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QDoc movie (P)reviews – ‘William S. Burroughs, The Man Within’

William S Burroughs

William S. Burroughs, The Man Within. Directed by Yony Leyser screening Sat June 5th, 6pm

People must of thought I was a weird kid. I carried around a torn, stained copy of Naked Lunch in my backpack for months during high school in Utah. It was a difficult book to understand but the reading was made easier because I recognized the science fiction tropes he used and I forgave him the graphic, homosexual imagery. William S. Burroughs wasn’t someone just any young student could idolize. His prose was abstract and difficult. He was a junkie, and had been for forty years. He wrote about strange creatures that fed off the ejaculations of the human race. He developed avant garde methods of prose construction such as the cut-up technique. His influence reverberates through the generations. He inspired queers all over the world to rebel against a society that controlled and punished them. He was celebrated in his later years as the Godfather of Punk. How did this strange, queer junkie worm himself into mainstream American culture and become that dark renaissance man?

Writer, director, and producer, Yony Leyser, sets out to answer my questions. This film is a non-linear collage of rare home film footage, celebrity sightings, and timid explorations into his literary production. Burroughs’ contradictions are not spared. His facade as a country gentleman is taken apart, leaving us with the more realistic portrait of a very lonely man. His violent side is also examined. Burroughs would never hesitate to show off his private arsenal. He kept a gun on his person at all times, even under his pillow while he slept. His drug use is not glamorized and Burroughs is revealed as a junkie unable to kick opiates for the vast majority of his life. He was not a good father. He shot his wife in the head. Yony Leyser has been honest in this biography, showing his subject under unflattering light in order to paint a whole portrait of the complicated genius.

The most revealing parts of the film are those concerned with Burroughs sexuality. Like his good friend, and occasional lover, Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs wrote poetry about dicks and assholes back in the fifties. He was never shy about his homosexuality. His novel Queer was not a romantic, positive view of being a gay man. When being gay was a criminal act, he created a realistic portrayal of the struggle and loneliness of a gay man living in that conservative era. He believed only he could write that book. It was his duty to cast a light into the shadows of Times Square, where the married men waited for glances that lingered. He claimed never to have known love for another human being, his boyfriends being nothing but short lived obsessions. But this view of homosexuality influenced the more rebellious queers growing up in the 60s and 70s. John Waters acknowledges his influence and other gay artists make appearances throughout the film.

The most poignant moment in the film is when we find out Burroughs last words, written in his journal, just before his death in 1997, “Love, what is it? Most natural pain killer that there is. LOVE.” The lonely junkie discovered the ancient truth for himself before drifting off to eternity. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 5, 6 pm. Clinton Street Theater.

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