In 1983, Burroughs: The Movie was released. It appeared at the New York Film festival and was picked up by the BBC to be screened in the UK. Directed by Howard Brookner, Burroughs is a collection of interviews with friends of, and footage following, William S. Burroughs.
In the 1950’s, Burroughs’ work was considered a part of the Beat generation; a collection of liberated authors who became an enormous influence to writers after World War II. Burrough’s Naked Lunch is among the most important books of the era, whereby obscene writing broke new ground, forcing publishers to make way for those out to shock. Followers were termed Beatniks, and they became hippies in the sixties, while “Burroughs became some kind of countercultural saint” in the years that followed.
As Allen Ginsberg and Herbert Huncke describe him, it is clear that Burroughs is a unique being. “He’d make a great prisoner” says one, adding that solitary would surely be his preference. Burroughs is dry in his tone; his robotic, American drawl is akin to Mason Verger in Hannibal. The footage, all collected between 1970 and 1982, is varied and collaged together. Sometimes we lurk in the background; sometimes in monochrome; sometimes we’re static watching him read his prose; sometimes he talks direct to camera; sometimes he acts out scenes from his writing. As we try to piece it all together, what emerges is how Burroughs had a desperate need to try so much. He confesses that he chose to be a writer because it looked glamourous – but it wasn’t. Friends described him as “like a walking corpse”. In his old age, he has the fearsome glare Chris Cooper captured in American Beauty combined with the gravitas of Jeremy Irons. His thin-lipped, monotone delivery is equally riveting and formidable.
Director Brookner uses a smooth, cool jazz score to lighten the mood. Burroughs relays stories of “calling the toads” (a specific humming-noise you can use to attract toads in the garden) and he suddenly becomes likeable. His writing, though famous for its grotesque and explicit nature, often uses elements of his own life to set the scene. His narration of his excerpts throughout the documentary reveals how specific his memories are – and how directly they feature in his work.
Burroughs was the “daddy” of the writers, including Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Terry Southern (writer of Easy Rider). He’d dress in drag, had affairs with men and women and had a penchant for drugs, whether it was opium, hashish or heroin. He wanted to try and experience so much that he even shot his wife dead in a alcohol-fuelled, ill-thought game of William Tell (though it was declared an accident). These experiences shaped him, inspired his writing and lead to his first book, Junkie. The combination of art, literature and poetry also is integral and Burroughs: The Movie finds a way to explore. Whether it is his experimental collage cut-ups (inspired by Matisse) whereby new words and combinations could be found or conversations with Francis Bacon about mummification. Art and literature are one and the same.
Sadness prevails when we see his broken son, Billy. An alcoholic and drug-user himself, he died young. In the final act, Burroughs is introduced as the “grand, groovy and beloved” William Burroughs. These adoring tributes cling to his legacy and influence, but his character is markedly different. Burroughs: The Movie is a taste of the disconnected and dispossessed; a unique, passionate soul in an era that needed rebels.