William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010) Poster

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The Unknowable Mr. Burroughs
dalefried17 April 2010
Expectations often drive us. The expectation of full-boat tickets to film festivals like the one recently in Sarasota is that you get to go where you please and when. Once there, you have expectations that some films, based on your predilections, will entice you more than others. Such was the case for my anticipation of the William S Burroughs documentary that I had heard nothing about before it showing up in the SFF playbill. This guy was at least an anti-hero to any wierdster like myself who matured from the late 1950's to the early 1970's. But how to present such a life of what may be one of the most unrepresentable individuals from the 20th Century.

And from a first time filmmaker who was likely enjoying his Captain Crunch the morning the world learned of this infamous man's passing. How could Yony Leyser possibly know and appreciate an at best unknowable enigma from the weird subdivision in boomer-town's hall of fame.

What you get, fortunately, is a film that may tear through the fabric of any experienced viewers strategies on figuring out what beguiles them while viewing. Burroughs was so unpurposely misunderstood by default that he fits into a category of his own unconscious making. At best, I expected, in Burroughs' own words from the film, an 'unprecise' 'approximation' of the man whose infamy, in so many ways, took on a mass far, if not infinitely, greater than the addicted, queer, paranoid, but always genteel man he may have been … maybe.

In presentation, the film explodes past expectations of standard documentary forms like some kind of mutation that I think Burroughs would have loved. The formula, whatever it may be, affects in ways that award winning Alex Gibney did not capture nearly as evocatively in his screed on another modern hipster icon of excess, Hunter S Thompson. Throughout, the style contests your expectations in expansive ways you likely have not experienced. The always artistic, multi-textural presentation cannot possibly, as Burroughs life, be seen in one viewing. This is not unique in documentaries. What may be unique, however, is that other than those IMAX explorations of nature and beyond, the film may be the one documentary that demands to be seen in as big a venue as possible so you may best swim in its excesses and nuances. If the film gets enough attention beyond festivals to be considered award worthy, they may have to invent a category.

In judgment, it has that feel of a discovery found on a fairly long trail of enticing experiences with an array of individuals who had the privilege of hanging with the man for any length of time. What you may be witnessing is an education similar to Candide's travels with the Dr. Pangloss that Burroughs was to so many. What better possible vision of Burrough's world could there be! In the end, one is left with the ultimate contradiction of that dead pan voice from the man in his perennial three piece evoking provoking prose that leaves vapor trails in the aether of your mind in those places where it may resonate for days, confounding.

As is should be. As it will be. As it is.

Thank you, Mr. Leyser for dedicating five years of your young life to this adventure. It was well worth it.
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Great introduction for Burroughs virgins
tomgillespie20026 October 2011
It's quite a brave idea to condense an incredible life into a 90 minute documentary. Yony Leyser has produced an interesting and sometimes enlightening experience even for myself, who has read much of Burroughs's work, and many books about him. For those of you who don't know, William Seward Burroughs was born in 1914 within a very prosperous family (The Burroughs Adding Machine Co.), but a perpetual rebel. Primarily a writer - most notably for The Naked Lunch, which was published in 1959 and immediately courted controversy due to it's explicit nature - Burroughs explored painting, film, amongst others, but always with the intention of experimentation and subversion. His writing technique, The Cut-ups (where pages of text can be cut up and rearranged to conjure word and sentence juxtaposition), was of course revolutionary, and the style was adopted from, particularly, musicians such as David Bowie and The Dead Kennedy's.

Burroughs's life was lived very different from the rest of the world. A junkie, homosexual who fit in no group throughout the 1940's, 1950's and '60's, he used his alienation to create the persona that would later be called "Il Hombre Invisible" (amongst many other "nick-names"). He was a mentor to the Beat generation of writers, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who were also witness to a tragedy in 1951 at a party, when then wife Joan and Burroughs executed the William Tell trick, where an apple was placed on her head. Unfortunately he missed the apple and shot her in the head, killing her.

Each "chapter" of the film are introduced with some nifty animations using coat-hanger wire, and the structure builds to Burroughs's rise in the New York scene of the 1970's. He was a celebrity within the world of punk rock, art and literature, and seemed for the first time to fit into the popular culture; his debased and transgressive imagery very fitting within this context. He would later collaborate with the (mostly) Seattle rock scene in the early '90's, even collaborating with Kurt Cobain with a sound scape to Burroughs' distinctive voice and words.

Whilst the film cannot completely penetrate the full life, philosophy and art of this visually unusual man, it does produce an idea of him. The inclusion of new interviews with friends and colleagues does bring to the film a more emotional edge to the man. The past portrayals do focus on his "cool" in his later life; his celebrity. However, this does show the old man in a light I've never seen committed to film. We see him as an almost vulnerable man, lonely, and lost of love - his utter love for Ginsberg seems to have haunted his life. Essential viewing for any Burroughs fan, and an incredibly decent introduction of the man's genius to any Burroughs virgin. For those of you who have not reveled in his transgressive imagery, his paranoid fascination with control, and the governmental forces behind these, you need to get some of his brilliant, surreal, and disturbing writing.

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A gem about Burroughs the man: most insightful, moving film
cuthebull17 October 2010
Most insightful look into this multi dimensional brilliant, troubled, and troubling writer, as his friends, artists, fans, ex-lovers, experienced him, took from him, and gave him. His bizarre as well as very humane sides are are depicted in very thoughtful, some moving, interviews by John Waters, Genesis o'porridge, Patti Smith, Peter Weller,Iggi Pop, Laurie Anderson, and many other artists who were fascinated by his original, pattern- breaking style. Some interviews had to do with Burroughs daring, resilient character as he dared to confront the world of the 50's as a queer, who stripped the veil of hypocrisy from society before and during the Vietnam era with a piercing writing style. While observing himself become a hopeless addict, he was able to address his addiction as a metaphor for society's maladies in some transcending way... Killing his wife, Not being able to emotionally connect with his troubled son, fearful of love, he was described by genesis as "a sad man". This is the first Documentary depicting Burroughs as the complex man he was, defying every and any category of affiliation...meticulously done, a master-piece you want to watch more than once...
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Fan or Uncle Bill newbie you might like this one ...
spataa26 November 2010
When I heard about the new documentary about William Burroughs I was pretty excited . Over the years I read many of the popular books including the reader , listened to the spoken word material and watched many of the short films and movies he appeared in . I thought I had a pretty good grasp of his work . However , I didn't know what a treat I was really in for when I walked in the the Denver premier of this very well directed and produced film . I found the insight that many of the friends and colleague opened my thought process on his work opened so much wider and I have a deeper understanding of the man and his work . Showing a time line from childhood to death and his life process was amazing . Seeing so much footage from performance to everyday life was great . He is still a voice and lighthouse in counter culture . I was so grateful for many of the interviews with his friends as they were very insightful and very personal . If you are fan of the man , have just found out about him or just heard that this was a good film you have to see this one . You won't be disappointed , so check it out and pass on the good word.
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Insightful documentary
MovieGuy10919 May 2012
William Burroughs is one of the most controversial artists of the century, his book "Naked Lunch" still disgusts and repulses some readers. Here, Burroughs is examined as a man with little emotion who refused to be loved, but inside the intellect and the anarchy lies a man of much sadness and alienation. The film shows Burroughs and his influence on the counter-culture, revealing his influence on films such as "Blade Runner", bands such as Steely Dan, and the punk movement of the '70s. It also explores his personal life, such as his homosexuality, drug addiction, guns, and his guilt over the accidental shooting of his second wife. Although Burroughs has been examined in documentary features many times, here he is given a more personal look.
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Burroughs, A Man Who Touched Everyone
gavin694216 June 2011
William S. Burroughs: featuring never before seen footage as well as exclusive interviews with his closest friends and colleagues...

I was never huge into Burroughs, though my respect for the man was high, and he touched so much -- the beat generation, the hippies, the punks. Countless movies and bands were influenced by him, so we all owe him a debt even if we never heard of him. When I was a teenager, I explored Brion Gysin and Throbbing Gristle and other things and I am impressed to see that everything I thought was cool was all a part of Burroughs' world.

Most interesting of all was Peter Weller, who appears and also narrates. When you think Burroughs, you do not think Weller. I mean, sure, he was in "Naked Lunch", but beyond that? And here we learn about Weller, his drug experiments and more. A guy known mainly for being "RoboCop" has quite an interesting personal life, it seems.
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Film succeeds admirably.
ginmillcowboy14 April 2017
Leyser is clearly a Burroughs acolyte, and he taps into the man's sensibility: The abstract stop-motion animation by Aimee Goguen and Dillon Markey creates aptly crazy interludes between interviews and archival bits, which include avantgarde movies Burroughs made when was a relative youth (even if he never quite looked like one). There is a wealth of anecdotal material. Like his subject, Leyser strives to disengage from the conventional, while still being lucid. He succeeds admirably.
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