SIFF 2010: WIlliam S. Burroughs: A Man Within ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2010)

Director Yony Leyser has shouldered an ambitious undertaking for his debut -attempting to decipher one of the more enigmatic literary figures of the 20th century. As he so beautifully illustrates in his film, William S. Burroughs was more than just a gifted writer or one of the founding fathers of the Beats; he was like some cross-generational counterculture/proto-punk Zeus, from whose head sprung Hunter S. Thompson, Lester Bangs, Ken Kesey, William Gibson, Terence McKenna, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll and Kurt Cobain.

Yet, there was an evasive, almost alien “otherness” to him, not to mention a questionable personal history. As John Waters so glibly points out in the film, he “…was a hard guy to like”, referring to Burroughs the junkie, gun nut and wife-killer (accident, so the legend goes). Leyser gathers up all of these conflicting aspects of Burroughs’ makeup and does an admirable job at providing some insights. There’s a lot of rare archival footage, mixed in with observations from friends and admirers like Laurie Anderson, David Cronenberg, Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra, Patti Smith and Peter Weller.

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