Precarious Immortality: William S. Burroughs on Film

Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. COURTESY THE CRITERION COLLECTION

Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.


Few humans maintained a courtship with death as intimate and prolonged as that of William S. Burroughs. Despite a decades-long addiction to heroin, numerous run-ins with the law, and an unabashed love of gunplay, the author of Naked Lunch (1959) died in 1997, at the age of 83, outliving his wife, Joan Vollmer; his son William S. “Billy” Burroughs Jr.; and his fellow Beats Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, though they were more than a decade younger. Add to that list Howard Brookner, filmmaker and fellow denizen of the Lower East Side, who died of AIDS in 1989, at the age of 34, after completing only three films. Brookner’s first film, Burroughs: The Movie (1983), is the only documentary about the 20th century’s most literary junky produced during the writer’s lifetime. After having been presumed lost for almost 30 years, the film was recently discovered in MoMA’s archives and restored by the filmmaker’s nephew Aaron Brookner, receiving a screening at last year’s New York Film Festival for the Burroughs centennial and now a proper release by the Criterion Collection.

Burroughs’s former lover, adopted son, and literary executor, James Grauerholz, recalled in an interview at the NYFF that the idea for the film came about in 1978 when Brookner, a student at NYU, walked into Phebe’s, a bar on the Bowery, having lost his keys, and told Grauerholz that he wanted to make his senior thesis film about Burroughs; Grauerholz suggested that he document the upcoming Nova Convention, a three-day conference on Burroughs’s work and ideas held at the Entermedia Theater that December. The convention was an assemblage of downtown New York figures. The event was organized by the founder of Semiotext(e), Sylvère Lotringer, along with Grauerholz and poet John Giorno, and featured performances by Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Frank Zappa, readings from Peter Orlovsky, Anne Waldman, and Burroughs himself, and panel discussions with Timothy Leary and Brion Gysin. The Nova Convention could have filled an entire documentary on its own. Brookner filmed the event, but most of the footage was left on the cutting-room floor. (Thankfully, Criterion has included much of it in the DVD’s outtakes.) It was Burroughs—the man, and not the scene he engendered—that interested Brookner, and it is a human being, first and foremost, that his film portrays.

In interviews Brookner and his collaborators insist that they were lucky that Burroughs, who was good at being difficult, cooperated with them as fully as he did. The same could be said of the writer, who was fortunate enough to be filmed by a director as skilled as Brookner, have his words recorded by Jim Jarmusch, Brookner’s sound man, and have his image captured by Tom DiCillo, Jarmusch’s cinematographer on Permanent Vacation (1980), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), not to mention Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983) and Brookner’s second film, Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars (1987). DiCillo’s camera did much to define Jarmusch’s aesthetic of hip, urban malaise, a carefully exaggerated realism that has since been universalized by Instagram. That such an aesthetic was honed on the first floor of 222 Bowery, Burroughs’s apartment in a former YMCA locker room now known as the Bunker, with Brookner, DiCillo, and Jarmusch shooting a group of men in their 60s getting drunk, playing with weapons, and talking about the good old days, is no stranger than anything that happens in any of Burroughs’s novels.

Burroughs moved into the Bunker in 1975, having returned to the United States a year prior, after more than two decades overseas: in Mexico, South America, Tangier, Paris, and London. He rented the apartment from Giorno, who still owns and resides in the building, and stayed there until 1981, when Burroughs and Grauerholz moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where Burroughs spent his final years. Brookner’s film preserves a crucial chapter in Burroughs’s life: when the author in his three-piece suit began doing readings at rock clubs and became the godfather of punk, and the Bunker became a Mecca for the junkies of the Lower East Side. Toward the beginning of the film Patti Smith, tuning a clarinet backstage at the Entermedia, tells Brookner that Burroughs is “a hard guy to get into bed. That’s why I like him, I guess.” By the end of the film Burroughs is in Kansas, staring across the flat landscape with one of his beloved cats, playing the role of gentleman farmer.

Burroughs tells Brookner that before he became a writer he wanted to be a doctor (he briefly attended medical school in prewar Vienna) and then a spy (he blames an old Harvard rival for curtailing his career with the CIA), but more than anything Brookner’s film showcases Burroughs’s talents as an actor. Burroughs was no novice to film when Brookner came knocking: during his London years Burroughs collaborated on a series of experimental short films with British director Antony Balch, and he played a prominent role as Opium Jones in Conrad Rooks’s psychedelic elegy to addiction, Chappaqua (1966). Brookner’s film begins with Burroughs’s 1981 appearance on Saturday Night Live, the first of several notable onscreen appearances in the next decade, including his roles as a butler in Brookner’s final film, Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989), and as Tom the Priest in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989).

Despite his flirtations with cinema, Burroughs’s own writing proved difficult to film. A screenplay of his first novel, Junky (1953), that Dennis Hopper commissioned Burroughs to write with Terry Southern (who appears in the documentary) was never produced due to disagreements with Hopper and an excess of cocaine. David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of Naked Lunch tries to work around the unrepresentability of Burroughs’s fictional world by literalizing some of his metaphors, but ultimately fails to tap the filmic source of Burroughs’s style: the cut-up, that technique of textual mutilation that Gysin invented in 1959, leading the artist to declare that “writing is 50 years behind painting.” Burroughs took this as his mantra in the early 1960s, advancing the method in his “Nova Trilogy,” cutting, pasting, and reconfiguring the 1,000-page-long mass of text Burroughs called “The Word Hoard” into the sci-fi universe of the novels The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964). In his cut-ups, Burroughs used language like film negatives, rearranging and disfiguring in the service of “The Electronic Revolution,” as he titled a 1970 essay, his most sustained elaboration of a militant theory of media that attempts to reconcile and revise the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard and Marshall McLuhan.


William S. Burroughs.


In Brookner’s film, though, Burroughs comes off as less of a political agitator than a sweet old man with mischievous tendencies. At one point Burroughs and Jackie Curtis reenact a scene from Naked Lunch, the author in the role of Dr. Benway, his most famous character, performing a ridiculous surgical procedure that leaves the actors soaked in obviously fake blood. But Burroughs’s most compelling performance is in the role of William S. Burroughs, his air of sophistication disguising his penchant for madness, his Burberry raincoat concealing a revolver, his cane a deadly blade. Brookner portrays Burroughs as a man of endless contradictions. As the filmmaker tells Burroughs’s biographer Ted Morgan in a 1985 conversation included in the Criterion DVD, “With William, you’ll know he’ll say things that he never did.” Burroughs “talks best when he’s had a few drinks in him,” Brookner says, “but then he sounds like a raving lunatic.”

Jarmusch and Grauerholz credit the film’s success to Brookner’s unique adeptness at convincing the notoriously paranoid Burroughs to trust him. Although it probably didn’t hurt that Brookner was charming, attractive, and only 23 years old when filming began (Burroughs’s predilection for younger men is well documented), it is the filmmaker’s gentle, sensitive touch that allows for such an intimate portrait. References to drug addiction, though inescapable in Burroughs’s writing, are subdued here: aside from a brief mention of “the methadone clinic,” which Burroughs asked Brookner to cut, the filmmaker tells Morgan, Burroughs’s battles with addiction are merely implied.

Most remarkable are the scenes featuring Burroughs and his son Billy, semi-estranged since Burroughs shot his wife, Joan, Billy’s mother, in an ill-fated game of William Tell in 1951. In the introduction to Queer (1985), Burroughs attributes his writing career to Joan’s death: “the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” Like his father, Billy was haunted by the Ugly Spirit, and he wrote about it in the novels Speed (1970) and Kentucky Ham (1973). Adolescent abuse of amphetamines gave way to chronic alcoholism, and “the last beatnik,” as Giorno calls Billy in the film, died in 1981, at the age of 33. Brookner’s footage of father and son together documents the end of a relationship that never really began, their tentative camaraderie revealing a familial resemblance that is ultimately tragic.

Even sadder, perhaps, is Brookner’s stated intention, as expressed to Morgan, to return to his subject, filming Burroughs again every few years until the writer’s funeral, which Brookner never lived to see. Brookner battled AIDS secretly, going off of his meds in order to complete Bloodhounds of Broadway, which was released after his own funeral—a story that will doubtless be told in Aaron Brookner’s forthcoming documentary, Uncle Howard.

In Burroughs: The Movie, Ginsberg, staring straight into Brookner’s camera, recites from memory his famous opening lines to “Howl” (1955): “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…” Though those lines were written when Brookner was still an infant, they could not be more applicable to his own generation, an unfortunate through line connecting the two New Yorks which Burroughs’s life bookends.

Andrew Marzoni is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 36 under the title “Precarious Immortality.”

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