William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

Synopsis: William S. Burroughs: featuring never before seen footage as well as exclusive interviews with his closest friends and colleagues. Born the heir of the Burroughs' adding machine estate, he struggled throughout his life with addiction, control systems, and self. He was forced to deal with the tragedy of killing his wife and the repercussions of neglecting his son. His novel, Naked Lunch, was one of the last books to be banned by the U.S. government. Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer testified on behalf of the book. The courts eventually overturned their decision in 1966, ruling that the book had an important social value. It remains one of the most recognized literary works of the 20th century. William Burroughs was one of the first to cross the dangerous boundaries of queer and drug culture in the 1950s, and write about his experiences. Eventually he was hailed the godfather of the beat generation and influenced artists for generations to come. However, his friends were left wondering,
Genre: Documentary
Director(s): Yony Leyser
Production: Oscilloscope Pictures
  1 win.
Rotten Tomatoes:
87 min

[ William S. Burroughs ]

"Death smells."

I mean, death

has a special smell...

over and above the smell

of cyanide, cordite, blood,

carrion or burnt flesh.

It's a gray smell.

It stops the heart

and cuts off the breath.

Smell of the empty body.

Smell of field hospitals

and gangrene.

Now, folks, if you'll just

care to step this way.

You are about to witness...

"the complete, all-American

deanxietized man."

[ Man Narrating ]

William Seward Burroughs,

heir to the Burroughs

Adding Machine Company

founded by his grandfather,

was born in 1914

in St. Louis, Missouri.

After graduating

from Harvard University

and traveling Europe,

he moved to New York City,

where he met his future wife,

Joan Vollmer,

and fell in company with

Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Experimenting with new forms

of literature as well as drugs,

the three friends

formed the vanguard

of a cultural phenomenon...

that would come to be known

as the Beat Generation.

"Thanksgiving Day,

November 28, 1986."

Thanks for the wild turkey

and passenger pigeons...

destined to be sh*t out

through wholesome American guts.

Thanks for a continent

to despoil and poison.

Thanks for Indians to provide

a modicum of challenge...

and danger.

Thanks for vast herds of bison

to kill and skin,

leaving the carcasses to rot.

Thanks for bounties

on wolves and coyotes.

Thanks for

the American dream...

to vulgarize and falsify...

"until the bare lies

shine through."

[ John Waters ] In the '50s,

anything opened up

a good avenue to thinking

because it was...

People talk about the '50s,

they see Happy Days

and they think it was fun.

It was horrible, the '50s.

It was the most terrible time.

It was the first memory I had,

and it was of you had to be

exactly like everybody else.

The Beat Generation

was crushing that.

It was an attempt

to bust out of that, man.

All of this was a big

rap on the knuckles...

of mainstream, white, staid,

pool-in-the-backyard America.

[ Burroughs ] "Kid",

what are you doing over there

with the n*ggers and the apes?

Why don't you straighten out

and act like a white man?

After all, they're

only human cattle.

You know that yourself.

"I hate to see a bright young man

f*** up and get off

on the wrong track."

So what was the Beat Movement?

It was real.

The Beat Movement...

Well, of course it was.

It underwent many changes.

In the '60s, it became

quite political.


But as I've always said,

it's more sociological

than a literary phenomenon.

It was a sociological movement

of worldwide importance.


worldwide importance.

A cultural revolution,

you might say.


So I would characterize it

as a spiritual liberation

movement actually...

like women's lib, black lib,

spirit lib or spiritual lib...

that began in the '40s.

First took shape

as a literary movement...

with a production of a number

of notable utterances.

Allen Ginsberg's

first publication...

was Howl.

It was published in 1956.

In 1957, Jack Kerouac's

On The Road.

And in 1959, Naked Lunch

by William Burroughs.

These three books came out.

[ Waters ]

Beatniks were big.

Overnight, it was a huge...

Like a hula hoop.

Much to their embarrassment,

I think.

Because it started out pretty

much in North Beach and stuff,

like poets and...

So once it became so big

in the media, they were

embarrassed by that term.

[ Amiri Baraka ]

All of those poets,

they couldn't fit what

the stereotype of Beat was.

That was a media hype

to sell papers.

And they pimped that, boy.

They pimped that bad boy,


[ V. Vale ] Burroughs himself

never identified with

the Beat Generation.

He was the godfather and mentor.

He was a bit older.

And since he was also

Harvard educated,

he just brought in

a whole bunch of ideas...

just from classical education

that he had.

And invented a style of book


I mean, it was so original.

And anything that's

so original like that,

eventually lasts.

[ Burroughs ]

Cut... Angle... Word line...

This matter... res... the...

ripples... with cortex...

In the vague description...

which an area...

evasion... experience...

will project...

further experience...

when accompanied... of mass...

but limited...

I think probably Freud

would think him to be...

deeply, deeply troubled.

Profoundly mentally ill.

Everybody was enamored

by William because he was

famous before anybody else.

And he was also famous

for all the wrong things.

He was the first person

that was famous for things

you were supposed to hide.

He was gay. He was a junkie.

He didn't look handsome.

He shot his wife.

He wrote poetry about

a**holes and heroin.

He was not easy to like.

[ Ira Silverberg ]

Class was an essential factor

in the work and life.

William came

from a very traditional,

upper-crust, American family.

Though the fortune

may have been lost,

the breeding was deep

and instilled.

And thus the gentleman

we know was bred.

I could totally relate

to the dry thing...

salesman thing that

he'd created. You know.

And this very

underplayed thing...

just very, very removed...

very removed.

Also very, very interested

in death.

And I think that's

what scared Americans...

more than his writing itself.

If he'd had that worldview

and he was writing in a more

polite way...

and if it didn't have to do

with guns and junk.

Usually the most radical work

tends to come from

the upper classes...

because they're trying so hard

to shock, so hard to get away

from their roots.

So he's a fascinating character,

uniquely American

in that regard.

I don't think that work

could have existed...

had he not been breaking away

from an incredibly patrician,

Midwestern background.

There was no rebellion

in those days.

Well, certainly not

in our strata.

Or very little that I saw.

There might have been

isolated cases.

But by and large,

they were in a good spot.

Their families

were in a good spot,

and the sons wanted to just

go along exactly the same way.

"Thanks for the K.K.K."

For n*gger-killing lawmen

feeding their notches.

For decent, churchgoing women...

with their mean, pinched,

bitter, evil faces.

Thanks for 'Kill a Queer

for Christ' stickers.

Thanks for laboratory AIDS.

Thanks for Prohibition...

and the war against drugs.

Thanks for a country

where nobody is allowed

to mind his own business.

Thanks for a nation of finks.

Yes, thanks for

all the memories.

All right, let's see your arms.

You always were a headache

and you always were a bore.

Thanks for the last

and greatest betrayal...

of the last and greatest...

"of human dreams."

Burroughs achieved

a great deal more...

than being arguably the greatest

writer in the world...

in the second half

of the 20th century,

because he did break down

so many barriers.

And he did play into

and influence...

so many other fields,

like rock and roll,

like the movies.

Well, William seemed to have

a connection with anything

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Yony Leyser

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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