Less interested in making a conventional biography of Burroughs the novelist, director Yony Leyser concentrates on Burroughs the person, or the man within, and largely succeeds. The film is structured in chapters which examine the forces that shaped Burroughs' life and propelled his writings - drugs, homosexuality, guns, the impact of Naked Lunch and Burroughs' own difficulty in connecting with people. Burroughs himself was a mass of contradictions. He wrote extensively about drugs and despite having been a habitual user all his life, Burroughs' writings are full of warnings about their damaging effects, the degradation and the loss of control to the user. Burroughs struggled on and off with addiction ("the strait-jacket of junk" as he called it) and actor Peter Weller remembers a conversation with Burroughs on the set of Naked Lunch where Burroughs stringently warned him off using Percodan.
Despite marrying and fathering a son, Burroughs was homosexual but was the antithesis of the limp-wristed gay. Burroughs distanced himself from the queer movement and remained quietly reserved about his sexuality, only emerging through works like Naked Lunch and Queer, which often took a dark, subjective view of homosexuality. John Waters speaks about Burroughs' sexuality as another example the writer's iconoclasm - "He opened up to me, not gay culture, but gay rebels and couldn't-fit-in gay culture". The film is quite candid about Burroughs' relationships with men and includes a marvellous snippet of archive footage of Burroughs and Warhol in a rare moment discussing homosexuality over dinner.
The most notorious chapter from Burroughs' life remains the accidental shooting dead of his wife in Mexico City in 1951, which Burroughs darkly referred to as the catalyst for his writing career. Rather strangely this tragic event in Burroughs' life did not deter him from guns and along with his beloved cats, became an permanent fixture of his life. The documentary features a lot of footage of Burroughs at the target range and shows the writer working on his so called shotgun paintings, created by Burroughs shooting a can of paint, with the ejecta splashing across a nearby canvas. Interviewed for the film is one of Burroughs' gun dealers who shows an elaborate silencer Burroughs had made in his basement so he could shoot off his guns and not disturb his guests upstairs, while Marcus Ewert, Burroughs' lover relates an anecdote about the writer keeping guns in bed with him - they were of course fully loaded.
John Waters on Burroughs - "He was the first person that was famous for the things you were supposed to hide. He wrote poetry about assholes and heroin"
Named by Jack Kerouac and published in Paris in 1959, (The) Naked Lunch Burroughs' seminal work brought with it international notoriety and a devoted following. Friend and collaborator John Giorno recalls the legion of fans that would arrive at the Bunker, Burroughs' home on the Bowery, New York's Lower East Side, bringing with them copious amounts of drugs. (Giorno amusingly reckons that Burroughs' insistance on taking the first shot saved him from contracting AIDS). In the 70's Burroughs was regularly having dinner with luminaries like Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, Nicholas Roeg, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry and Richard Hell. Burroughs was a supremely intelligent and eloquent raconteur but emotionally withdrawn. Perhaps it was his unrequited love for Allen Ginsburg, but Burroughs preferred sex with professional young hustlers, where there was little chance of heartache. Even Burroughs' relationship with his son (seen here in rare footage) was problematic and ulitmately unresolved - William Jr. died from liver cancer in 1981 aged 33.
Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch: The Man is carried in naked by two Negro Bearers who drop him on the platform with bestial, sneering brutality. The Man wriggles. His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach...
If the film has a flaw it's the brief running time - at 80 odd minutes the film feels a little too lean. It would have been nice to hear more about Burroughs' novels post-Naked Lunch, like the Nova Trilogy, comprising of the novels, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express, which all feature the most radical use of the cut-up. Also there's little about Burroughs' impact on Cinema, the experimental films he made in collaboration with Antony Balch in the '60's, the 1984 German film Decoder which took inspiration from Burroughs' Electronic Revolution essay (and features a cameo by the great man himself). Also, more time should have been allocated to David Cronenberg, whose 1983 film Videodrome is one of the best cinematic interpretations of Burroughs' ideas, not to mention Cronenberg's own film of Naked Lunch which brilliantly fused the novel with episodes from the writer's life. These minors gripes aside, A Man Within, with its soundtrack by Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore and fabulous footage of Burroughs remains an essential document.
Beat happening - William and Allen, seen as part of the documentary's well chosen archive footage
My copy of A Man Within is the UK edition courtesy of Artefact Films. The DVD features a decent enough 1.78 anamorphic transfer. Much of the archive footage looks expectedly beat up and worn depending on the source, while the newly filmed interviews look fine (if not exceptional). Audio is good, and helpfully some of the audio on the rougher archive footage is subtitled. Extras includes 16min of Home Footage with Burroughs relaxing in Kansas with friends (among them Steve Buscemi), 3mins of murky handheld looking footage of Sonic Youth paying a visit to Burroughs' farm, plus 2min of Burroughs creating his shotgun paintings. Overall a fine DVD but the US edition on the Oscilloscope label is better, packaged in a very nice foldout sleeve, and containing some additional extras, including a 15min featurette on Naked Lunch's 50th anniversary held in Chicago in 2009.
Cronenberg on Burroughs - "I think Burroughs' writings particularly Naked Lunch were quite revolutionary... It wasn't just homosexuality, it was alien sexuality"