William S Burroughs: Revealing the man within?

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