Despite, or perhaps because of, William S. Burroughs reputation for being a junkie who shot his wife and a general curmudgeon, he has been elevated to the status of god amongst the goths, punks, hipsters and other outcasts of the world. The self-proclaimed map maker, an explorer of psychic areas and cosmonaut of inner space possibly took enough hallucigens to sink a camel, if such a thing is possible, but is perhaps best known for his contributions to literature in the form of novels Queer, Junkie and The Naked Lunch. A defining figure in the Beat Generation, Burroughs has appeared in everything from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues to narrating a re-release of Häxan: Withcraft Through the Ages.
In debut filmmaker Yony Leyer’s documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, Leyser proves himself to be one of the disciples that would proudly sit at Burroughs feet. Digging deep within the archives, along with Burroughs own Rolodex of friends, ex-lovers, acolytes and well-wishers, Leyer attempts to create a pastiche of a man who lead one of the most interesting lives, and for whom “death has a special smell”. Beginning roughly at the time that Burroughs emerged as a poet of the Beat Generation, right next to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Burrough’s story (narrated by Naked Lunch star and former Robocop Peter Weller) is fascinating, disturbing, inspiring and sometimes just plain nuts.
The myriad of influences that Burroughs has had on popular culture are incalculable, from coining the term “heavy metal” to providing the inspiration for the title of Blade Runner. Yet William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is about the man himself, as the helpful title would imply. Concentrating for a large part on role Burroughs played in the gay liberation movement, and his own homosexuality, Burroughs notes in relation to his own activism that he had “a duty to do these things”. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, from the band Throbbing Gristle and the subject of SUFF 2011’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, goes one step further in arguing that Burroughs chose a path that would bring him into conflict in all aspects of his life. This is not difficult to justify in someone who accidentally shot and killed his second wife during a game of William Tell with a .45.
Although the film travels through Burrough’s musical influences, with heavy commentary from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and Laurie Anderson, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is at its strongest when it simply attempts to strip back the outer layers of its subject and look at the inner workings of what made him tick. It may be a completely impenetrable task, but one its participants clearly relish being a part of.
William S. Burroughs: A Man Within screens at the Sydney Underground Film Festival on 9 and 1o September 2011.