Ginsberg before settling down as Burroughs’s lover and, later, manager, becoming a primary force behind the writer’s artistic rebirth. Burroughs Jr. is depicted as a distant second in his father’s affections, and his worsening health over the course of the film only adds to the despair that underlies the work’s hagiographic surface.
Referred to by Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as the most intelligent man in America, Burroughs comes off as an oddly unsociable figure, even painfully so. While his public readings seem well attended, his spartan, soundproof Manhattan apartment speaks to a life mostly spent in solitude. Though affectionate friends and family are interviewed, and the writer himself attests to evenings spent out at dinner parties, the film suggests that this moneyed Midwestern misfit was haunted by loneliness and depression throughout his life. As such, the film sometimes makes for awkward viewing, as it’s unclear if this sense of isolation is intentional on the filmmaker’s part, or merely a suspicion in the viewer’s mind.
The strained theatricality of Burroughs’s public readings never quite succeeds. And while he even agrees to reenact a scene from one of his books for the camera, his writing on screen never achieves the virtuosic theatrical heights it does on the page. Despite his stiff delivery, Burroughs does grow increasingly genial as the film progress. His skills as a spontaneous raconteur are unique, mostly owing to his distinct, straight-faced delivery and encyclopedic eloquence. It’s a pleasure to sit back and listen to the legendary stories of his iconic life: his killing of his wife in a drunken game of William Tell, the drug years in Tangier (and just about everywhere else), Wilhelm Reich’s orgone box (to which Bill credits his longevity), and so on. And yet, one’s left feeling deeply unsettled and saddened by the end of the film, as if too high a price was paid for the art that came out of all this.