The Parasite Inside
Documentary gives contour to Burroughs’ life and work
by Rick Levin
WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: A MAN WITHIN: Written and directed by Yony Leyser. With Laurie Anderson, Jello Biafra, David Cronenberg, Thurston Moore, Iggy Pop, Gus Van Sant, Patti Smith and John Waters. Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2010. 74 minutes.
Gentleman junkie, militant queer, gun nut, Beat, godfather of punk, alcoholic, cat lover, genius, wife murderer, lonely old man and author of one of the most controversial and enduring novels of the 20th century — even before his death in 1997 at the age of 83, William Burroughs was a commodity ripe for appropriation, a palimpsest upon which to write and rewrite the most far-fetched claims. Burroughs is misunderstood as a matter of course, and often by his own design. Despite some 30-plus books with his name on the cover, including his seminal (and semen-spattered) debut Naked Lunch, it’s likely he’s been quoted far more than he’s actually been read. Certainly, like Oscar Wilde, he was master of the exquisite aphorism: “We see God through our assholes in the flashbulb of orgasm,” or “The face of evil is always the face of total need,” or “Every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his advantage.” It’s this latter ditty, characteristically autobiographical yet cryptic, that gives shape and texture to Yony Leyser’s William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, the latest try at lassoing that cadaver-like presence once known by his Moroccan neighbors as l’hombre invisible.
Unlike so many of the celluloid or literary efforts to pin Burroughs down — to romanticize, deify or debunk his outsized image — Leyser’s documentary attempts to contextualize the artist, to give him back to the epochal setting from which he arose and which, to an astonishing degree, he helped define. A Man Within opens with Burroughs delivering one of his patented “routines” on death, thereby letting that croaking vaudeville of a nasally growl set the mood. The documentary then shuffles rapidly through a series of themed segments: the repressive ’50s against which Burroughs rebelled; his lifelong heroin habit; his influence on the culture at large (terms and names like “Steely Dan,” “heavy metal” and “Blade Runner” are all his); his allegedly accidental shooting of his wife; the death of his son; his radically individualistic philosophy; and so on. Using an aesthetic similar to Burroughs’ famous cut-up method, in which he’d take a scissor to pages of manuscript and realign the pieces to divine new meanings, the 74-minute film hops back and forth and over and around without ever losing sight of its fascinating subject. Neither does Leyser shy away from revealing Burroughs as palpably human — fallible, tormented, needy. In this sense, A Man Within goes a long way toward realigning Burroughs’ over-determined persona so it is more in keeping with the reality of his life and times.
The documentary, as entertaining and enlightening as it is, has an air of testimony about it. Burroughs is allowed to speak for himself, via archival video and audio recordings, as are the many artists, hustlers and lovers who knew him personally or were influenced by his work: Patti Smith, Jello Biafra, David Cronenberg, John Waters, Laurie Anderson, Gus Van Sant, Thurston Moore (who, with Lee Renaldo, provides the soundtrack) and, among many others, the actor Peter Weller, who portrayed Burroughs in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and who also narrates the documentary. The commentaries are candid and intelligent, often emphasizing how vulnerable, whip-smart and wickedly funny Burroughs could be. What emerges is the portrait of an artist who, with his gothic obsessions and addictions and his demonic carnival-barker delivery, had more in common with Edgar Allan Poe and P.T. Barnum than with Beats like Kerouac and Ginsberg. There was, indeed — and contrary to speculation — a man residing within that skeletal frame, not some alien or monster. Leyser brings that man back down to earth, where he belongs.
William S. Burroughs: A Man Within opens Friday, Dec. 17, at the Bijou.