“Is there anyone in this room who has never said to himself, ‘I acted like an absolute shit’? If so, let him stand forth so that we may claim a latter day Saint. Don’t anyone look at me!” – William Burroughs, Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs On the Road
While Danish filmmakers Lars Movin and Steen Moller Rasmussen haven’t exactly presented venerable demonic Beat grandpa William Burroughs as some kind of inverted saint, they’ve managed to overlook a great swath of his life on the “shadow side”, as Allen Ginsberg put it. Glaringly absent are the Burroughs Adding Machine heir’s experiences in World War II, ditto his various ill-advised affairs as a troubled Harvard student struggling with mental illness.
Barely rating a mention are his legal troubles with Naked Lunch and stints as exterminator, junkie and absentee dad. Only a cursory nod is given to his time in Tangier and Paris. Neither is time spent on his two marriages, the latter of which ended in the infamous “freak accident” which remains the elephant in the room throughout this documentary. Burroughs himself had attributed his entire career to the incident.
Indeed, Words of Advice gives us a Burroughs for whom this epoch could be jettisoned completely. Prof. Ann Douglas of Columbia University hyperbolizes that “Burroughs was always Burroughs”, i.e., 100 percent himself, in fact dropped from the womb fully formed as such, with only a little finessing and encouragement from younger mentor Kerouac to complete the persona that we see before us today. Perhaps the filmmakers felt Naked Lunch was simply a foregone conclusion.
All the early madness, the search for the mythical drug Yage, even most of the Beat period, are eschewed in favor of Burroughs’ second career, that of spoken word performance artist. Well into the ‘90s he was collaborating with artists as disparate as Kurt Cobain, Laurie Anderson and John Giorno, who slogs along here on tour as his opening act. Many of the writer’s monologues were adapted into shorts, such as Junky’s Christmas, Thanksgiving Prayer and Words of Advice for Young People.
While not exactly cuddly, the backstage Burroughs on display here is a kinder, gentler, less impulsive sort (though he perhaps still relishes the odd game of William Tell): the man of letters, the elegant, seasoned expat ambivalently returning to his mother country to reflect on the metaphorical lay of the land, reporting back from the margins of sanity whence he’d come. The sage is subsequently invited back to Europe in 1983 for a sort of second homecoming tour, channeling his inveterate wildness into deliberately pulpy, incantatory readings of his literary “routines”.
The centerpiece of the film is an intense, weeklong Scandinavian Tour which culminates in a Copenhagen reading, also here in unexpurgated form (see Extras). The best and funniest bits are in the details. In a televised tête-à-tête, Dan Turèll, Burroughs-influenced author and professional chin-stroker—replete with goatee, black fingernails and (no doubt clove) fag in hand—lobs almost willfully obtuse questions at the great man. Burroughs can only sit there like a wizened worm on a hook, squirming under the Klieg lights, rolling his eyes at the glorified coffeehouse beatnik making mincemeat of his theories. (“You’re not talking good sense,” Burroughs says to his interlocutor. “Of course, you’re not trying!”) It’s car-crash television at its most savory.
When he finally takes the stage in Copenhagen, Burroughs gives life to such endlessly ranting characters as demented Doctor Benway and Kim Carsons, the seediest fey gunslinger in the West. Imagine Mercedes McCambridge’s Exorcist voice work fused to an aristocratic St. Louis drawl, embodied in a geriatric Egyptologist with Tourette’s, obsessed with disembowelment and the hanging of young men as an erotic leitmotif. Now soften it down a little.
Talking heads gush about Burroughs’ prophetic influence on post-modern culture, about how ahead of its time his cosmology of time-space travel was, etc. etc. Yes, of course Burroughs would have admonished “no nukes is good nukes”, or that we were “heading in the wrong direction” as a society, as a line-up of academics so earth-shatteringly informs us here. At any rate, the man himself probably would have balked at being praised by such blandly establishment figures (then again, he did consent to appear on Saturday Night Live in 1981 to perform his Star Spangled Banner monologue, also included in the doc).
The film is rife with testimonials to the gracious, direct and gentle belletrist, which stand out in stark relief to the Id-driven, anal-expulsive Dashiell Hammett parodies found in his work, and the spirit of extreme experimentalism which went into his life. Although the film never quite tips fully into hagiography, the Danes have given us an almost overly low-key portrait of a fragile, complex stoic with a unique stage presence.
When we first see Burroughs at the book signing table, it’s astonishing how vulnerable he looks. One of the most touching moments occurs in producer Hal Willner’s recollection of an evening of hard drinking which culminated in a Burroughs rendition of Marlene Dietrich’s “Falling in Love Again”, sung in German. Later recorded for posterity, it’s shocking how broken he sounds, though he manages to walk a wobbly camp-pathos tightrope. (This Billie Holliday-on-acid moment impressed Willner enough to give their collaboration the go-ahead.)
Even sadder is the footage from Ginsberg’s wake, in which a sunken-looking-even-for-Burroughs Burroughs sits around a bonfire hoarsely and drunkenly reciting “Howl”. He would die a few weeks later, and it shows.
We also get to peek inside the Bunker, Burroughs’ New York residence, an old YMCA on the Bowery, which has been kept essentially intact by current resident Giorno.
Finally, the cameras light out for Lawrence, Kansas, where Burroughs and his longtime companion James Grauerholz repaired with his beloved cats, spending his last days as Writer in Residence at the University of Kansas. It’s nice to see where Burroughs slept and worked, and took his daily vodka and joint. However, for someone so self-contained, the prosaic details of his environment don’t really add up to any insight into this mysterious character.
As a look inside the world of Burroughs the iconic vaudeville performer, Words of Advice is an interesting little artifact. As biography, with little more than a muddled, general overview of his philosophies and back history, it’s about as illuminating as an isolated cut-up strip. Furthermore, I really didn’t buy Willner’s claim that the guy was the “WC Fields of our time” and as American as apple pie.
The extras hardly beef up an already slim package, but you do get the complete performance at Copenhagen, an infectiously enthusiastic Douglas on Burroughs as influential thinker, and a two-minute celebration of his shotgun art.