Watching Burroughs: The Movie can sometimes be a very discomfiting experience. And I say that as a mark of high praise. This documentary about author William Burroughs, which originally premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1983 and is now getting a re-release (there will be a screening on October 9th at the NYFF, followed by a short run at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City), can induce the same sort of unsettling frisson that Burroughs’s dark, subversive writing (most famously in Naked Lunch) did when he ripped a twisted hole into the literary scene as a sort of godfather member of the Beat movement.
I’ve always been weirded out by the tripped-out writing, straight-laced appearance and strange cadence of Burroughs’s creaky-door voice, so watching Burroughs: The Movie was like reading the journal, or rather, watching old home movies, of my spooky artistic uncle, now long-dead, who used to scare the dickens out of me at Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, the documentary feels that intimate. Getting up close with the once impossible-to-approach writer, we see where he worked, him hamming it up with fellow writers (such as Terry Southern), speaking candidly about his childhood, talking awkwardly with his disturbed son and sitting stoically while his brother provides a critique of the writer’s work.
Where did this gem come from? The film’s director, Howard Brookner, who passed away in 1989 due to AIDS complications, has a filmmaking nephew, Aaron Brookner who is making a documentary about his uncle. He dusted off this treasure, which hasn’t seen the light of day in 25 years. The younger Brookner oversaw the restoration of the film, which was originally shot by Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight) with Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) handling the sound. This illustrious crew was on board because they were students along with the elder Brookner at NYU film school. (They’ll all be on hand for the NYFF screening.)
“Where does it fit into the contemporary sensibility?” DiCillo recently questioned aloud with me in a phone call. “I wonder how many people are reading Burroughs now. When he was alive, and in that particular time in the Lower East Side with the punk movement, he was a vital part of the cultural scene. I don’t know how many people are still inspired by him.” [See the bottom of this post for a clarification.]
I, for one, think people will respond to the film if they give it a chance, and not just because they are fans of Burroughs. The documentary is as engrossing and revealing as any contemporary profile documentary of an artist. But this one is also an artifact, a window into the past, and a chortle from the grave. (Yes, we see Burroughs hamming it up here.)
Making it, “you could tell the Burroughs really respected Howard,” DiCillo recalled. “You could see Burroughs going in the direction that Howard was taking him and providing the time. There was never the sense of him looking at his watch.” (This was in contrast to some of the other artists featured in the film. One night, after shooting for a few minutes backstage at a performance, DiCillo overheard Patti Smith say, “Get these a–holes out of here.”)
Nothing could faze Brookner, DiCillo recalled. “He had an amazing enthusiasm. I got out of film school and I literally had no idea what I was going to do,” he said. “And Howard was spending hours and hours on the phone talking with Madonna [for his first fiction feature, Bloodhounds of Broadway, which was released after he died]. That was my first inkling of what it took to get a film together.”
“The fact that Howard took [Burroughs] to completion and got it into the New York Film Festival was inspiring in the same way that Jim making Stranger than Paradise was,” DiCillo added.
Paradise came out just a year after Burroughs, so it’s natural to see the threads that run from one artist to the other from both sides of the camera when considering this film.
Watching this, you will feel like you’ve been thrust through a time warp to that awkward early 1980s era, and you might even feel a little queasy. But a doc about Burroughs should never go down too smoothly.
Clarification (10/7/2014): Tom DiCillo believes that William Burroughs should continue to be read and respected.
Burroughs: The Movie will be screening at the New York Film Festival on Thursday, October 9, 2014. For more information and tickets, visit filmlinc.com.
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