Thursday, February 17, 2011

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

He was the world’s most dapper junkie. William S. Burroughs raised self-destructive living to a form of high performance art, yet somehow lived to the ripe old age of eighty-three. Many things to many people, documentary profiler Yony Leyser attempts to delve beneath the surface of the writer’s well-established public image in William S. Burroughs A Man Within (trailer here), which airs next Tuesday on most PBS stations as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

At one point in Within, Burroughs’ biographer argues the Harvard-educated Beat icon might have been the most important novelist of the late Twentieth Century. This seems like quite the overstatement (Nabokov springs more readily to mind here), but there is no denying his influence on hipster subcultures. Rock & roll for instance, is strewn with Burroughs references, like “heavy metal,” “Steely Dan,” and “Soft Machine.”

In his attempts to find Burroughs’ elusive true self, Leyser revisits the notorious episodes from the novelist’s life, including the “William Tell” incident that “accidently” cut short his wife’s time on Earth. He was not much of a parent either, indirectly contributing to his son’s fatal drug habit through neglect and by example. However, the rather problematic aspects of Burroughs’ final romantic relationship with a then seventeen year-old boy are entirely glossed over.

Frankly, Leyser tries too hard to find that redemptive Rosebud moment, ultimately only delivering a bit of off-hand sentimentalism notable only for being so out of character for the lifelong cynic. In contrast, the film is much more successful when reveling in the extreme manifestations of the Burroughs persona. Perhaps most enlightening is the segment on Burroughs, the Second Amendment defender, who even incorporated guns into his abstract painting.

Throughout Within, there are a number of telling anecdotes coming from a diverse cast of talking heads, including Peter Weller (the star of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch), who also does double duty as the film’s narrator. Even if viewers never really meet sensitive soul presumably buried beneath Burroughs’ acerbic exterior, at least Leyser captures his wit and provocative spirit. An entertaining and somewhat revealing work of cultural history, Within airs this coming Tuesday (2/22) on most PBS outlets (check local listings).