DVD review: ‘William S. Burroughs: A Man Within’
As a writer, William S. Burroughs was a beat era icon – a skeletal, literary grim reaper – celebrated for such postmodernist, misanthropic, semi-autobiographical works as “Naked Lunch” and “Junkie.”
As a man, he was an equally iconic and enigmatic figure of mid-20th century bohemia who embraced a life of raging contradiction – a natty, cultured gentleman obsessed with drugs, guns and violence; a homosexual who married and fathered children; an influential literary man who accidentally shot and killed his wife in an intoxicated game of “William Tell.”
These contradictions and more are examined, warts and all, in the enticing and sympathetic documentary “William S. Burroughs: A Man Within” by writer-director Yony Leyser.
Narrated by Peter Weller, who portrayed a Burroughs-like figure in David Cronenberg’s 1991 film “Naked Lunch,” this documentary offers a lean, concise portrait of the author as hipster saint and extreme social satirist whose writing was at once bleakly hilarious and starkly chilling.
Leyser employs never-before-seen footage and exclusive interviews with Burroughs’ closest friends and colleagues and ranges through the Harvard-educated author’s privileged St. Louis upbringing as grandson of the Burroughs Adding Machine company to his immersion in beat culture and his amorous association with poet Allen Ginsberg.
The filmmaker touches rather too lightly on Burroughs’ literary accomplishments and focuses extensively on the personal ramifications of his homosexuality. And he ably sketches out the two family tragedies that so vividly colored Burroughs’ public persona as a nihilistic literary outlaw – the accidental shooting death of his wife Joan Vollmer in 1951, and the 1981 loss of his son Billy to acute alcoholism.
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