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William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

Director: Yony Leyser, William S. Burroughs, Peter Weller, David Cronenberg

Cast: Yony Leyser, William S. Burroughs, Peter Weller, David Cronenberg

The curious life of controversial avant-garde author and Beat poet William S. Burroughs serves as the subject of this documentary from Chicago-based filmmaker Yony Leyser. A gay drug addict who shot to infamy with his unguarded look at the drug and queer cultures, Burroughs made headlines when he shot his wife in Mexico City, and achieved


The curious life of controversial avant-garde author and Beat poet William S. Burroughs serves as the subject of this documentary from Chicago-based filmmaker Yony Leyser. A gay drug addict who shot to infamy with his unguarded look at the drug and queer cultures, Burroughs made headlines when he shot his wife in Mexico City, and achieved infamy when his groundbreaking novel Naked Lunch was banned in the U.S. David Cronenberg, John Waters, Genesis P-Orridge, Patty Smith, Gus Van Sant, Laurie Anderson, and other celebrities/artists influenced by Burroughs' surreal body of work weigh in on why his influence today is still as strong as it was when he was in peak form.

Editorial Reviews

All Movie Guide - Mark Deming
William S. Burroughs was one of the most celebrated American authors of the second half of the 20th century, but he was nearly as famous for being the counterculture's leading curmudgeon for close to 40 years. He was a friend and confidante of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; however, Burroughs and his work never really fit in with the Beat movement. He was an out-of-the-closet homosexual years before Stonewall, but was too contrary and cynical about human relationships to be widely embraced as a hero by the gay liberation movement. Though Burroughs used drugs of all sorts most of his life, the severity of his writings on heroin and yage made him a difficult hero for the drug culture. And while the nihilistic surfaces of Burroughs' writing and his eager embrace of the forbidden made him a hero to punk rockers, it was clear to most who knew him that he had no real interest in rock music, which ran roughshod over his own affected elegance. In his life and in his art, Burroughs was a man who followed no rules but his own, and woe unto them who came up against him and his vision of the world. For good or ill, Burroughs was a fascinating man who lived a wild life, and filmmaker Yony Leyser had the raw material for a truly fascinating story at his disposal for his first feature film, the documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within. However, while the film presents a compelling portrait of Burroughs himself, the matter of his writing and why he made a difference as a literary figure curiously doesn't enter into the picture all that much. William S. Burroughs was born to a well-to-do family in 1914 (his grandfather made a fortune selling adding machines and other office equipment), but early on he proved to be the black sheep of the family. His exploits included a drug- and sex-fueled exile in Tangiers, marijuana farming in Mexico, trafficking stolen goods in New York, and a shocking incident in Mexico in which he shot and killed his wife while trying to shoot a glass off her head, apparently while under the influence of alcohol and speed. It was after the death of his wife that Burroughs began to commit himself to his art, and with the publication of his novel Naked Lunch in 1959, his deft use of language, his acidic wit, and his mordant view of the world around him made him the talk of the world's literary cognoscenti. William S. Burroughs: A Man Within touches only briefly on Naked Lunch and its impact, and most of his 17 other novels aren't even mentioned in the film. Though some of the film's most striking moments come from readings in which Burroughs recites his own work in his dry, craggy monotone, Leyser has placed his focus on the man behind the work, and there's little arguing that it's still an absorbing tale. Leyser has divided his film into sections that individually deal with the myriad obsessions of Burroughs' life and how these pieces added up to the man the world came to know. The bulk of the film is made up of interviews with friends, colleagues, lovers, and admirers ranging from John Waters, Patti Smith, and Laurie Anderson to Burroughs' gun dealer and a guy who raises and trains snakes. Through the accumulated interviews, Leyser examines Burroughs' early, unsuccessful relationships and how they colored his view of sex and love; his outlook on class and his own pretensions to upper-class civility; his obsession with weapons and how they reflected his paranoia; his friendship with Brion Gysin, and his fascination with Gysin's dream machine and the cut-up method; the impact drugs had on Burroughs' work and his inability to stay away from opiates; the short life and tragic death of his son, William S. Burroughs Jr.; his influence on rock musicians; the visual art techniques he adopted late in life; and his belated acceptance of the possibility of love. Leyser's film takes a little while to find its focus, but once its episodic structure begins to cohere, the director shows that he knows how to draw out his subjects, and the combination of new interviews and archival footage of Burroughs reading his work, answering questions, and padding around the house adds up to a insightful picture of a complicated man with a deeper soul than one might imagine. It's a shame that Leyser doesn't deal with Burroughs' work as well as he deals with his life, but William S. Burroughs: A Man Within does manage to tell us something fresh and worth knowing about a controversial giant of 20th century culture, and hopefully this resonant study of the artist will lead more people to explore his art, which remains a brilliant, uncompromising legacy.

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Special Features

Deleted scene featuring Burroughs' art; Home movies featuring Patti Smith, Steve Buscemi, Allen Ginsberg, and others; More of Burroughs' shotgun art; Sonic Youth visits Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas; Naked Lunch 50th anniversary celebration; "Rub Out the Word" - a music video featuring Burroughs reading the Last Words of Hassan Sabbah; Patti Smith reads Psalm 23 Revisited; Q&a with director Yony Leyser at BFI London Film Festival 2010; With exclusive essays by David Byrne and Richard Hell

Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
William S. Burroughs Actor
Peter Weller Narrator/Interviewee
David Cronenberg Participant
John Waters Participant
Iggy Pop Participant
Gus Van Sant Participant
Patti Smith Participant
James Grauerholz Participant
Laurie Anderson Participant
Allen Ginsberg Actor
Amiri Baraka Participant
André Leon Talley Participant
Andy Warhol Actor
Anne Waldman Participant
Dean Ripa Participant
Dennis Daily Participant
Diane di Prima Participant
Fred Aldrich Participant
Genesis P-Orridge Participant
George Condo Participant
Grant Hart Participant
Hal Willner Participant
Jello Biafra Participant
Lee Ranaldo Participant
Marcus Ewert Participant
Robert McColl Participant
Steve Silberman Participant
Thurston Moore Participant
Tom Peschio Participant
V. Vale Participant
Victor Bockris Participant
Wayne Propst Participant

Technical Credits
Yony Leyser Director,Producer,Screenwriter
Bachir Attar Score Composer
John Bellows Score Composer
Carlos Benavides Camera Operator
Bernard Score Composer
Eric Burton Cinematographer
Dustin Camilleri Camera Operator
Carmine Cervi Producer
Scott Chary Associate Producer
Ilko Davidov Editor,Producer
Aimee Goguen Animator
Rollin Hunt Camera Operator
JJ Score Composer
Dillon Markey Animator
Master Musicians of Jajouka Score Composer,Songwriter
Devin McNulty Score Composer
Thurston Moore Score Composer
Lee Ranaldo Score Composer
Scott Reis Camera Operator
Michael Schweisheimer Camera Operator
Patti Smith Score Composer
Sonic Youth Songwriter
Sam Stern Camera Operator
Andy Wenrich Camera Operator

Scene Index

Disc #1 -- William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
1. Introduction [1:26]
2. The Beat Generation [7:00]
3. Pioneer [5:31]
4. Andy and the Boys [3:22]
5. Love [5:39]
6. Hustlers [4:19]
7. The Cut-Up Method [5:45]
8. "Walking Pharmacologist" [3:18]
9. Rid of Junk [4:00]
10. Guns, Knives, Snakes [8:13]
11. William Tell Routine [7:44]
12. Naked Lunch [5:20]
13. Punk Rock [8:31]
14. Collaborations [1:51]
15. Shotgun Art [4:08]
16. Father and Son [2:40]
17. Lawrence, Kansas [5:25]
18. End Credits [3:36]


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