â€œI mean it has a special smell, over and above the smell of cyanide, carrion, blood, cordite or burnt flesh,â€ he continues, reading this excerpt from his novel â€œCities of the Red Nightâ€ as the camera studies a face that suggests the stone bust of a patrician zombie.
A little later in this documentary, â€œA Man Within,â€ there is a pungent video of Burroughsâ€™s incantatory recitation of his 1986 â€œThanksgiving Prayer,â€ a facetious rundown of horrors to be grateful for â€” â€œThanks for the American Dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine throughâ€ â€” 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 Dietrichâ€™s signature song, â€œFalling in Love Again,â€ in German, from his 1990 album, â€œDead City Radio.â€
Narrated by Peter Weller, who played a Burroughs-like character in David Cronenbergâ€™s movie â€œNaked Lunch,â€ â€œA Man Withinâ€ is embellished with scratchy line drawing that evokes Burroughsâ€™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.
â€œA Man Withinâ€ 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 Americaâ€™s outlaw cultural tradition. He was a close friend and sometime lover of Allen Ginsberg, with whom he is shown in conversation â€” 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 â€œblade runner,â€ â€œheavy metalâ€ and â€œsoft machine.â€