A Review of William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

Movie Reviews

William S. Borroughs in “A Man Within.”
By STEPHEN HOLDEN

“I mean it has a special smell, over and above the smell of cyanide, carrion, blood, cordite or burnt flesh,” he continues, reading this excerpt from his novel “Cities of the Red Night” as the camera studies a face that suggests the stone bust of a patrician zombie.

A little later in this documentary, “A Man Within,” there is a pungent video of Burroughs’s incantatory recitation of his 1986 “Thanksgiving Prayer,” a facetious rundown of horrors to be grateful for — “Thanks for the American Dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through” — juxtaposed with a double-exposure of the poker-faced author and a rippling American flag and other patriotic symbols. Later there is an amusing deadpan rendition of Burroughs croaking Marlene Dietrich’s signature song, “Falling in Love Again,” in German, from his 1990 album, “Dead City Radio.”

Narrated by Peter Weller, who played a Burroughs-like character in David Cronenberg’s movie “Naked Lunch,” “A Man Within” is embellished with scratchy line drawing that evokes Burroughs’s skeletal vision of humanity. There is not a word or image wasted in a documentary you wish ran an extra half-hour beyond its condensed 90 minutes.

It is all either blood-chilling or hilarious. For those who celebrate Burroughs as one of the darkest and greatest of all comic artists, he is an extreme social satirist of Swiftian stature, whose quasi-pornographic images offer a stark, ghastly/funny photonegative image of the American body politic.

“A Man Within” is a kind of genealogy of hip that connects Burroughs, who was born in St. Louis in 1914, the wealthy Harvard-educated grandson of the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine company, with many currents of America’s outlaw cultural tradition. He was a close friend and sometime lover of Allen Ginsberg, with whom he is shown in conversation — and an idol of punk rockers like the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, Iggy Pop and Sonic Youth. Foremost among his admirers is Patti Smith, who recalls having a crush on him and credits him as the source of pop-culture terms like “blade runner,” “heavy metal” and “soft machine.”

See full review here.

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