by Lee Purvey
Documentary bears a certain right-place-at-the-right-time quality that makes it one of the toughest genres to assess critically. Not to shortchange the immensity of arranging heaps of raw footage into a compelling feature-length product, the documentary can benefit from a subject capable of carrying a work singlehandedly, in a way a narrative film usually cannot. Such circumstances, which are typically confined to documentaries treating a single person or a small group of people, allow the lucky filmmaker the comparatively easy task of simply staying out of their subject’s way.
January 30 – February 1
Director: Howard Brookner
Producer: Howard Brookner
Cinematographers: Howard Brookner, Richard Camp, Tom DiCillo, Cathy Dorsey, James A. Lebovitz, Larry Shlu, Mike Southon
Editors: Ben Morris, Scott Vickrey
Cast: William S. Burroughs, Mortimer Burroughs, Lucien Carr, Jackie Curtis, Allen Ginsberg, John Giorno, James Grauerholz, Brion Gysin
US Theatrical Release: October 8, 1983
US Distributor: DPI
By means of example, the sublime Crumb--Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary about the captivatingly idiosyncratic cartoonist R. Crumb--failed to forecast Zwigoff’s most recent features, the creatively tepid Art School Confidential and Bad Santa (although okay, fine, Bad Santa had its moments).
In some ways, Burroughs: The Movie, Howard Brookner’s debut feature about the celebrated Beat writer, feels like this kind of film. Started in 1979 as Brookner’s thesis film for a New York University Master’s program, the young director--in his mid-20s when filming began--had the good fortune of receiving William S. Burroughs’ blessing in creating what became the only biographical documentary benefiting from his full involvement. Over the next four years, with a constantly changing crew that included indie notables and fellow NYU alumni Tom DiCillo and Jim Jarmusch, Brookner followed Burroughs around the world, retracing the writer’s bohemian life; stops include his childhood home in St. Louis, the apartment where he lived and wrote in London during the 1960s, and “The Bunker,” the Manhattan basement (a former YMCA locker room) where he lived while the movie was being filmed. In the process, a number of people from Burroughs’ personal and creative spheres make appearances, including his son William Burroughs Jr., the poet Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith. Illuminating as these perspectives are--Ginsberg, especially, provides what feels like the only level head out of the bunch--the show is indisputably Burroughs’, as the writer offers insights into his life and art, with topics ranging from his cut-up writing technique to his dreams of a terroristic “gay state.”
In his late sixties while Burroughs was being filmed, the writer at first appears unsure in front of the camera--perhaps a little shell-shocked by the decades of analgesic abuse (Burroughs, with periods of sobriety, used morphine, heroin, and methadone until his death in 1997). His voice a deadened nasal, both in readings and conversation, Burroughs initially comes off as subdued and crotchety through an opening summary of his youth and early adulthood and an uncomfortable visit to his childhood home (Burroughs’ brother dismisses Naked Lunch with a casual handful of phrases, while the writer stares on in silence).
These initial impressions are revealed to be indicative of his reserved personality more than anything, however--“William would make a great prisoner, you know? I mean, in solitary,” his assistant James Grauerholz quips--as Burroughs gradually reveals a sharp intelligence, dry self-deprecating wit, and the glimmers of harsh, painful honesty.
Throughout, Brookner’s directing is functional, if it doesn’t point to a fully formed cinematic talent. The director punctuates the documentary with footage from various readings contemporary to the film, attempting (with varying success) to carry a thread between Burroughs’ work and biography. While it’s a pleasure to hear Burroughs’ manic, satirical prose, which serves as an interesting counterpoint to his relatively conservative demeanor in conversation, this technique fails to develop any clear thematic portrait of Brookner’s subject--either as artist or man. Rather, the film passes by his involvement with the early Beats, the accidental killing of his wife in 1951, his struggles with addiction, and the troubled relationship with his son (who died of liver failure while Burroughs was filming) with only oblique, partial comment on the part of the writer. Exemplified by his continued chemical dependence throughout the documentary (at one point he jokes about his regular trips to his methadone clinic), Burroughs’ story here feels muddy, darkly unresolved.
Not to say this is somehow Brookner’s duty as a filmmaker: to fabricate a swallowable thesis for a man’s life where one may not exist. But for a film four years in the making--and only really tasked with making some sense of a single human being--Burroughs feels inexcusably incomplete.
The film having largely disappeared from distribution following its limited release in 1983, this remastered version of Burroughs: The Movie has only seen the light of day because of the efforts of the director’s nephew, Aaron Brookner (Howard died in 1989 having completed only three feature films). It took a year-long search by the younger Brookner to locate a copy of the original film negative, from which a remastered version could be created, with funding from Kickstarter. This story is appropriate, as the film’s worth is surely tied more to its status as artifact than as art.
Periodically over four years, a great American writer submitted himself to the gaze of a camera. Although the result was formally unspectacular, Burroughs is something worth treasuring.