Howard Brookner was a film student at NYU with Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo when he made a low-budget observational documentary about the most groundbreaking and original American writer of the 20th century, William S Burroughs. It should have been the start of a career to match his classmates, both of whom collaborated on the project with him (and are present in the extras on this Criterion Collection disc). Instead, after he adapted another offbeat author (Damon Runyon) for his sophomore film Bloodhounds of Broadway, he died from AIDS aged just 34. His staunchly independent films were not cared for by a studio, and for a long time it was assumed the original 16mm negative of Burroughs: The Movie had been lost.
This restoration, then, is the result of a lot of detective work, principally by Brookner’s nephew Aaron, whose upcoming documentary Uncle Howard will look at his uncle’s legacy. Aaron is central to the film’s extras, though Howard is not wholly absent. We hear him interviewed by one of Burroughs’s biographers, talking about the sometimes offended audience reaction to this unflinching look at a very controversial writer. We also hear him shouting out directions in the deleted scenes, staging a bloody dramatisation of the surgery scene in Naked Lunch with Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis as the nurse and Burroughs himself as the debauched Dr. Benway.
Other than these glimpses, Aaron is the chief interpreter of his uncle’s work. In an interview, he says that the main achievement of Burroughs: The Movie is that it offers a human look at a man who was felt, during his lifetime, to be an affront to civilised society. Watching it today, the scenes of Burroughs hanging around his house, laughing and joking with his friends, are startling for a different reason. In his last decade, Burroughs became a celebrity, appearing in U2 videos and Gus van Sant films, rasping his way through a memorably bizarre collaboration with REM on the X-Files soundtrack. The film doesn’t quite get this across, but the process was beginning while Brookner was shooting his film. We see a celebration of his work attended by Frank Zappa and Patti Smith, we see him travel to London and hang out with Francis Bacon, and we even see him appear on Saturday Night Live to give a reading from Nova Express.
So if Burroughs: The Movie was a shock to those who thought Burroughs was a monster, it could be even more destabilising to those who see him as an icon. In one bizarrely funny early scene he tours his old neighbourhood, meeting families he remembers growing up alongside as well as his brother Mortimer, who admits he couldn’t get all the way through Naked Lunch. Other biographical connections are less light-hearted. There is a notably painful late segment about the death of his son Billy, and the film is duty-bound to deal with Burroughs’s accidental shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer. In print, Burroughs can sound quite cold about this; he tends to interpret the accident as some sort of subconscious expression of his repressed homosexuality. Sensitive reminisces from Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg do a lot to reclaim Joan’s memory, to present her as a human rather than a literary metaphor.
Brookner knew he had a film when he heard a stoned Burroughs talk about his idea for a gay separatist nation in a clip included towards the film’s end. It’s a classic Burroughs riff, starting with a completely outrageous premise then building on it until it sounds almost sane – or, at least, no less mad than the world we live in. There’s a lot of fun material in the last third of the film, including a demonstration of Burroughs’s legendary self-defence arsenal (wait until you see what he’s got up his walking stick). The film struggles slightly to handle the actual work, which like a lot of Beat literature doesn’t necessarily respond to analysis. If it clicks with you, you’ll love it; if you don’t it’s just writing to show off. Brookner rightly decides that the best way to showcase this on film is to excerpt Burroughs’s live readings. The gales of laughter that accompany these remind us of a fact that is often overshadowed by his heavyweight avant-garde reputation: his books are incredibly funny, with a merrily disgusting line in abrasive satire that exists in no other author’s work.
For a long time, Burroughs’s position in pop culture was as a secret handshake to indicate true hipness; the nearest thing to a major film adaptation was that one off-hand reference to Dr. Benway in Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Burroughs: The Movie was an early salvo in the war to enshrine him in the American literary and pop-cultural canons, and some critics tended to react to this mainstreaming by suggesting his work didn’t feel dangerous any more. That is as objectively wrong as you can get within the confines of a subjective opinion, but it’s true that some of the media celebrating Burroughs didn’t follow the radical ideas of their hero. Burroughs: The Movie is a solid, traditional piece of cinema verite; it will not take you to Interzone, nor make you feel like you’ve been dosed with yage. However, Criterion have packaged it with a 23-minute re-edit of the film by Robert E Fulton III which assembles the film in a manner more befitting Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s famous “cut-up” literary technique.
Sentences from one interviewee are cut off halfway through and finished by someone else, and Burroughs wanders a-chronologically through different cities and locations. Fulton completed this short before Brookner had edited the finished film, and although his version is much more conventional he does pay tribute to it by opening the film with a montage of photos from Fulton’s edit. This is a perfect illustration of what Burroughs and Gysin thought the potential of the cut-up method was; it may result in something that works in its own right, or it may offer an unexpected creative path to travel down. Those unfamiliar with his work will get a lot more out of the main feature, but for paid-up fans Fulton’s short is a delightful treat.