The Film: 4/5
There will never be any doubt that William S. Burroughs was one of the most provocative American authors of the 20th century, a genuine visionary of the written word whose imagination was shaped and fueled by his obsessions. Filmed over the course of four years in various locations around the U.S. and U.K., the documentary Burroughs: The Movie gives us an intimate glimpse into the life and mind of the controversial writer behind the twisted literary masterworks Junky, Exterminator!, Naked Lunch, The Ticket That Exploded, The Nova Express, The Wild Boys, Cities of the Red Night, and many more.
The film thankfully refrains from keeping the audience at a distance from Burroughs, allowing the author to take center stage and command the audience’s enraptured attention. A passion project of the late filmmaker Howard Brookner (who died shortly after completing his first fictional feature Bloodhounds of Broadway following a battle with AIDS), the documentary embraces a non-linear narrative structure that Burroughs would surely appreciate, jumping back and forth from the present day to several integral points in the author’s past. Through interviews with many of his friends, relatives, and artistic contemporaries (including fellow writers Allen Ginsberg, Terry Southern, and Herbert Huncke), Brookner’s film constructs a three-dimensional portrait of Burroughs, the various roles he played out in real life, and the successes and failures he endured in each role.
Burroughs: The Movie is an absorbing feature, albeit once that has rarely been seen since it was initially released in 1983. The first minutes are devoted to showing us the writer’s appearance on the November 7, 1981 episode of Saturday Night Live. Introduced by host Lauren Hutton, Burroughs sits at a desk and reads his short story “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”, and though it was a strange way to cap off an evening of network television sketch comedy, he nevertheless held the crowds watching at 30 Rockefeller Center and in homes across America in his spell for the four minutes set aside his segment. Burroughs’ live reading was the brainchild of the show’s then-head writer Michael O’Donoghue, an avowed fan of the author, and you can read more about the behind-the-scenes battles O’Donoghue had to fight in order to get Burroughs on the air in Dennis Perrin’s fantastic 1998 biography Mr. Mike.
For more than three decades preceding his SNL appearance, Burroughs had smilingly earned his reputation as a brilliant writer and a grievance for America’s self-righteous cultural warriors who constantly failed to have his novels and story collections banned from bookstore shelves and the minds of the nation’s intellectually-inclined youth. But when he took the stage during the show’s final minutes, better known as the time when the host and cast are gathering for the goodnights and most of the home viewers have already tuned out, Burroughs was essentially introducing himself simultaneously to longtime readers of his work who had never seen his face or heard his voice and potential new fans who would help to elevate him to the status of cult icon. That status he would enjoy for the rest of his life, and it would only endure and grow stronger in the years following his August 1997 passing.
As revealed to us in the film, Burroughs had a pretty benign childhood (his brother Mortimer – who admits to being unable to follow Naked Lunch - is interviewed, as are his family’s trusted gardener, who share fond memories of life with young William), but it helped to inform his writing, though hardly as much as his drug addiction and awakening to the realization that he was gay years later. The writer’s political leanings bled into his most famous works, as well as his penchant for bleak humor and experimentation with the written word in the form of “cut-outs”. We get to watch as Burroughs conducts live readings of his work, one of which is intercut with a skit recreation of the story featuring the man himself playing his most notorious character Dr. Benway, and Brookner takes us to the 1978 Nova Convention that featured performances from Frank Zappa and Philip Glass (and originally Keith Richards until he had to pull out due to a recent heroin bust, a scheduling change that almost made the gathered masses revolt) and marked a turning point in Burroughs’ transition from literary provocateur to beloved cult figure.
The writer’s complicated relationship with his wife Joan, who died from a gunshot wound following a botched game of “William Tell”, is recounted without being glossed over too much, though I have a sneaking suspicion Ginsberg’s assessment that Joan pushed Burroughs into the game because she possibly had a death wish is only scratching the surface of what really happened. One of the more sobering subjects Brookner’s film touches upon is the shaky bond between Burroughs and his estranged son William Jr., who became a writer capable of displaying tremendous promise and who deep down desired his father’s respect. William Jr., or Willy as everyone calls him, had his own share of demons chasing him throughout his life, and the most haunting moment in the documentary occurs when his death is announced following an awkward visit with William the Senior. Willy is presented to us as such an empathetic figure that his passing creates a hole in the heart of both the film and its subject, and it’s hinted at by more than one person that the close emotional bond Burroughs later forged with his secretary and lover James Grauerholz was intended to repair that hole by making the younger man his surrogate son. That development carries with it a fair amount of disturbing implications that we don’t have to understand but can do little but accept as just the kind of person Burroughs was.
Passages from some of the author’s greatest books act as narrative bridges between changes in location and time. Burroughs’ time spent in Tangier is highlighted as a key influence on his later writing, as is his relationships with peers such as Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (in the case of the former, a relationship that went far beyond hanging out and exchanging ideas). The man’s genius is never understated, nor is it overstated, and the documentary often allows us to see the cold, prickly, somewhat aloof gentleman responsible for some of the strangest and impenetrable works of fiction that ever invaded the bookstores and libraries of the world.
Burroughs: The Movie was never officially in circulation on home video, but that began to change after a 35mm print was discovered in the possession of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2011. Though director Brookner had long passed, his nephew Aaron marshaled an effort to see the film fully restored and had a lot of help from a successful Kickstarter campaign. The high-definition digital transfer was supervised by Aaron Brookner, with Tom DiCillo consulting on the color timing, and is presented in the original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. Visually this was never going to achieve perfection due to the various film stocks used for the production and the fact that the original negative couldn’t be located, but the elements used for the transfer appear to have been kept in fine shape over the years. The upgraded picture sports a balanced and authentic grain structure, nuanced colors that remain consistent, and remarkable image stability. Criterion backs up the remastered picture with an uncompressed English PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack that was created at 24-bit audio from the 35mm soundtrack print. The track features excellent volume balance and a lack of permanent damage including pops and cracks, and there’s barely a trace of distortion to be found. English subtitles have also been included.
A generous selection of supplements kicks off with what has to be the first feature-length audio commentary ever recorded by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who worked on the documentary as a sound recordist for the segments shot in New York. Naturally he turns out to be a natural raconteur about his time on the production, providing a wealth of anecdotes about his interactions with Burroughs and the author’s influence on his own films, background on the making of the film, his relationship with director Brookner, and more. Jarmusch’s comments are rarely scene-specific unless he has something to say in the moment about an interview subject, but fans of both the director and Burroughs will find this commentary to be pure gold and perfect accompaniment for the main feature.
Brookner’s nephew Aaron is the subject of the new interview featurette “Howard and Uncle Bill” (16 minutes), in which he discusses the origins of the documentary, the involvement of Jarmusch and DiCillo, bringing multiple cameras to the Nova Convention, and other topics related to his uncle and Burroughs: The Movie. The late Howard Brookner talks at great length about making the film and his relationship with the iconic author in an archival audio interview (24 minutes) conducted by Burroughs biographer Ted Morgan which is set to a static black screen with white English subtitles.
Over an hour of unearthed outtakes split into five sections give us a little more of almost everything that made it into the film: “New York City” (20 minutes), “Weapons” (14 minutes), “Nova Convention” (8 minutes), “Interviews (15 minutes), and “Travel” (11 minutes). Next up is a Q&A session conducted with Aaron Brookner, DiCillo, Jarmusch, and James Grauerholz following a premiere screening of Burroughs: The Movie at the 2014 New York Film Festival (27 minutes). Closing out the bonus features is an experimental edit of the film (24 minutes) created by inventor and photographer Robert E. Fulton III after Brookner had been shooting for two years. The edit was discarded after the director decided to take his film in a more narrative-driven direction, but it’s fascinating to get a look at this abbreviated version which reflects Brookner’s initial vision and see how he was ultimately influenced to try a different approach to the editing.
Criterion’s Blu-ray also comes with a fold-out booklet featuring “Burroughs, That Proud American Name”, an essay on the author and Brookner’s documentary by writer and critic Luc Sante, and technical notes about the video and audio restoration.
Burroughs: The Movie is a fascinating documentary and about as close as we are likely ever to get to knowing the man behind the offbeat prose, conspiratorial visions, and obsessions with the world’s finest mind-altering substances. Thanks to a tireless effort to restore the film from one of the few prints remaining in existence by the late director’s nephew and the Criterion Collection, Howard Brookner’s lovingly-assembled and often frank portrait of a literary genius can now be enjoyed by all. Excellent upgraded picture and sound and many great new and archival supplements make this Blu-ray an absolute recommendation.