Yony Leyser, “William Burroughs: Man Within” (2010)
An obvious labour of love for Yony Leyser, this documentary on subversive US experimental novelist and artist William S Burroughs and his place in 20th-century Western culture takes viewers on an often bewildering tour of the man’s achievements and private obsessions, fears and loves through interviews with those friends, acquaintances and associates who knew him well. Like the man himself, the film turns out to be very layered, focusing on Burroughs as a writer, role model, friend and above all a human being with all the fears and frailties that human flesh is heir to. For some people, a portrait of a highly contradictory, misanthropic yet often lonely man with a hunger for love and security may emerge; for others, Burroughs’ wicked black humour, often delivered po-faced style in that distinctive dry and gravelly voice of his, may be the most impressive aspect of the man.
The documentary’s structure is generally chronological, beginning with Burroughs’ early years as part of the beatnik movement along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and moving through his junkie period in the 1950s (which gave him the material for early novels like “Junkie” and “The Naked Lunch”) and his friendship with British artist Brion Gysin which was to influence his style of writing profoundly. Fortunately the film also attempts to make sense of the many strands of Burroughs’ artistic work by segmenting his work and the associated connections into broad categories of writing, music, the visual arts and hobbies and other extracurricular activities such as collecting guns and cats; this does mean that the film does go backwards and forward in time against its general chronological structure. There is some voice-over narration by US actor Peter Weller (best known for playing the cyborg in “Robocop”) but the bulk of the documentary is driven by interviews with several well-known artists, musicians and writers as director John Waters, singers Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, members of Sonic Youth, director David Cronenberg and above all performance artist / musician Genesis Breyer P-Orridge who knew Burroughs well during the 1980s and who offers quite deep and interesting insights into Burroughs’ character.
The film is sure to appeal to Burroughs fans and people unfamiliar with his life. Unfortunately there’s not much detail about the novels that made Burroughs famous apart from the observation that novels like “The Naked Lunch” were really a warning about the dangers of heroin addiction and not an encouragement to embark on the Tao of Narcotics. Disappointingly there’s nothing about later novels like “The Soft Machine” and “The Ticket That Exploded” which explored drug and sexual addiction as a form of control restricting human freedom and development, or “The Western Lands” which confronts death by investigating dream states and hallucinations, magic and the occult. The documentary is also not much interested in exploring Burroughs’ politics, inasmuch as they influenced his writing and the themes of psychological and social control that appear in his novels.
Inevitably the film surveys the influence that Burroughs has had on popular culture, notably rock and pop music, name-checking musicians across three generations and of various genres, in particular punk and new wave. The hit parade of Burroughs acolytes does take on a cult-like aspect and one sometimes wonders just how deep an impact Burroughs really has made on people like Sting and U2.
The film is no less inventive and complex than Burroughs’ style in its use of animation, historical film, Burroughs’ own spoken-word performances and excerpts of his writings. It ends on an unexpected revelation that casts the man in a new light. Yony Leyser is to be much commended for the way in which he has shaped the film’s narrative which mirrors the way in which Burroughs wrote much of his work.