*. I can’t say I went into this one with high hopes. I don’t think William S. Burroughs was a great writer. In fact, I don’t think he was even a good writer. He survives today, I believe, mostly as a cult figure for his transgressive qualities/shock value. Meanwhile, in terms of his personality and biography I find him to be a creepy figure, bordering on downright repellant.
*. But he was at least a character, which makes him a good subject for a biography. As a documentary Burroughs just follows him around as he performs. And he is always performing. Various friends are interviewed, and you get the sense that most of them, especially Allen Ginsberg, are more than happy to play along.
*. There’s a bigger point here about biographies, either written or on film, of living figures. On the one hand, you’d expect that subject to be someone the author or filmmaker admires, at least to some extent. I think that was the case with director Howard Brookner here. On the other hand, working closely with the subject of your biography, and being given access, inevitably means you are compromised. To put it bluntly, you are being used. There have been notorious cases of this recently when it comes to writing the lives of literary figures, but it’s the same in any medium.
*. I think the best that can be hoped for in such efforts is a glimpse of something that one suspects the subject didn’t want made public. With Burroughs I don’t think there’s much in the way of revelations, and what minefields there are were avoided. Burroughs was an admitted junky, but the extent to which he was also a sexual predator (he basically partook of what we’d now call Third World sex tourism) and/or a murderer (he shot his wife) is left largely unexamined.
*. But then Byron took drugs, abused his wife, and ran off to places where he could have sex with boys, and he’s fondly remembered now as just the rake who was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” We seem to put up with a lot from celebs.
*. Oddly enough, the figure who apparently came out looking the worst in the film, at least according to Brookner, was James Grauerholz, who boasts of supplanting Burroughs’ son. That part didn’t sit well with me either, and the whole thing felt creepy as hell. But again: it’s the moments like these that give the film what value it has.
*. Did I feel any greater respect for Burroughs after watching this? No. Did I come away with a better understanding of him? Not really. His face is as fixed a mask as his flat delivery and three-piece suits, and while there are flickers behind that mask they are flickers of something I didn’t like, and certainly didn’t want to spend any more time with.
*. There’s something about drug culture that doesn’t last. Some of the Beats had talent, but I don’t think there’s much they wrote that has lasted. On the Road. Howl. I feel the same way about psychedelic music. I’d keep Pink Floyd, but what else from that era? Just a few songs.
*. If I could check my distaste for Burroughs at the door I’d say this was a game documentary, involving the editing of many hours of footage shot over several years. I like the idea of dramatizing the operating room scene, even if the results are, I guess appropriately, skid row. It’s been restored for the Criterion release but still looks dirty. If you’re a fan of Burroughs you might like that, though I doubt you’ll learn anything new.
*. In his later years, which would include the years covered in the making of this film, Burroughs was on his way to becoming a brand, even pitching Nikes at one point. This was a professional achievement as surprising as it was depressing. For what it says about celebrity and about us. Would you buy a pair of shoes from this guy?