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Burroughs: The Movie

Review by Ali Schnabel

Burroughs could be loosely said to detail the roots, fears, addictions and fedoras of legendary Beat author William S Burroughs. Howard Brookner, who directed the film in 1983 for his senior thesis at NYU – with the help of fellow students Tom DiCillo (cinematography) and Jim Jarmusch (sound) – managed to secure the author’s enthusiasm and unbridled participation for five years. Burroughs had been considered lost since Brookner’s death in 1989; in 2012, it was rediscovered and digitally restored to its present, nicely saturated glory.

Given the cultural period in which Burroughs was shot, the author’s fears and fedoras are appropriately presented in a disjointed way that resonates with the aesthetic of the time and the detached, bored burr of Burroughs himself. Brookner’s curiosity is matched only by Burroughs’s willingness to share, and he provides typically succinct, emotionless answers to the questions asked. The author’s matter-of-fact method of sharing touches everything from his strained familial relationships to the night he accidentally shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer. As with the other traumas that Burroughs endured in his time, these are presented without much comment or sentimentality.

The more striking scenes – including the only footage of Burroughs and his son (who was to die from alcoholism and liver failure shortly after filming) together – are presented in a detached, postmodern way that feels detrimental to the film’s objective of exploring the author. The people who played significant roles in Burroughs’s life are somewhat swept under the rug: his wife, son and brother are presented in the expendable context of how they relate to Burroughs’s artistry; most notably, when Ginsberg passes over Vollmer’s tragic death serving as the catalyst for Burroughs’s most significant works.

Burroughs not only details the author but also distills the cultural period that adored him through its postmodern, jumbled presentation and the raucous fanboy-ing of giants such as Allen Ginsberg and Terry Southern. Despite its rediscovery in 2012, the film remains largely unedited in an attempt to retain its tone. As a result, Burroughs is a true artefact: not only in its unparalleled access to a literary giant, but also of the specific generation that Burroughs was such a significant part of. In this sense, Burroughs is as close as we might ever get to truly capturing the nature of the man and the time in which he reigned supreme.

Burroughs: The Movie screens 2, 11 August