Review by Trylon resident beatnik Dave Gomshay
Many editions of William S. Burroughs’ books come emblazoned with Norman Mailer’s oft-quoted declaration of the iconic writer’s genius, but it is model and future Once Bitten actress Lauren Hutton who gets to sing us his praises at the very beginning of Howard Brookner’s Burroughs: The Movie. The newly restored documentary from 1983 cold opens with an old clip of host Hutton introducing Burroughs to the studio audience, and millions of at-home viewers, of Saturday Night Live. (Trivia tidbit: that episode’s musical guest? Rick James.) Truly an original Not Ready for Prime Time Player if there ever was one, Burroughs shuffles his papers while sitting behind a desk and launches right into a version of his classic piece, “Twilight’s Last Gleamings”.
What would an audience most likely largely unfamiliar with Burroughs have made of his appearance? Here was an elderly man dressed in a conservative suit and tie giving a spoken word performance about a drunk, cigarette-smoking doctor conducting a horribly botched appendectomy aboard a sinking cruise ship before suddenly aborting the surgery, grabbing whatever random drugs are handy in the makeshift operating room, and hightailing it past crowds of fleeing passengers onto a lifeboat meant only for women and children. All delivered in a creepy, gravelly drawl. The SNL audience seems to eat it up, and the clip ends with enthusiastic applause and a close-up of Burroughs flashing a triumphant rictus for the camera. How did this man come to this moment, earning the designation of (at least according to Hutton) “the greatest living writer in America”?
Brookner’s film patiently unfolds out of this rousing introduction. Through interviews, performances, vintage film clips and photos, we are presented with impressionistic snapshots of Burroughs’ upbringing, his work, and his daily routines. It covers the highlights: his privileged background as the scion of a wealthy St. Louis family, his crucial friendships with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac during the early days of the Beat movement, and the development of his disorienting and experimental cut-up style of art, a process first “discovered” by his close friend, the artist Brion Gysin. The film also follows Burroughs as he enjoys a renaissance of sorts amongst the avant-garde in the early ‘80s. He poses for photo shoots with Laurie Anderson, hangs out with painter Francis Bacon, and gives sold out readings in punk rock clubs. Patti Smith likens him to the Pope.
The image of Burroughs the Legend was that of a radical, dangerous, and often very funny writer interested in the ongoing battle between control/addiction and total autonomy. As an out gay man he threatened the conservative status quo of his time. He generously peppered his surreal novels with frequently autobiographical and graphic depictions of the unholy trinity of drug use, bizarre sex, and violence. But the everyday Burroughs we observe in this documentary comes across as quite genial as he meanders through his hometown reliving childhood memories and visiting with a former family gardener. Burroughs reminisces about an old “Irish crone” who looked after him and taught him the lost art of calling toads which he proceeds to demonstrate, emitting a low humming sound by some bushes. (No toads appear.) Later, he and Allen Ginsberg playfully goof around on a city rooftop, arms warmly slung around each other. He also demonstrates his love of exotic weaponry back in his NYC dwelling space, a former YMCA locker room appropriately nicknamed “The Bunker”. He’s positively giddy when he successfully discharges his blowgun and brandishes a wicked blackjack.
Burroughs attests that he abhors violence, but it’s hard for those weapon-wielding scenes not to evoke the uncomfortable fact that earlier in his life he accidentally killed his wife Joan Vollmer during a stupid, drunken attempt to shoot a glass off of her head. (Though gay, he was twice married to women; once simply to obtain a visa for a friend and once to Joan, a relationship grounded more on intellectual compatibility and mutual drug use rather than any sexual connection.) Throughout his life, Burroughs had talked of an “Ugly Spirit” which had haunted him and at times literally possessed him, always initiating episodes of abject depression and absolute insanity. The presence of a parasitic, destructive entity controlling one’s actions abounds in his writing, and it’s a similar circumstance he offers for why he went through with the infamous “William Tell routine” with his wife. Still, Burroughs lived with significant guilt over his wife’s death for the rest of his days, which is why it’s even more unpleasant listening to Allen Ginsberg essentially blame the death on Joan herself. Filmmaker Brookner captures Ginsberg putting forth a clumsy apology for Burroughs’ actions, suggesting that Joan was depressed and terribly addicted to drugs and alcohol (true) and therefore sorta-maybe-kinda egged Burroughs into shooting the gun at her as a sort of suicidal death wish. It’s cringe-inducing to watch Ginsberg carefully search for the right words in support of his theory as if he can’t believe what he’s saying himself.
The film is filled with these kinds of candid moments with Burroughs and his circle of eccentric associates, some similarly awkward, others genuinely sweet. Burroughs was no doubt a difficult man to cozy up to. Early in the documentary, his longtime assistant James Grauerholz says that Burroughs would make a great prisoner, implying that he somehow finds comfortable routines in which to thrive despite living in claustrophobic confines like his fortress-like Bunker. Ironically, in his work Burroughs returned again and again to the theme of complete freedom from oppressive systems of authority. His cut-up experiments with writing, sound, and visual art were designed to reprogram and jolt his audience out of the restrictive beliefs and habits that controlled their lives and that they took for granted. Burroughs: The Movie is a welcome gift to fans of this complicated figure and will spur further interest from those new to his life and work. – Dave Gomshay
Dave Gomshay’s first exposure to William Burroughs came as an innocent young teenager when he randomly pulled a copy of Cities of the Red Night off the shelf of his library’s Science Fiction section while searching for a rollicking new space yarn to read. Shocked by the cover’s reproduction of Bruegel’s gruesome painting The Triumph of Death and unable to make heads or tails out of the phantasmagorical, time-hopping plot, he’s been a fan ever since.
Burroughs: The Movie screens Friday and Saturday, January 30 and 31 at 7:00 and 8:45, and Sunday, February 1 at 5:00 and 6:45 at the Trylon. You can purchase advance tickets here.