Along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs was one of the most important and influential writers of the so-called Beat Generation, best known perhaps for his novel Naked Lunch. As with so many of his contemporaries, Burroughs life was defined by chaos, intense creativity, narcotic binges and personal tragedy. Filmed over five years, Howard Brookner’s 1983 documentary Burroughs: The Movie is an oft-moving portrayal of one of literature’s most prominent voices, an intimate and humanising account of a legend of twentieth-century American culture.
Burroughs’ most remarkable achievement is in balancing its beat sensibility with a meticulous control over context, editing and structure, condensing five years worth of footage into a coherent 90 minutes of film. The sense of mediated separation between subject and viewer is suggested in the opening shot of Burroughs on televsion, emphasising the CRT screen’s scan lines and thus its distance from the viewer. This grasping for reality, for authentic lived experience, is of course a key concern for the Beat writers, and it’s no mistake that it informs the themes of the documentary.
The conflict between the authentic and the mediated is further underscored through the use second- hand footage, accounts of Burroughs as a reclusive, private figure, and from incomplete newspaper clippings of the tragic killing of his second wife, Joan Vollmer. Accounts are conflicting, but it appears that while living in Mexico, Burroughs shot at a glass atop Vollmer’s head in a drunken game of William Tell, but missed, shooting Vollmer in the head and killing her. Burroughs ultimately spent only thirteen days in jail before being released on bail and fleeing back to the US. The incident offers a horrible metaphor for the Beat Tradition itself: a manifestation of the fug of drug-induced psychosis and narcissistic genius, a twisted version of the authentic experience of which Burroughs and his contemporaries were in search. Ironically, the very real and horrific consequences of this search seem only to have followed Burroughs in their influencing of his future creative output, a reality turned back on itself, re-mediated into hyper-authenticity.
Problematic, messy relationships inform much of the film’s loose narrative. Sequences of Burroughs rambling around his underground bunker, shooting blowdarts into wall-mounted targets and brandishing insanely-large knives are contextualised by the disturbing and heartbreaking account of his son, who died during filming, struggling to live up to his father’s legend. This familial tragedy is complicated by the insertion of Burroughs’ manager, who variously occupies positions as erstwhile lover and self-appointed surrogate son, arrogantly proclaiming himself to be the accomplished offspring that Burroughs wished that he had had.
Despite painting a profoundly dubious character, Burroughs makes its subject very hard to dislike, poking holes in his myth to offer us glimpses of the complex and often charming human being beneath. While arguably lacking the psychological depth of Grey Gardens, or the archival breadth of Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, Burroughs offers a unique and invaluable glimpse into the key figures of the Beat movement, and an ambivalent reflection on the personal consequences for those at its centre.
Christopher Machell | @MagnificenTramp