What an unpleasant man William Burroughs was. An acclaimed author who was also a bitter, hateful junkie who shot his wife dead in a drunken "William Tell" reenactment and pushed his son towards an early death via alcoholism—the only time, friends said, they ever saw him weep. "But only for a minute," we're told. After all, "William was William."
A Man Within, a new documentary about the life of Burroughs, is more interested in his personality than his biography or literary legacy, and that's a shame, since his legendary drug use apparently closed him off from any kind of complex human interaction, resulting in a portrait that emerges here as flat and, frankly, a little limited.
And those should be the last words used to describe a man whose stylistic innovations and explorations of humanity's darker extremes make him one of the most influential and important writers of the last 50 years. And it should not be the word to describe a life marked both by the tragedies described above, and by a kind of gaunt but darkly comic philosophy. (Burroughs avoided the AIDS crisis by shooting up first when sharing needles—citing "seniority"—and the participation of not only his arms dealer but also his snake handler are required to detail his life here.)
Yony Leyser's film is curious for what it does and doesn't discuss. Burroughs' influence on punk rock is detailed, but the legal battle over Naked Lunch's obscenity and social value is only touched upon. The death of Burroughs' wife, which colored the rest of his life and work, is given only the most cursory of mentions. Who was this man? Who knows. Unlike depictions of Hunter S. Thompson, another wild stylist with legendary passions for drugs and guns, there's nothing here to suggest any genius behind the persona.
There's a wealth of archival footage and an impressive parade of talking heads on hand (John Waters, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith), but there's not much insight. The best clue comes at the beginning, as a Capra-esque montage of patriotic images is narrated by Burroughs giving vitriolic "thanks" for the KKK and other ills of society. The juxtaposition suggests a certain amount of self-awareness and humor that, unfortunately, is lacking elsewhere.
Opens November 19