Director: Yony Leyser
Running time: 88 minutes
William S. Burroughs: A Man Within chronicles the existence of one of the greatest Beat and American writers of the modern age, through what can only be regarded as a rather turbulent existence. Undoubtedly, the author of works such as Naked Lunch, Junkie and The Soft Machine, lived quite an eventful life.
Married twice, a closet homosexual and a junkie for a large portion of his life, Burroughs career would have been lost in scandal were it not for the fact that his work was deemed so important. Until the day he died in 1997, Burroughs was never far from some kind of controversy, be it his opinions on gun laws or his penchant for young boys, Burroughs managed to ruffle social feathers with almost impeccable precision. He was a sort of modern day Marquis de Sade, although admittedly less cruel but perhaps equally as difficult a character to place. If the man was not adored by the likes of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Warhol he very well may have been locked in a small room to rot himself. He just had that ability to push conservative buttons.
As a directorial debut Yony Leyser has made an impressive entrance into the documentary world with his look at this complex man. The narrative is told in a non-linear fashion, preferring instead to hop between moments from the man’s life. The amount of stock footage and recordings is very impressive. Often documentaries are flawed not by the research itself but the elusiveness of the subject, but Leyser has provided enough film footage and audio recordings of Burroughs to satisfy even the most obsessive fan. The interviewees too are many and varied. John Waters, as always, offers fantastic insights into both Burroughs’ work and his general persona. Other interviewees include Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P. Thurston Moore, David Cronenberg, Laurie Anderson, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, to name but a few, all who interpret Burroughs art and recount their personal experiences.
But there are problems with Leyser’s work that cannot go unexplored. Despite being excellently produced it seems that Leyser’s film is, perhaps, selective in which parts of Burroughs’ life it chooses to highlight, and which to only brush over.
Firstly, Burroughs childhood is almost entirely ignored, in fact, much of his past before his wife’s death is barely even mentioned. Also problematic is the sheer lack of critique offered towards some of Burroughs’ more dubious moments, the murder of his wife in Mexico [he shot her accidentally], his time spent in Tunisia in the company of young boys, his almost crippling heroin addiction and his hand in the death of his only son. Burroughs seems to be dealt a ‘get out of jail free’ card by the director, who tells us these aforementioned misdemeanors before moving swiftly on.
However, if we are to consider this document to simply give us a glimpse of this man and his art then the film succeeds, and perhaps his personal life should not be our concern as an artist. But one cannot help to think the lack of engagement with Burroughs’ darker side flaws the film as an accurate, honest document.
Though not perfect, Leyser’s debut is loving and well-produced, especially impressive for a first time director. The stop motion animations punctuating the scenes are an especially nice touch, and the list of interviewees is enough to make any art fan’s heart flutter. If Leyser adapts a more critical eye for future works he will be one to watch.