Movie review: ‘William S. Burroughs: A Man Within’


As the admiring new documentary “A Man Within” shows, the writer William S. Burroughs was a taut collection of contradictions: a critic of law-and-order jingoism who was a gun fanatic (even after killing his wife in a game of William Tell gone terribly wrong), a prescient critic of invasive psychiatry who tried every pharmaceutical known to humanity.

A key figure in the Beat movement, he stood apart from his literary peers by virtue of his blue-blood background, his age (he was a generation older than Ginsberg and Kerouac) and his unapologetic peculiarity. Even as his taboo-bashing novels like “Naked Lunch,” “Queer” and “Junkie” became counterculture touchstones, the author was no banner-waving activist, but an awkward gentleman outcast.

“A Man Within” won’t be the last word on Burroughs, who died in 1997, but it’s a welcome addition to the biographical canon — less as clear-eyed investigation than for the intimate and moving portrait it paints. In addition to his well-curated archival footage from sources public and private, young first-time filmmaker Yony Leyser has gathered interviews with a broad range of friends and disciples. The usual suspects — Patti Smith, John Waters — weigh in, along with scholars, ex-boyfriends and fellow writers.


Digging for psychological understanding, Leyser doesn’t parse the literary work itself, letting recordings of Burroughs suffice — not a bad decision given the singular quality of that voice, a gravelly sneer cutting through the hypocrisy of the “all-American de-anxietized man.”

The film’s lasting impression is that of vulnerability: a man who found his identity as a parodist and struggled to be sincere.