Burroughs: The Movie

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Burroughs: The Movie
"Like much of Burroughs' writing, the film has a shaggy dog tale quality, rambling along in a way which does not at first seem nearly as informative as it actually is, then bursting into moments of brilliant radicalism."

Few writers are as reclusive as was William S Burroughs, yet few documentarians get as close to their subjects as this. Burroughs: the Movie is an extraordinarily intimate portrait of the man and his work, yet we have to ask, why did the writer choose to give his time, over a five-year period, to a wide-eyed 24-year-old with no real filmmaking experience? For all the insight this film offers, for all its depth, it is a portrait created very much on Burroughs' terms, showing us only what he wants us to see. This makes it all the more fascinating.

Ambitious in a way few older directors would have risked, the film endeavours to take in the whole of its subject's life, from his childhood hanging out with his gardener to his descent into drug use and the gradually increasing isolation of his later years. Parts of it take sympathy for its subject to bizarre lengths, as when Allen Ginsberg argues that the wife Burroughs shot was using him to fulfill a death wish, but even in these moments, there's a warmth to it, a sense of real emotion rather than the recitation of old, dried-out ideas. Even Burroughs' own comments, delivered in his trademark sardonic tones, have a curious liveliness about them as if everything he ever experienced remained immediate.

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Like much of Burroughs' writing, the film has a shaggy-dog tale quality, rambling along in a way which does not at first seem nearly as informative as it actually is, then bursting into moments of brilliant radicalism. On the one hand, there is the sensitive Burroughs, showing great tenderness in his remembrance of old friends. On the other, there is the militaristic Burroughs, vividly describing the international terrorist organisation he'd like to set up to protect gay people. In between are glimpses of failed humour, awkward posturing, and these missteps are where the writer's humanity emerges.

The history of this film is a fascinating one; it was thought lost for many years and was rediscovered by accident in the archives of New York's Museum of Modern Art. After undergoing painstaking digital restoration, it was released in US cinemas in 2014 and prepared for DVD release in 2015. It will doubtless be treasured by fans and it bears several repeat viewings, with Burroughs' own readings and playful dramatisations of his work a delight, and with a great deal buried in its layered narratives. Its lack of technical polish only adds to its appeal. It may be carefully constructed but it still feels raw.

Reviewed on: 11 Feb 2015
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Portrait of the author, built around a series of encounters with him and interviews with many friends, including Allen Ginsberg, Terry Southern, John Giorno. and Brion Gysin.


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