Paul Duane on Howard Brookner’s 1983 portrait of William Burroughs, released today in a new blu-ray restoration from Criterion.
This is an extraordinary film. As Luc Sante (himself peripherally involved in its making) points out, it’s “an authorial profile such as has never been and may never be matched”. In part this is because of its unusual, organic growth – the director, Howard Brookner, started it as a film school graduation project. Two fellow students, Tom diCillo and Jim Jarmusch, helped him out on camera and sound. They ended up filming for five years and the resulting material became a significant hit.
Brookner, obviously no slouch in business as well as being a fine director, was able to take the film on the road with William Burroughs in attendance, where it got sell-out audiences everywhere. Then he sold it on to the BBC’s Arena slot so Alan Yentob could slap his name on it and put it out on a Sunday night to unsuspecting UK audiences, where it was again a massive success.
But then it disappeared. Brookner’s ground-breaking belief in self-distribution meant that when he died, the film had nobody looking after it, and apart from some very dodgy and illegal YouTube rips it vanished off the radar for thirty years.
Recently Brookner’s nephew Aaron took it on himself to track down the materials, which were all in storage, and to bring the film to a new generation with the help of the excellent Criterion label, where it now lives with copious and unmissable extra features, including some of the best deleted scenes I’ve come across, ones which are almost as crucial as anything included in the film itself.
Burroughs was clearly completely at home with Brookner, and some of the material has the relaxed feel of a (very professionally made) home movie. There are odd, sometimes hilarious little vignettes, like Burroughs misquoting Howl to his ex-lover Ginsberg (a bit of shade? Maybe, or maybe just the booze), and a deleted scene where Burroughs invites a drunk Terry Southern to share his orgone box, and Southern’s brief attack of gay panic is put to rest by Burrough’s dry “You’re safe, Terry.”
It’s an eerie feeling, this sudden re-appearance of a documentary made so long ago that its central figure was still part of the furniture, not entirely the icon he later became. And the film – to any viewer with a more than superficial knowledge of the Burroughs story – is filled with the palpable presence of the dead. Murder and premature death are just underneath the surface; a miasma of sadness and loss.
Firstly, there’s the death from AIDS of its young and very talented director, Howard Brookner, at a point where he had clearly not even begun to tap into his abilities. But this is only the beginning. That impishly bearded, bitter, bespectacled man sitting beside Burroughs and Ginsberg? That’s Lucien Carr, usually seen only in photos taken in his early twenties, when he was one of the beautiful boys of the Beat cadre. But here he is, sitting at a kitchen table, calmly saying that Burroughs – or ‘Willy’, as he calls him – wrote one good book and then became ‘a mountebank’, swindling the gullible into giving him money for old, cut-up rope.
The accusation, though bitter, is probably not far from the truth, though Carr admits that he’s not read Burrough’s more recent work, with its return to a conventional, even laboured, prose style. But when you remember that Carr murdered Burroughs’ childhood friend, David Kammerer, after years of being stalked obsessively – and not without Carr’s connivance – by the older man, the bright room fills with shadows from darker and more dangerous times.
Carr is also the only one to remind Burroughs of how close he’d hewed to criminality himself in those early years, apparently planning a dynamite-fuelled raid on an armoured car. Burroughs doesn’t deny it, and adds that if he were to do it now he wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about how to avoid killing anyone.
Burroughs talks about killing people quite often during this film, both hypothetically (when discussing his plan to set up a gay state based on Israel it seems that the most attractive element to him would be the creation of a gay Mossad tasked with assassinating homophobes) and in a more direct way.
At one stage, he even mentions that he wouldn’t like to die without having killed somebody. This is, on the face of it, an odd thing to say, and even odder given that he did famously kill somebody – his wife, Joan – apparently as an accidental by-product of a stunt gone wrong.
Whether the famous William Tell business was real, or just a story cooked up after the fact (Burroughs hints as much when he talks about his lawyer’s instructions to him not to admit any guilt in the shooting), it’s Ground Zero in the Burroughs mystique.
Before it, he was a supporting player in the Beat pantheon, given by Kerouac the role of ‘Old Bull Lee’, the unlikely farmer who cameos in On The Road “dragging his long, thin body around the entire United States and most of Europe and North Africa, only to see what was going on.” After it, for whatever reason, he was, and remained for the rest of his life, a writer.
The years following Joan’s killing served to create the Burroughs persona that would always stick – el hombre invisible, the junkie on the streets of Tangiers, being tended to while junk-sick by his beloved houseboy Kiki, hiding out from the disgrace he’s brought on his respectable American family. The killing itself is passed over without too much enquiry in the film, but Brookner is too good a filmmaker not to allow its shadow to hang over everything else we see.
Brookner’s camera follows Burroughs on a fascinating journey back to his St Louis, Missouri childhood home, and a brief, chilly reunion with his younger brother Mortimer, who once tried to read The Naked Lunch but then ‘pitched it’ halfway through. “I think he was trying to shock,” says Mortimer, “but it didn’t shock me. It just disgusted me.” This, the boilerplate schtick of the affronted conservative everywhere, seems to affect Burroughs in the same way water affects a duck’s back. But who knows? You really can’t tell what got to Burroughs and what didn’t.
There’s one scene where it seems like he’s feeling something. He pays a visit to Otto, who was the Burroughs family gardener when William was a child. Imagine, somebody who remembered Burroughs as a child? It seems unthinkable now. Anyway, he kept in touch with Otto, kept writing to him on and off all through the years of wandering. Otto, poor, black and seemingly afflicted with a nervous palsy, is deeply touched at Burroughs’ questioning about his son, now long-dead. Burroughs later confides to the camera that he’d had a premonition of the boy’s death, years previously.
One dead son following another, it isn’t long before Burroughs’ own sad, cursed boy, Billy Jr, appears. Crippled following a liver transplant necessitated by years of drug and alcohol abuse, Billy is a terrible sight; his tragic eyes set in a face that, from childhood, seemed formed into an anxious, rounded, babyish desperation, possibly caused by his mother’s death and his father’s perpetual absence. So much the opposite of the famous Burroughs physiognomy.
Years ago somebody I knew wondered whether Burroughs would have achieved fame if he’d looked like, say, Ken Dodd. Billy Burroughs had the name and the addictions, and some of the talent, but not the looks, or the instinct, for success. His death was a horrible inevitability. And just before the film tells us that Billy is dead, we see Burrough’s ‘other son’, sometime lover and manager, Jim Grauerholz, kiss Billy’s cheek. The context and surrounding narrative make this as chilling a moment as Michael Corleone’s final embrace of Fredo.
Grauerholz served as one of the documentary’s producers. Despite that position, the film’s direction and editing positions him as an unsettlingly cold young man who parlayed an early position as an assistant to Ginsberg into complete control of a valuable late 20th century literary brand (these are grim terms, but ones I feel Grauerholz might himself have used).
A former publisher of Burroughs’ work told me that Grauerholz’s function was to keep Burroughs supplied with vodka and the very small amount of food he found necessary for survival. These needs supplied, Burroughs then churned out an endless supply of semi-pornographic pulp, first from his writing desk in the windowless Bunker, later from a farm in Lawrence, Kansas (Grauerholz’s home state) where he was safer from outside influence and interference.
Once isolated in Kansas, Burroughs was free to descend into a fantasy world of guns, knives and gender separatism. Watching him recount a dream where his dead wife returns to tell him that “the women” are going to take over, and he’d better co-operate if he wants a good deal, one gets the feeling his gay Israel wouldn’t have been a welcoming place for lesbians or trans people. The only female presence he speaks warmly about during the film is his mother, to whom he seems to have had some closeness. But then, Ed Gein loved his mother, too.
During the five years of the film’s production, Burroughs seems to visibly shrink, as he physically removes himself from the world. His writing becomes the only world he needs. In a deleted scene, Brion Gysin teases him that he’s the only writer alive who would bring his typewriter with him to a desert island instead of books. “Write m’own, yes,” agrees Burroughs.
Did Burroughs really not need anyone, not even an audience, not even readers? Who knows? I don’t think anyone apart from his closest lifelong friends ever knew how he really felt. His final written words seal the mystery. Strange last words, if he really was as full of hate and fear as he sometimes seemed:
“There is no final enough of wisdom, experience- any fucking thing. No Holy Grail, No Final Satori, no solution. Just conflict.
Only thing that can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner, and Calico. Pure love. What I feel for my cats past and present.
Love? What is it?
Most natural painkiller what there is.
William Burroughs, 7/30/97