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.
Only good movies
Get the Indie Focus newsletter, Mark Olsen's weekly guide to the world of cinema.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.