10 p.m. Tuesday Feb. 22
Can it be that no one has ever made a documentary about William S. Burroughs, the godfather of the Beat Generation? That’s what we’re told in the introduction to A Man Within, the 60-minute Independent Lens film by Chicago documentarian Yony Leyser that serves as an excellent first effort but probably not the definitive word.
Leyser does a superb job introducing Burroughs. In quick succession, we learn: Born in 1914 in St. Louis; heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine Co., founded by his grandfather; Harvard graduate; moved to New York, where he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
We hear his writing: “Thanksgiving Day November 28, 1986: Thanks for the wild turkey and passenger pigeons destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts” and “Every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his advantage.”
And we get insights from friends and lovers. Filmmaker John Waters points out that Burroughs became famous for being openly gay (in the 1950s), a junkie and for shooting his wife – everything you shouldn’t be famous for. Patti Smith notes that if you look through Burroughs’ writing, you’ll find phrases that became band names (Soft Machine and Steely Dan), movie titles (Blade Runner) and musical genres (heavy metal).
All great. Where Leyser could have done a better job was explaining Burroughs’ impact on contemporary literature. Yes, Naked Lunch (1959) is considered a classic, but what was its long-term influence? Is it still relevant? Dated? I wanted to hear that discussion.
Not that Leyser used his hour poorly. On the contrary: He presents Burroughs as the fascinating, strange, conflicted man he was. (Burroughs died in 1997.) Here, after all, is a man at the forefront of the Gay Liberation Movement; someone who committed a William Tell-style murder of his wife, Joan Vollmer; one of the first people to take military-issue LSD; a writer who turned Brion Gysin’s “cut-up” method of rearranging newsprint into three novels; a celebrity credited with spurring the 1970s punk-rock movement (Burroughs disavowed this); a man who loved guns.
“After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it,” Burroughs said in 1992. “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.”
Burroughs lived an extraordinary life, and Leyser presents it in all its ugliness, excess and glory. Because as wacked out as Burroughs could be, he could also be breathtakingly eloquent.
“Love?” he wrote. “What is it? Most natural pain killer what there is. LOVE.”