Burroughs Deep

Yony Leyser, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, 2010, black-and-white and color film, 90 minutes. Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs. Photo: Allen Ginsberg.

BY THE TIME of his death in 1997, William S. Burroughs had achieved something that very few figures ever manage: He had become supra-human, a living, livid symbol. Only Burroughs’s own name can unite such disparate activities, output, and stances: writer, murderer, painter, junkie, public commentator, cultural critic, concept engineer. In addition to changing the face of literature, exploding the craft’s lexicon of possibilities with his early work, he redefined the role of the public intellectual, becoming his own creation, an “antillectual” who rebuffed even those countercultural movements that claimed him as one of their own.

A hero to artists, philosophers, junkies, and sexual outsiders, Burroughs created work that brought together spheres that tend to function as in-clubs, thereby illuminating the heavy regimentation of the social nexus. Burroughs’s universe was where the art world met the criminal nether regions, where the liberation movements were forced to confront the gun lover, where irruptions of collectivity were shot down by the erratic impulses of a pronounced anarcho-individualism, where punk rock wore a suit and tie.

It is with a supreme sensitivity to the warring aspects of Burroughs’s person that Yony Leyser’s William S. Burroughs: A Man Within transcends traditional cinematic portraiture to endow its subject with the ontological gravity it deserves; in doing so, it lets us bear witness to the enunciation of a style—the manner of being-in-the-world that Burroughs would singly occupy. Indeed, thanks to legions of hangers-on as well as fanatics who looked up to the late author for all the wrong reasons (let’s face it: His defects as a human being were multitudinous), there is a Burroughs Industry one must machete through to arrive at the substance of the man. This, Leyser accomplishes through a combination of talking-head interviews, footage of the perpetually wrinkled and crotchety old junkie at home among friends and before the public eye, and thematic animations by Aimee Goguen and Dillon Markey. A Man Within effectively shows us how a single presence animated the gray sludge of the underworld for the entire second half of the last century. In our current era, which has seen the triumph of the manufactured persona, Leyser’s Burroughs remarks the sad absence of unpopular culture and its monarchs.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within opens at Moviemento in Berlin on Wednesday, January 11.