Burroughs: The Movie revisited

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Photo by Kate Simon.

Howard Brookner’s 86-minute documentary Burroughs: The Movie (1983) has been mentioned here on several occasions, and with good reason since it’s the best film anyone has made or will make about William Burroughs and the Beat circle he emerged from in the 1950s. Brookner’s documentary is a model film biography, opening with the writer’s appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1981 then backtracking to his childhood in St. Louis, his family life, the Beat period, the Bunker years, and so on, ending with his move to Lawrence, Kansas in the early 1980s. It’s intimate, frequently very funny, and reveals a human side to Burroughs too often buried by the weight of a sinister reputation. Brookner spent several years working on the film which features appearances from, and interviews with, a priceless range of friends, relatives and collaborators: Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Hunke, John Giorno, James Grauerholz, Brion Gysin, Patti Smith, Terry Southern, Mortimer Burroughs (William’s brother), William S. Burroughs Jr (William’s son who died while the film was in production), Francis Bacon, Jackie Curtis and many others. Tom DiCillo and Jim Jarmusch helped with the camera and sound duties.

The BBC screened the film as part of their Arena arts strand during the miraculous run of that series in the 1980s, since when it’s become difficult to see unless you have a copy on tape. So it’s been good to hear that Aaron Brookner is intending on restoring and reissuing his uncle’s debut film, having found the original print along with many outtakes. Howard Brookner died of AIDS in 1989 so Aaron is launching a Kickstarter fund to restore the film today, December 1st, which is World AIDS Day:

Burroughs: The Movie is a very special film: with in-depth interviews from Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, and many more; intimate scenes such as Burroughs and James Grauerholz with Burroughs’ son Billy Jr.; and it is the only time on camera Burroughs speaks candidly about the tragic shooting accident that left his wife Joan dead.  As Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times Review: “Rarely is a documentary as well attuned to its subject as Howard Brookner’s Burroughs, which captures as much about the life, work and sensibility of its subject as its 86 minute format allows. Part of the film’s comprehensiveness is attributable to William S. Burroughs’ cooperation, since the author was willing to visit old haunts, read from his works and even playfully act out a passage from Naked Lunch for the benefit of the camera. But the quality of discovery about Burroughs is very much the director’s doing, and Mr. Brookner demonstrates an unusual degree of liveliness and curiosity in exploring his subject”. (more)

Given that so many of the film’s participants are now dead this project has historical as well as aesthetic significance. If you have some spare cash and a more than passing interest in William Burroughs than I’d urge you to lend your support.

Burroughs: The Movie at Twitter: @HowardBrookner
Burroughs: The Movie at Facebook: www.facebook.com/burroughsthemovie

Previously on { feuilleton }
Zimbu Xolotl Time
Ah Pook Is Here
Jarek Piotrowski’s Soft Machine
Looking for the Wild Boys
Wroblewski covers Burroughs
Mugwump jism
Brion Gysin’s walk, 1966
Burroughs in Paris
William Burroughs interviews
Soft machines
Burroughs: The Movie
William S Burroughs: A Man Within
The Final Academy
William Burroughs book covers
Towers Open Fire

Burroughs: The Movie

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The author at home in his Bunker.

When I was writing last August about Yony Leyser’s new Burroughs documentary William S Burroughs: A Man Within I mentioned Howard Brookner’s 1983 film, Burroughs, a 90-minute study of the writer’s life and work that as a film biography remains definitive. Brookner was fortunate to capture all the surviving Beats (including Ginsberg and Gysin) and also family members like Burroughs’ son, William Jr. (who died shortly after filming), and his brother, Mortimer. If you’re interested in Burroughs and have never seen Brookner’s film it’s essential viewing, so it’s good news that Ubuweb has turned up a blurry copy (which they’ve titled Burroughs The Movie) taken from the BBC’s Arena screening shown after the writer’s death in 1997. As I recall, the beginning is slightly re-edited to make it an obituary piece but the rest of the film is complete.

Update: Ubuweb no longer hosts the film now that a reissue has been announced. The links have been removed here as a result.

Previously on { feuilleton }
William S Burroughs: A Man Within
The Final Academy
William Burroughs book covers
Towers Open Fire

William S Burroughs: A Man Within

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The Ticket that Exploded. Cover design by Thomi Wroblowski for a John Calder edition, 1985.

William S Burroughs: A Man Within is a feature-length documentary by Yony Leyser, and is, so the makers say, the first posthumous documentary about the always essential writer. Howard Brookner’s 1983 film, Burroughs, is probably definitive where the biography is concerned since Brookner was fortunate to get most of the key surviving Beats, family members, and allies while they were still around. Leyser’s trailer looks interesting, however (I’m hoping the film isn’t merely a parade of celebrities and soundbites), and it’s things like this which pass on the message of Burroughs’ continued importance to a new generation.

The film features never before seen footage of William S. Burroughs, as well as exclusive interviews with his closest friends and colleagues including John Waters, Genesis P-Orridge, Laurie Anderson, Peter Weller, David Cronenberg, Iggy Pop, Gus Van Sant, Sonic Youth, Anne Waldman, George Condo, Hal Willner, James Grauerholz, Amiri Baraka, Jello Biafra, V. Vale, David Ohle, Wayne Propst, Dr. William Ayers, Diane DiPrima, Donovan, Dean Ripa (the world’s largest poisonous snake collector), and many others, with narration by actor Peter Weller, and soundtrack by Sonic Youth. 

Release is slated for later this year. Meanwhile, there’s another trailer on YouTube for a Burroughs’-inspired short, The Japanese Sandman, based on WSB’s quest for the drug yage in the jungles of Panama. For an explanation of the title, consult the Reality Studio.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Final Academy
William Burroughs book covers
Towers Open Fire