Released under the ‘Arthouse Film’ series which focuses on “important artists from a variety of fields both contemporary and classic”, Madman bring us number 038 in the series – the 2010 documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within.
The film mixes archive footage, photographs, narration by Peter Weller and interviews from Burroughs’ closest friends, fans and ex-lovers. Some of the more notable people interviewed are: John Waters, Peter Weller, Patti Smith, Gus Van Sant, Genesis P-Orridge, Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra, Grant Hart, Thurston Moore and many more.
The documentary is not a chronological look at his life, it offers a brief overview of his upbringing before getting to the good stuff. The film touches on issues such as the censorship case around Naked Lunch but mostly focuses on the cultural impact his works have had and the profound influence he has been on other artists. It focuses on the drugs, sex, his love of weapons, Mexico and the shooting of his wife Joan Volmer and the loss of his son Billy. It also documents the people who littered their works and bands with references to Burroughs, everyone from Iggy Pop to Jello Biafra.
A Man Within doesn’t really linger on the killing of Joan or the death of his son, it briefly touches on these tragedies in his life, nothing more. If you’ve read his books and devoured anything you can about the guy you’re not going to get a whole lot of new information but what makes this worthwhile are the stories about him. I never really got much insight into him as an old man and with plenty of home footage and stories from his last boyfriend you get to see a side of him – a vulnerable and lonely side – that you may not get anywhere else.
Although it exposes his more ‘tender side’ if you will, there’s some excellent and somewhat bizarre footage featured from his later years. It’s wonderful watching him stumble around his house with guns and knives whilst drinking, I am amazed that he never killed anyone else. There’s also footage of him creating shotgun art: a method where he would put a spray-paint can in front of a canvas and shoot it. He often wears army jackets and although he appears frail and tired he looks like a bad ass with the army jacket and guns.
Unlike a lot of Hunter Thompson documentaries which have started to become cash-ins this movie is lovingly crafted. The music is done by Sonic Youth and Patti Smith and is very creative in itself. There’s some really neat chapter-introducing animation sequences of Burroughs’ head made out of coat-hanger wire, these figures are often gun or sword-cane toting and are a nice change from cartoon animation segments.
An impressive first feature from director Yony Leyser who devoted five years of his life to the film. A must see for any Burroughs fan, an even bigger must see for those who know little about him.
There’s loads of extras (83 mins worth to be exact) which makes this DVD even more appealing. There’s three deleted scenes of Burroughs’ art, 17 minutes of home movies where Burroughs hangs out with famous people. A 3 minute Super 8 clip shot by Husker Du’s Grant Hart of Burroughs creating shotgun art, a 3 minute Super 8 clip Narrated by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth visiting Burroughs. 15 minutes from the Naked Lunch 50th Anniversary, “Rub Out the Word” music video, a Patty Smith reading, a 12 minute Q&A with the director, a 24 minute short film by the director and finally the theatrical trailer and a selection of Madman trailers for other titles in their Arthouse Film series.
William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.