William S Burroughs: Revealing the man within?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Yony Leyser's new documentary seeks to find 'a man within' the controversial writer, wife killer and drug addict. But can anybody reveal this better than Burroughs himself? Matilda Battersby finds out

One of America’s most celebrated literary figures is a man who shot his wife in the head, abandoned his son and had a heroin habit which spanned five decades.





William S Burroughs, one third of the Beat generation’s literary tripartite (with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac), is the subject of a new feature-length documentary, screened this week at the BFI London Film Festival, seeking to shed new light on the author through previously unseen Super 8 home movies and VHS tapes donated by his friends.



“I called the film William S Burroughs: A Man Within because Burroughs used the term ‘a man within’ twice in Naked Lunch,” Yony Leyser, the film’s 26-year-old director, explains, adding: “I wanted to look at the man, not the writing.”



The 90 minute documentary is divided into segments reflecting Burroughs’ various obsessions - cats, guns, drugs, rent boys etc- , and only briefly mentions the writer’s huge back catalogue, the most famous of which are Naked Lunch, Queer and Junkie.



The documentary includes rare footage of Burroughs and Ginsberg together, some fantastic examples of Burroughs’ one-liners and rather a lot of talking by his celebrity associates, including Genesis P-Orridge, Peter Weller, Patti Smith and Iggy Pop.



Leyser is clearly a big Burroughs fan. “I got kicked out of university for an art piece which criticised the dean of students. I did it because I was frustrated at not being able to critique the status quo in the way that Burroughs had,” he explains.



After his expulsion Yeyser went to Lawrence, Kansas, the sleepy university town where Burroughs lived out his twilight years, on a mission to find out more. It took him five years to complete the interviews, source footage and bring the film to edit.



On screen Burroughs appears elderly and emaciated. He spent most of his 83 years drunk or high - something friends say helped assuage the guilt of having killed his second wife, Joan Vollmer.



The story goes that while in Mexico in 1951 Vollmer drunkenly proposed a game of William Tell, placed a gin glass on her head and was fatally shot between the eyes when her husband misfired.



Despite Yeyser’s conviction that his is a balanced documentary, it is striking that Vollmer’s death is addressed in extremely generous terms. Vollmer is presented by Burroughs’ friends as a woman who was suicidal and out of her mind.



The film discusses rumours that at the time of her death Burroughs had been having affairs with local men, but they largely exonerate Burroughs, blaming Vollmer’s Benzadrine habit.



“What kind of woman asks her husband to [point a gun at her]?” Yeyser says. “People say she was quite f**** up herself. It’s not like Burroughs wanted to kill her.”



After Vollmer’s death Burroughs was bribed out of a Mexico jail and given a suspended sentence in absentia. Deciding not to challenge his friends’ sympathetic portrayals of the incident, the documentary appears to have applied yet another lenient sentence.



The tempestuous relationship Burroughs had with his only child, William “Billy” Burroughs Jr, is also mentioned only in passing despite their division having been very publicly outlined in Billy’s own writing, before his early death from liver failure aged 33.



The film is a quirky series of pictures of an evidently charming Burroughs who injects heroin with the locals in Manhattan, befriends rock stars, writes some good novels and in his latter years enjoys shooting bullets at cans of spray paint to make art. It barely scratches the surface, let alone reveals ‘a man within’ but despite this is an interesting film to watch.

When Burroughs’ own hell of a life is so vibrantly laid down in books like Queer and Junkie, it seems ambitious that a film should seek to provide greater insight. Perhaps a better title would be ‘a man without’ as what the film does nicely is to provide pictures to accompany Burroughs’ enduring words.

William S Burroughs: A Man Within is being screened in Austria next week. For further screening information go to williamsburroughsthemovie.com

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin