New York

“Burroughs,” directed by Howard Brookner

New York Film Festival

For the most part Burroughs, Howard Brookner’s documentary about writer William S. Burroughs, doesn’t stray far from time-tested techniques of documentaries. True, there’s the darkly hilarious sequence in which Burroughs, dressed up as Dr. Benway, his character from Naked Lunch, performs an operation with a plumber’s helper, assisted by Jackie Curtis as a nurse. (The operation is unsuccessful—the patient spurts blood everywhere.) But otherwise, as in most other documentaries on cultural figures, we follow Burroughs through a wide range of activities, both public and private—readings, dinners with friends, a visit to his childhood home in St. Louis (where he meets his brother, Mortimer, who explains that he couldn’t finish reading Naked Lunch: “It just sort of disgusts me.”). Distinguished friends—Terry Southern, Allen Ginsberg—are called on to reminisce about the old days with Burroughs, now gaunt and frail-looking as he nears 70. And throughout we hear Burroughs himself as he responds to an unheard and unseen interviewer. All of this might make for a conventionally adulatory portrait of a cultural celebrity. But because of Burroughs’ determined peculiarity and the remarkable thoroughness with which Brookner examines his life, the film offers not an official portrait but an intimate trace of a very complex personality.

Toward the end of the film, for example, the camera follows Burroughs as he walks around “the Bunker,” his windowless Manhattan loft. At one point he stops to show off his weapons. He fires a blowgun, cocks a pistol, then demonstrates a telescoping blackjack by swiping at some imaginary assailant. “If you had a double-bladed knife,” he explains gleefully, “you could swing it out and cut somebody’s throat before he knew what was happening. Right in the middle of a sentence.” It’s a laugh line—earlier in the film we’ve seen him demonstrate his famous cut-up writing technique, slicing a page in quarters, rearranging the pieces, and retyping the new juxtaposition. But the scene also reiterates the boyish fantasies of adventure that have apparently run through his life. By this point in the film he’s described his love of playing cowboys and Indians as a boy, how afraid he was of dark and storms, and how he became a writer because he “thought they lived glamorous lives, smoking hashish in Tangier, sniffing cocaine in Mayfair.” If he hadn’t become a writer, he explains, he might have been a doctor. Or a spy.

The reality of his life seems to have included large elements of fantasy, too—or nightmare. Settling in New York during the war the handsome, patrician Burroughs became a mentor for the Beats. Then began years of heroin addiction, described in his first novel, Junkie. Further on in the film Burroughs tells how he shot and killed his wife in Mexico in the early ’50s, during a sort of William Tell game with both apparently in an alcoholic stupor. The son of that marriage, William S. Burroughs, Jr., appears in several heart-wrenching interviews in the film. A junky and an alcoholic himself, and recovering from a liver transplant, the younger Burroughs mumbles semicoherently about his father; later we learn that he has since died. Burroughs’ young secretary, meanwhile, smugly declares himself to have been more of a son to Burroughs than Billy was.

Burroughs himself seems to have passed through this shambles of a life with innocence untouched. That apparent innocence, even delight, in the face of sordidness and horror is a central hallmark of his writing. Unlike most documentaries, which argue explicitly for or against their subjects, this film wisely avoids open judgment of Burroughs. Instead it lets the writer reveal himself, and the deep contradictions in his personality, by presenting him in closely observed, carefully selected moments.

Charles Hagan