photo manipulations by nacrowe
in the obtuse documentary BURROUGHS: THE MOVIE (CITIFILMWORKS, 1983) by director HOWARD BROOKNER we are provided a rare glimpse into the mind and writings of the influential BEAT writer WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS through not only his narration, but interview footage with peers and acolytes such as ALLEN GINSBERG, TERRY SOUTHERN, LUCIEN CARR, HERBERT HUNCKE, BRION GYSIN, PATTI SMITH, FRANCIS BACON and JON GIORNO as well as his only son WILLIAM BURROUGHS JR (who passed on during the time of filming).
we follow BURROUGHS as he guides us through his past including his time spent as a child in ST. LOUIS as well as his time at HARVARD, medical school in VIENNA, his failed attempt to enlist with the OSS (now the CIA) during WWII and subsequent fall into HEROIN addiction in NYC which was around the time he made the acquaintance of JACK KEROUAC and ALLEN GINSBERG. this continues through his marriage to JOAN VOLLMER and brith of his son through her accidental shooting in MEXICO and his son's eventual death in his 30s due to the chronic effects of alcoholism. littered throughout this personal narrative we find BURROUGHS reading excerpts from JUNKIE, NOVA EXPRESS, NAKED LUNCH, THE WILD BOYS and EXTERMINATOR! among other publications. we learn that NAKED LUNCH was written during his time in TANGIERS in the early 1950s when he was able to make use of the lax customs of local pharmacies to indulge in narcotics.
as a documentary this film was exceedingly dry. this is partly due to BURROUGHS prodding vocal affectations that seem to drone on ad infinitum. its funny, if i wasnt a fan of his work than i would find this film impossible to stomach, but he is a figure that pretty much brought POSTMODERNISM to literature in the 20th century and is a preeminent literary figure among his peers. his work is almost like a collage in art terms or montage in film terms as his cutouts served to provide jagged juxtapositions of concepts, words and phrases that seemingly spawned new visualizations and ideas out of multiple perspectives connected over space and time.
to verbalize his influence on modern culture, which has only bent more towards his worldview in the digital age of fractured realities where truth isnt relative, its irrelevant. seemingly we are in a post-truth and post-morality world where everyone is a JUNKIE for information. brutal low-grade gossip or refined, well-articulated and researched essays all fill the same fix and are mainlined and discarded the same, onwards looking for the next hit.
so this all makes me think that to experience this film expecting a straightforward presentation of a coherent narrative is wholly missing the point. if anything this film is a snapshot that is out of focus and out of context. a brief window into his late life mindset after a long fruitful yet painful career. it is up to his to draw our own conclusions on the worth of his perspective and words. on us to provide the context for this disjointed documentary of a man whose trade was navigating moral and temporal ambiguity.
photo by nacrowe
for anyone unfamiliar with the BEAT writers and their impact on modern culture, well beyond poetry, the graphic novel THE BEATS: A GRAPHIC HISTORY (HILL AND WANG, 2010) is an excellent starting point. while providing a fairly definitive, warts-and-all overview of the three main writers associated with the movement in JACK KEROUAC, ALLEN GINSBERG and WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS, it also deftly chooses to contextualize them within the greater SAN FRANCISCO POETRY RENAISSANCE scene that found them with writers like KENNETH REXROTH, MICHAEL MCCLURE, PHILIP WHALEN, WILLIAM EVERSON, GARY SNYDER, ROBERT DUNCAN, LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI and GREGORY CORSO as well as other important related figures like AMIRI BARAKA, CHARLES OLSON and ROBERT CREELEY. this breadth of scope results in a wider perspective about the greater influence of a movement that largely defined an era in art, poetry and literature that is still reverberating today.
i appreciate very much that the art and text both don't attempt to gloss over the fact that the three main figure (KEROUAC, GINSBERG and BURROUGHS) were involved in activities that put them at the edge of society. i understand back in the 1950s being openly homosexual was an issue and that our society has come a long way in accepting all forms of sexuality, but all three were confirmed pederasts which is still remains major taboo (for good reason). not that i am conflating the two. the all also engaged in petty crime and drug sales across state lines and in the case of BURROUGHS, manslaughter. some (KEROUAC and BURROUGHS) where petty, xenophobic, racist, solipsistic and in later life (ironically) bitterly homophobic. they were a collective that took sexuality, drugs, the written and by extension experiential consciousness to their polar extremes, which very much informed the breadth and potency of their work. the authors don't condone such, but merely present such in a straightforward manner in order to evoke a clarity of message and mission.
the choice in showcasing their exploits within a context of the greater literary and academic scene at the time and shortly thereafter provides necessary insight into how they were perceived at the time and why they are referred back to constantly today as touchstone influences.
in an era that demanded conformity during the rise of foreign fascism, their ability to wave their own freak flag of individuality provided an example of unadulterated freedom and personal liberty, for good or worse, down the line. hard to tell which.
text by HARVEY PEKAR, NANCY J. PETERS, PENELOPE ROSEMONT, JOYCE BRABNER, TRINA ROBBINS and TUL KUPFERBERG.
art by ED PISKOR, JAY KINNEY, NICK THORKELSON, SUMMER MCCLINTON, PETER KUPER, MARY FLEENER, JEROME NEUKIRCH, ANNE TIMMONS, GARY DUMM, LANCE TOOKS and JEFFREY LEWIS.