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With: William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Regina Weinreich, Patti Smith, Amiri Baraka, John Waters, Peter Weller, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
Written by: Yony Leyser
Directed by: Yony Leyser
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 87
Date: 01/22/2010

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wild Boy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great "Beat" generation author William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) has been involved in a number of movies, ranging from an appearance in Michael Almereyda's Twister (1989), and an adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991), to the short films A Thanksgiving Prayer (1991) and The Junky's Christmas (1993). A documentary was produced on his life in 1983, simply titled Burroughs; I haven't seen it, and it does not appear to be available on video. It's apparently based on hours of interviews with the man himself.

So the time is right for a more "objective" documentary, or at least one with a more PBS approach. This one is more geared toward people who aren't already fans, though fans will find much to enjoy. Over the course of 87 minutes, director Yony Leyser covers much of Burroughs' life, beginning with his family's adding machine business that went under. He began writing later in life than his contemporaries Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but his seminal book, "Naked Lunch," was published very close together with "On the Road" and "Howl," thereby kick-starting a movement.

This movie talks about the various ways in which Burroughs has influenced pop culture, including bands, books, etc. Some of the interviewees, such as musician Patti Smith, or actor Peter Weller -- who portrayed Burroughs' alter-ego in the film Naked Lunch -- simply come across as breathless fans, eager for some of the old writer's poetry to rub off on them.

Director Leyser seems vaguely aware that Burroughs never wrote anything else with the same impact as "Naked Lunch," but the movie marvels at his later career anyway, and at how Burroughs handled his celebrity with curmudgeonly grace. He was a gun nut, an artist, and a spoken word performer. Director Leyser includes stop-motion animated interludes (by Aimee Goguen and Dillon Markey) that capture Burroughs' essence in crazy, funny wire figures.

The incident in which Burroughs shot his wife Joan is briefly covered, though he appears never to have had another female companion. He surrounded himself with younger men, and also adoring fans, though in the archive footage, he never appears to be very comfortable or happy. He might have been happier alone, although his celebrity gave him certain advantages. One interviewee posits a theory as to how Burroughs managed to live to the age of 83, right through the AIDS era: he was always politely given the first shot of the needle.

Director John Waters is on hand here -- a welcome presence in so many recent documentaries -- and he seems to be the only one acting as a cultural critic rather than as a friend or fan. Waters raves about how Burroughs became a gay man, a junkie, and even a punk, long before such things were even remotely acceptable or cool. And he never appeared to break a sweat.

Indeed, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is definitely a fan's film, but it's filled with enough information, passionate arguments, and actual evidence to affirm, or re-affirm Burroughs' status as one of the all time great cult authors. Oscilloscope released the DVD in 2011, complete with bonus footage, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of "Naked Lunch" in 2009, a Q&A with the director, and liner notes essays by Richard Hell and David Byrne.

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