Burroughs: The Movie (1983)
Directed by Howard Brookner
During a taping of Saturday Night Live, supermodel-cum-actor Lauren Hutton introduces legendary author William S. Burroughs as “America’s greatest living writer.” The man himself then reads from his novel Nova Express to a spattering of nervous laughter and chatter from the assembled audience. It’s an ostensibly strange scene, where a man in his 60s sits at a table to do a dramatic reading during a live taping of a sketch comedy show. But this is no ordinary man, and to get him to do such a thing was probably quite a boon for the popular late-night show.
Newly discovered, augmented and restored after decades of unavailability, Burroughs: The Movie is the kind of documentary that most documentaries wish they could be: it proceeds with full cooperation from its exalted subject without veering into hagiography, eschewing voiceover narration in an attempt to seamlessly guide the viewer through an existence.
Shot mostly in and around 1981, it’s easy to see the film now as a seminal document of one of America’s greatest artists. Documentarian Howard Brookner mostly avoids the pitfalls of biographical filmmaking due to Burroughs’s unerring candor and contextualization of himself amidst historical realities (the Depression then WWII) and literary movements (the Beat movement).
Many of the titular iconoclast’s contemporaries make memorable appearances to wax anecdotal about his genius, but the film succeeds most when it lets Burroughs do his thing. By reading from his vast collection of writings, and traveling to his childhood home, Burroughs creates an environment that mandates reflection. His childhood home, like all of ours, was filled with trials and tribulations, and as he narrates his history by reading from the prose it subsequently inspired, it’s easy to see that this titan of the written word merely used a gift to the best of his ability, the same as any of us would. The fact that he lives in a self-described “bunker,” impenetrable by natural light and perfect for writing, is the most arbitrarily fascinating thing you’ll learn about a person whom you already know from an intensely intimate body of work.
November 13-19 at Anthology Film Archives