Tuesday, 19 October 2010


The UK premiere of Yony Leyser’s feature length documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is as good a place as any to see what Bill’s readers look like. Do a spot of profiling. I like to imagine they’re a motley crue of misfits and outsiders on the margins of society with fierce independent and individualist elements. I’m sure they are, but beside counterculture legend and Burroughs photographer John Hoppy Hopkins who shuffles in to the NFT still resolutely anti-establishment with his long grey hippy hair, little knitted hat and luminous trainers, the rest have learned well from “El Hombre Invisible” and go about their business drawing as little heat as possible.

Leyser’s film opens as a standard documentary “William Seward Burroughs was born…” etc but soon unravels into a segment exploring his sexuality and relationship (or not) to gay culture. It’s relationships in general that the film looks at and Burroughs’ reluctance or inability to give or accept love. In one clip Allen Ginsberg asks if he wants to be loved. “Weeeell, that depends on from whom or from what”. Pause. Pursed lips. “From my cats certainly”.

Instead of a chronological story the film lumps together themes and uses archive footage and talking heads in an attempt to unveil Burroughs the man rather than Burroughs the wife shooting junkie queer who wrote a bit. Although there is still plenty of that amongst the sections on guns, drugs, sex, the William Tell incident, cut-ups etc. As a thorough life story it wasn’t particularly strong and details of his work were lacking but it still managed to offer plenty to attract the interest of new viewers and enough new snippets to please the old guard. You won’t find me complaining; I’m eager to watch it again when it gets a DVD release.

The interviewees were a mixed bag. Some, like Iggy Pop, were presumably only there for marketing purposes but John Waters was entertaining, Victor Bockris enthusiastic, Peter Weller larger than life and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge thoughtful, personal and curiously attractive. These people look like Burroughs readers. They’re not in the margins, they’re off the page. More revealing though were the contributions from the likes of people closer to him like his friend James Grauerholz, his gun dealer and a young boyfriend whose name unfortunately escapes me. They all do great impressions too.

Burroughs achieved much during his surprisingly long life yet watching this it’s hard not to think it was a sad, painful and lonely life with little happiness. His friends did find comfort in the very last words he wrote in his spidery handwriting in his journal just days before he died in 1997. “Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE”. He was talking about his cats.

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