William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the Beats. This is the second time in a week that I’ve seen a film about a Beat writer.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is a documentary by Yony Leyser. It features interviews with many people who knew the writer. The film is well-made and provides many details, including film footage of the author himself, yet, when it was over, Burroughs was still something of a mystery to me. It’s still not clear to me what made the man tick. For example, the film discusses at length Burroughs’s obsession with firearms. We learn that he always carried a loaded gun and that he slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. Yet the movie never succeeds in explaining this behavior. Did Burroughs have an experience that caused him to feel threatened? The film never indicates that he did.

Burrough’s fondness for weapons was bound up with a propensity for reckless behavior. He shot his wife, Joyce Vollmer, to death. (Not surprisingly, their son grew up to be a basketcase who drank himself to death at the age of thirty-three.) He nearly killed himself while doing target practice in his backyard. He shared needles with other addicts. He got himself bit while playing with a venomous snake. One of Burroughs’s friends expresses amazement that he lived as long as he did. The film discusses all these things dispassionately, though I think some moral judgement would have been appropriate here. Just because you’re a genius doesn’t give you the right to be an irresponsible asshole.

Critics have accused Burroughs of romanticizing drug use, but the film makes it clear that he hated being an addict. He quit several times, but he always eventually went back to his habit. As someone who has seen some of his friends develop addictions, I could relate to this part of the movie.

The film devotes a great deal of attention to Burroughs’s influence on the punk rock movement. There are interviews with several musicians, including Patti Smith. Since I’m not a huge fan of punk rock, I can’t say that I found this terribly impressive. I would have liked it if the movie had talked more about Burroughs’s influence on other writers, especially Beats such as Kerouac and Ginsberg.

The film does provide some human moments. We learn, for example, that Burroughs liked cats and that he shared recipes with his friends. Still, for the most part the film confirmed my previous impression of Burroughs as a cold and aloof person.

2 Responses to “William S. Burroughs: A Man Within”

  1. tw Says:

    I want to point out that while Burroughs’ son, Billy Burroughs Jr. did drink himself to death at age 33 he was most definitely not a basketcase. He wrote two excellent novels (Speed and Kentucky Ham) and struggled to complete a third while battling some serious demons. Quite an accomplishment, considering the long and complicated shadow Billy Jr. was born under. Cursed From Birth: the Short and Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr. is a fascinating book on the subject.

  2. The Spanish Prisoner Says:

    I perhaps should not have used the word “basketcase”. He was, though, clearly a deeply troubled individual.

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