Beyond Redemption

“Burroughs: the movie” directed by Howard Brookner

The opening of Howard Brookner’s 1983 film Burroughs: The Movie is irresistible. The beautiful gap-toothed supermodel, Lauren Hutton, full of sparkly enthusiasm, introduces William S. Burroughs on a segment of Saturday Night Live in 1981. Everything about the introduction is exceptional; it is Burroughs’s first television appearance, Hutton’s makeup is overdone and her praise—she calls him “America’s greatest living writer”—is commensurately over the top. She comes to us in the flickering light we associate with old films (the sequence must have been taped from television) and you half expect Buster Keaton to make an appearance.

In a way, he does. Burroughs sits down at a desk, looks directly at the camera and begins reading from Twilight’s Last Gleamings. The flickering light continues throughout his presentation. He strikes you as a worn-out newsreader, like an unhealthy, thin Walter Cronkite, but the delivery is mesmerizing. His signature acerbic snarl-and-drawl style is sardonic and wickedly funny. He reads a section about Dr. Benway, the drunken ship’s doctor aboard the SS America, who drops cigarette ashes on an incision while conducting a botched appendectomy. When an explosion splits the boat in two, causing the patient “to slide off the operating table, spilling intestines across the floor,” Benway scoops some narcotics into his bag and leaves the operating room, seating himself in a lifeboat among the women with the announcement, “I am the doctor.”

It is the perfect reading to open a film in which the main character is constantly performing. In the next sequence we see a series of five black and white stills, like an actor’s portfolio, in which each set of clothes casts him in a different light: he’s a gentleman with a fedora in one; in another his goofy smile and patterned suit jacket make him look like a reject from an episode of Father Knows Best; in the next he strikes a moodily handsome pose in a black suit; and finally he appears in a sporty, open-necked shirt. He has bags under his eyes the size of satchels. In each photograph he seems to be playing another version of himself.

Burroughs is performing all the time, soberly in his readings, drunkenly in a raucous rendition of Danny Boy with writer Terry Southern, and calculatingly in the interview segments that punctuate the film. His most convincing role is the comedian with the black sense of humour who takes centre stage in the various readings we hear throughout this wonderful 90 minute documentary. Burroughs is an absolutely compelling reader. You can’t not watch him. The readings are supplemented with other kinds of performances, including a Grand Guignol enactment of another one of Doctor Benway’s operations. In this one he massages a patient’s heart with a toilet plunger, splashing blood all over himself, Dr. Limpf and the attending nurse. The nurse is in drag, the doctor is incapable of doing anything and Burroughs is riotously savage. It’s a preposterous bit of theatre, delivered with just the right balance of camp and self-derision.

Other performances are less successful, most notably a silly hilltop conversation where Ginsberg and Burroughs attempt to reprise characters from many years earlier. Burroughs is conspicuously uncomfortable acting out what he calls his “Edith Sitwell part. I got in drag and looked like some sinister old lesbian.” Ginsberg plays a well-groomed Hungarian whose accent would place him in the cast of an amateur Fiddler on the Roof more than in the art gallery he is supposed to own. It is embarrassing, but the sequence is consistent with Burroughs’s tendency to find roles that reveal some aspect of his life. At one point in the film, his sometime lover and full-time secretary, James Grauerholz, asks if his writing is autobiographical. William’s answer is direct and unequivocal. “Yes,” he says, “everyone’s is.”

Burroughs: The Movie, filmed over a five year period beginning in 1978, has been rescued and digitally remastered by Aaron Brookner, Howard’s nephew and a filmmaker in his own right. Howard Brookner died of AIDs-related causes in 1989 when he was only 35, and the film largely disappeared. But Aaron and his partner, Paula Vaccaro, located a good copy and raised the money to have it restored through an online public appeal. Later this year it will be theatrically released by Janus Films followed by a DVD/blu-ray edition in the Criterion Collection. As a result, a new generation will have access to the weird, eventful and troubling life of William Burroughs.

That life is central to the way the film proceeds. Early on, Burroughs remarks that “I can divide my literary production into sets: where, when and under what circumstances.” Brookner clues in on the idea not just as content but as a structural device. The film cuts back and forth between Burroughs, and other figures from the Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, John Giorno and Lucien Carr, telling his life in stories, and the life contained within the writing. For Burroughs, just as for Rauschenberg, there is no gap between art and life; they are one and the same thing with no separation. The film cuts from him walking down his home street in St. Louis to a reading from Cities of the Red Night in which we are told there is “nothing but the smell of empty years,” exactly the way he has characterized his upbringing in St. Louis. He remarks in an on-camera interview that other than being a doctor, the other career he missed out on was espionage: “I might have been the head of the CIA,” he remarks, at which point he reads a section from Nova Express dealing with the way Nova policemen make an arrest. The rumour is circulating that “one of our agents is posing as a writer. He has written a so-called pornographic novel called Naked Lunch.” There is a constant toggling back and forth between life and art. The novels are enlisted to illustrate the life we are hearing about through Burroughs’s telling; it’s an effective two-pronged narration in which we get the experience and then the experience folded into literature. For Brookner, Burroughs’s life and his writing about it are like sand inside an hourglass. It keeps getting turned upside down, grains from one continuously flowing into the other.

There are two families that Burroughs is involved with in the film: his adopted literary family that starts when he meets Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1944, and his blood family, with which his experience is troubling. The scene where he visits his brother, Mortimer, is indicative. After dispensing with the mandatory attempts to identity some family pictures, Mortimer lets his younger brother know what he thinks of his writing. “I tried to read Naked Lunch,” he says, looking straight at his brother. “It didn’t make much sense to me and I didn’t see any real necessity for the language you used. It just sort of disgusts me.” William simply sits there, his eyes raised and one of those ‘Here we go again’ looks on his face.

We get a very different sense in the next scene where William talks about an uneasy childhood full of a deeply rooted fear of both the dark and lightning. At that time, Mort was his protector and for a brief moment there is a poignancy in his recollection. It passes. “Don’t bother me anymore,” Burroughs says, and any embryonic sentimentality is cast aside.

Burroughs’s son is another casualty of his singularly inflexible lifestyle. After the shooting death of his mother, young Billy is abandoned by Burroughs, whose only contact is to mail him gifts from exotic places: the poems of Rimbaud when he reaches puberty; the plaster cast of a shrunken head; or beautiful Amazonian butterflies in little glass cases. Billy calls it “psychic communication.” He is a writer, as well as an alcoholic and an addict, who loses his liver to cirrhosis. He dies in 1981 at the age of 33. His appearances in the film are heartbreaking. In one awkward visit, Billy is saying goodbye at the door; all William can say to him is how beautiful is his overcoat. “It looks like the Yukon.” The disconnections are visceral.

One of the contributing factors to Billy’s estrangement was his mother’s death. It is a grotesquely legendary story. Joan Vollmer and William are in Mexico when he declares what he would later call “an absolute piece of insanity. It’s about time for our William Tell act,” he says. They are both drunk and standing nine feet apart. She places a glass on top of her head. Burroughs has what he calls “a piece of 380 junk” which he aims and fires, hitting her in the middle of her forehead and killing her instantly.

The subsequent explanation of what happened that night is the most problematic part of the film, and no one comes across sounding convincing. Ginsberg essentially blames the victim, insinuating that she “challenged him into it, in a sense, using him to get her off the earth.” It is a disgraceful explanation and you can hear in his telling a false note as he stumbles to find words. He has been Burroughs’ most articulate apologist and, suddenly, he is hesitant. His conclusion is that the accident connected Burroughs to reality, grounding him and making him a writer. “It certainly gave Bill a sense of mortality,” Ginsberg says. That may be true, but not as strong a sense as it gave Joan Vollmer.

Burroughs is equally unpersuasive. He repeatedly changed his story—we see three newspaper headlines describing his inconsistencies—and he tries to blame his behaviour on “the completely malevolent force, the Ugly Spirit,” he claims to have fought his entire life. The explanation is at best an admission of reckless behaviour and at worst almost a confession.

It’s difficult to say how Brookner views this collective sophistry. He seems to be prepared to let viewers decide for themselves what they want to believe. This tendency to present rather than judge is one of the film’s strengths. It is clear that Burroughs trusted Brookner, and the key to a strong documentary is access to the subject. In this case, Burroughs isn’t just available; he is actively engaged in providing Brookner with whatever sequences he wants. There is a hilarious and vaguely uncomfortable scene in which Burroughs displays his collection of weapons, including a blowgun, a pistol, a knife and a blackjack. “You could cut someone’s throat in the middle of a sentence,” he gleefully admits. “But I’m not anticipating any trouble because I don’t like violence.”

The writers and hangers-on who appear in the film are fascinating but not especially likeable. Ginsberg discloses that Burroughs fell in love with him, and when they became lovers “I saw his very soft centre where he felt isolated and very alone in the world, and since I did love him, I loaned him the key of tenderness.” Ginsberg constantly places himself in the centre of whatever story he is telling. For that matter, everyone in the film traffics in self-aggrandisement. Huncke gets to the heart of the matter. He wasn’t entirely happy with the way he was described in Junkie, but he ends up accepting the portrayal. “I was pleased that he considered me worth writing about.”

Brookner presents all the characters in the film as they are, especially his lead. Burroughs is a complicated character who relentlessly pursues whatever substance or experience will provide him with pleasure. Watching the film and enjoying it as much as we do is no less a guilty pleasure for the viewer. During one of Billy’s visits, Burroughs goes on a rant about religion. “Let’s face it, anyone who is a devout Christian at this point is beyond redemption. I mean, holy shit, who wants to hear about that?” (A version of religious devotion is already in the film’s air. In a testimonial at the beginning, Patti Smith says Burroughs “is up there with the Pope, we can’t revere him enough”). Burroughs: The Movie shows us a man whose unwavering sense of self is absolutely beyond redemption. That is exactly the place where he always wanted to be.