A literary-starved generation is growing up with little actual knowledge of gay writer William Burroughs. Sad, considering the previous generation of edge-cutters—filmmakers
John Waters and Gus Van Sant, musicians/poets Patti Smith, Michael Stipe, and Kurt Cobain—knew him well. Every artist who shed convention to bare an unconventional soul owes a debt to Burroughs.
PBS’s Independent Lens series seeks to inform the uninitiated with the briskly comprehensive, unflinchingly honest William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, a documentary that delves deep into Burroughs’ tortured existence and existential genius with artful focus. Drug abuse, sexual dysfunction, homicide (Burroughs famously shot his wife during a drug-induced William Tell bit), his abysmal failures as a father and lover, his shocking impact with and on the written word—it’s all here and astutely addressed.
The documentary features famous friends and admirers, as well as lovers, caretakers, and scholars who knew Burroughs intimately, whether by artistic proximity or intellectual appreciation. Interviews and archival footage are linked with stop-motion animation segues that smartly symbolize Burroughs’ painful life—wire hasn’t been this used this achingly precise since the last Brothers Quay film.
This fever dream of a documentary showcases Burroughs’ success in art as well as his failures in life. Here was a man so pained by the fear of love lost that he never allowed himself to find it in the first place. It’s a heart crime that birthed literary miracles just as it took romantic hostages—a murdered wife and a son lost tp suicide. The doc even touches on Burroughs’ role as the most unlikely gay gun advocate to ever pull a trigger. Sadly, Burroughs was probably more in touch with his failures than his successes. If he’s seeing this film in one of his famously altered states, perhaps he’ll change his view.
Premieres February 22, 10 p.m., on PBS (pbs.org).
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.