The ambiguities of language, the hypocrisies of institutions, and the messiness of reading were all key to William S. Burroughs' experience and especially, to his self-performance.
Independent Lens: William S. Burroughs: A Man WithinAirtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: John Waters, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, John Waters, Iggy Pop, David Cronenberg, Amiri Baraka, James Grauerholz, Peter Weller
Director: Yony Leyser
Air date: 2011-21-22
Narcotics have been systematically scapegoated and demonized. The idea that anyone can use drugs and escape a horrible fate is anathema to these idiots. I predict, in the near future right-wingers will use drug hysteria to set up an international police apparatus.
-- Tom the Priest (William S. Burroughs, Drugstore Cowboy 1989)
"I bring not peace, but a sword," says William S. Burroughs, old and thin and looming into the frame. The scene cuts to the making of that scene on a boardwalk, angled to show him arranging himself for that very shot you've just seen. For that performance, he quotes, more or less, Matthew 10:34, a section of the Gospels that has long troubled readers, who have tried variously to parse its meaning.
For Burroughs, the trouble would be the point. The ambiguities of language, the hypocrisies of institutions like religion, and the messiness of reading were all key to his experience and especially, to his self-performance. But as this piece of a scene appears in William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, it's antic and a bit eccentric, not really troubling enough. Yony Leyser's film, part documentary, part paean, premieres in abbreviated version as part of Independent Lens 22 February. Just before he performs his menace, the film offers a context, courtesy of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, who reflects on what she calls Burroughs' "personal crusade." "William," she says, "chose a path that he knew would carry him into conflict with the powers that be, the social norms, and the legal system." Following the scene, she speaks again, remembering her first meeting with the man, in 1971: "He asked me, 'How do you short-circuit control? That's what I want you to spend your time thinking about.'"
Cut to insist on the many layers of Burroughs' lifelong performance, the sequence is assembled so as to grant her memory, however self- some relevance. Certainly, it suggests an unanswered question, concerning the ways that rebellion against control (external and internalized) can become another sort of control. And Burroughs' understanding of that lack of answer -- of addiction in and as consumer capitalism ("Junk is the ultimate merchandise. The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to the product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise, he degrades and simplifies the client") -- is apparent everywhere in his life and work. And as it makes this point, A Man Within is less revelatory than obvious.
That’s not to say its subject -- Burroughs, however you understand his truths and fictions -- is not fascinating. His critiques of seeming moral values and controlling ideals (like "Thanksgiving Prayer") are alarmingly pertinent to this day. But as the film puts together images to illustrate his thinking, like wire sculptures to mark sections ("The William Tell Overture," "Punk Rock") or interviews with colleagues and academics to underscore his brilliance, it is not surprising.
Just so, the film rehearses the story of Burroughs shooting his wife Joan Volmer in Mexico, by way of "Beat scholar" and Burroughs acquaintance Regina Weinrich ("Allen Ginsberg thought that might have been some kind of a death wish on her part") and poet Anne Waldman ("I think Allen was interested in saving William"), and Peter Weller, who played Burroughs, sort of, in a film of Naked Lunch, offers his thoughts on Burroughs and drugs (noting especially his own feeble efforts to "act" Burroughs' dire, utterly lived experience as a man "who wandered the world in sewers hooked on this shit").
The film includes as well claims for his influences (on punk rock, on painting and literature), as well as insights from a couple of Burroughs' lovers and admirers (John Waters describes rather hapless legal efforts to censor the work, which was, he says, "thinking up something that wasn’t even illegal yet"). Some moments are devoted to minor debate about his love of guns, formulated as a pair of dueling interview clips: is the "fake macho stuff," as Laurie Anderson describes it, shallow and childish or effective satire (Waters again: "Contemporary art is about ruining things, so if he's ruining what masculinity and guns are, good")?
But none of this can be more nuanced, more ferocious, or more incisive than Burroughs himself. And so A Man Within is finally less about what might have been within than what he performed himself. In Burroughs' words, "Any artistic description or any artistic transliteration has got to be imprecise." He's talking about the difficulty of words, and even suggests that pictures, if he could make them, would be less imprecise. But the problem is the translation, at any point. As Burroughs wrote himself, his words formed a kind of first generation of self-creation, perhaps self-expression. Whatever comes after is only more translating. Such approximations can only be about giving up control. Which may be the point, after all.