William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010) movie poster

director Yony Leyser
viewed: 07/18/2012

Director Yony Leyser’s documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, seeks to humanize a man whose mythos, largely based in fact as they are, tower significantly above the reality of the man himself.  The film works with what interviewees are still available, a number of notable musicians and artists largely affiliated with punk or pre-punk or post-punk, all of whom derived influence from Burroughs’ work but also many of whom all actually knew the man.  Burroughs himself, of course, appears only in archival footage, alongside Allen Ginsberg.  The Beats now are all but dead and it’s these secondary resources from whom we are left to glean.

Among the less famous names and faces, Leyser also interviews some of Burroughs’ lovers, in particular James Grauerholz.  The significance here is that Burroughs, the least sentimental of people, is shown to “have a heart,” even writing in his very last journal about the potential and power of love.  The “softer” side of Burroughs isn’t easily extracted, but those who knew him, like Patti Smith and Genesis P-Orridge, evoke sentiment about him and of him.

The film has little moments illustrated by stop-motion animations by Aimee Goguen and Dillon Markey, simple images like wire caricatures come to life, which are nicely done.  And the film delves into aspects of Burroughs’ life that have come to add to his legend: his drug use, his cut-up style of writing, his accidental murder of his wife, his open sexuality. Director John Waters muses about a certain sainthood for Burroughs for those in certain marginalized locations in society to whom he’ll always be an icon.

It’s an earnest affair and an interesting one.  Not itself ground-breaking but well-intentioned.  Straight-forward, both humanizing and deifying.