Burroughs, That Proud American Name

On Film / Essays — Dec 15, 2015
Burroughs essay

“Anyone who makes an impression on you is a vampire,” William S. Burroughs once wrote, and by that measure he sank his incisors into the necks of at least two, maybe three generations of readers, including assorted teenage miscreants who otherwise didn’t read many books. It happened to your reporter at the virginal age of thirteen, when in an anthology at the public library I found an excerpt from Naked Lunch:

Rock and Roll adolescent hoodlums storm the streets of all nations. They rush into the Louvre and throw acid in the Mona Lisa’s face. They open zoos, insane asylums, prisons, burst water mains with air hammers, chop the floor out of passenger plane lavatories, shoot out lighthouses, file elevator cables to one thin wire, turn sewers into the water supply, throw sharks and sting rays, electric eels and candiru into swimming pools . . .

And before I knew it, I was reading about drug use and gay sex and extraterrestrial impossibilities, all related in a dry, uninflected heartland cadence that made the subject matter seem all the more scabrous.

Long before anyone thought of writers as having brands, Burroughs’s prose, subjects, social life, backstory, and physical appearance—even the sound of his voice—were somehow all one, held together by a membrane of contradictions. His lean frame, thin lips, bespectacled glare, and businessman’s wardrobe were familiar even to casual magazine readers at least as of 1962, when the American publication of Naked Lunch was immediately greeted with local bans and obscenity trials (the book wasn’t cleared for sale in holdout Massachusetts until 1966). That a man who projected all the flamboyance of a county tax assessor from somewhere west of the Alleghenies could embody and articulate so many taboo subjects made him much more redoubtable than the average beatnik, who could be spotted from the other end of the block. He was a subversive working in such deep cover that the mask never came off, as Howard Brookner demonstrates repeatedly in his 1983 documentary.

Burroughs: The Movie was made over nearly five years, from 1978 to 1982, which seemed an unimaginable length of time to us then. I say “us” because, although I had nothing to do with the production, I lurked on its edges. Howard was my classmate at Columbia, and Jim Jarmusch, who recorded sound, was a year ahead of us; Jim and I had been roommates while he and Howard attended film school at NYU. At one point, Howard arranged for me to interview Burroughs for a magazine as publicity for the movie. I had never conducted an interview before and wasn’t too sure what to ask. On a Sunday morning, William and I sat at the big conference table in the Bunker, the onetime locker room of the former YMCA on the Bowery, where he lived. I believe I flubbed the job, although he was very kind. It didn’t matter anyway, because before the day was over, I had lost the tape, and the magazine went out of business within a month; and as it happens, several more years of work on the film lay ahead. We were all pretty young.

Howard, though, who began the picture as his NYU thesis project, was a consummate professional, with an exceptionally quick mind, an unswerving sense of purpose, and an uncanny gift for persuasion. He combined high literary culture with solid showbiz instincts—his dinner parties featured prominent poets and painters, but when it came to his first fiction feature, he turned to Damon Runyon—and he charmed and coaxed Burroughs into allowing himself to be filmed at great length over a long period, revisiting many parts of his life, including its most harrowing incidents and periods, and displaying himself in a wide range of attitudes, from elegant to cranky to professorial to dissipated. The result is a portrait of the whole man, an authorial profile such as has never been and may never be matched. Part of the reason is that Burroughs knew very well who he was, and he was disinclined to apologize for any of it. Already in his midsixties when shooting began, he had been back in the United States for only four years, after decades abroad in Mexico City, Tangier, Paris, and London. He had given up teaching after a semester and was eking out a modest living mostly by giving readings, one of the few prose writers who did that at the time.

“Burroughs, that proud American name,” he sneers in his piece “Last Words of Hassan Sabbah.” “Proud of what, exactly? Would you all like to see exactly what Burroughs has to be proud of? The Mayan Caper, the Centipede Hype, the Short-Time Racket, the Heavy Metal Gimmick.” His grandfather had invented an adding machine; the company bearing his name later became one of the major early computer manufacturers. William grew up in bourgeois comfort in St. Louis, attended the Los Alamos Ranch School (future site of the first atomic bomb detonation) and Harvard, and made a brief attempt at pursuing medical studies in Vienna, but he already knew he was an outcast, thanks to his homosexuality, and back in the States, just before the Second World War, he further cemented this status by falling into the world of drugs, along the way meeting the people who would come to be known as the Beats.

He didn’t really start writing seriously, though, until the early 1950s, after he had killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, by misadventure—drunkenly attempting to shoot a glass off her head at a party in Mexico City. In a tense moment of the film, he confronts the memory, although he lays off part of the blame on “bad spirits.” Even more discomfiting are his pained interactions with Billy Burroughs Jr., his son by Vollmer, who, although a decent writer of drug yarns himself (the novels Speed and Kentucky Ham), seemed permanently in the shadow cast by his father. In the film, he is visibly in dire physical and emotional straits; he would die in 1981, from abuse of his liver. His father’s relationships with old friends, on the other hand, are congenial and even sometimes warm. One after the other, they take turns explaining Burroughs: Allen Ginsberg, his frequent creative collaborator Brion Gysin, his neighbor the poet John Giorno, the former Times Square hustler Herbert Huncke, the St. Louis native and Beat noncombatant Lucien Carr, the writer and scene maker Terry Southern.

Burroughs is dapper when revisiting his childhood home, cosmopolitan when buying a trench coat at Burberry in London, sternly commanding from the stage at the 1978 Nova Convention in his honor, cold-blooded with just a hint of giddiness while demonstrating his large collection of weapons, glassy-eyed and drunk as he issues obiter dicta from the imagined seat of the Gay State: “I want us to be as tough as the Israelis . . .” Enemies of the Gay State beware: “We’re gonna find ’em, track ’em down, and kill ’em.” Burroughs is the product of his upbringing: severe, no-nonsense, opinionated and brooking no contradiction, with a flat Midwestern accent that can make him sound at times like a parson imitating W. C. Fields. (His brother, Mortimer, who led a much more conventional life, was clearly cut from the same dark cloth.) At the same time, he is wearing that set of attributes as a disguise. He is a junkie and a queer, and very candid about it, but he will not advertise those facts in his spoken or sartorial or behavioral expression. He will not provide the merest hint of vulnerability, barring the tic that causes him to purse and unpurse his lips, which is unsettling in its own right. It isn’t hard to imagine him in any one of many alternative scenarios: as a banker, a rancher, a corporate grand vizier, a CIA director—or, indeed, as head of the Gay State.

Burroughs: The Movie, painstakingly assembled from many hundreds of hours of footage, is light-footed and animated, leaping nimbly from one sequence to the next. It begins with Burroughs's appearance on Saturday Night Live (introduced by guest host Lauren Hutton); incorporates recordings of him reading and bits of Towers Open Fire and The Cut-Ups, the two brilliant short films made by Antony Balch in the mid-1960s that include enactments of scenes from his novels; and even contains a skit featuring his memorable recurring character Dr. Benway, with Burroughs in the role and Jackie Curtis as the nurse, an operation taking place in what looks like a toilet, complete with copiously spurting blood and a plunger used as a surgical instrument.

At the time the movie was made, Burroughs was the most famous writer in America—at least among those of us who lived in cities, spent our nights in punk rock clubs, were fans of Rimbaud and J. G. Ballard and the Velvet Underground, and had more than a passing acquaintance with drugs. We were, naturally, the target audience, who saw the picture in big-city art houses and rented the video from Kim’s and its analogues. Those of us who wrote had imitated Burroughs’s style at one time or another, although none of us could quite capture that authority of his, nor the plain speech that seemed to date back to the Conestoga wagons. He seemed unapproachably grand and austere, and yet he lived among us, and even showed up at the punk rock clubs from time to time. Now he has been dead for nearly twenty years, and almost everybody else in the movie is dead too (apart from Giorno, Patti Smith, and Burroughs’s assistant and executor James Grauerholz). And Howard Brookner is dead as well, cut down by AIDS at thirty-four, in the course of directing that Runyon flick, Bloodhounds of Broadway, in 1989. Burroughs: The Movie reflects a particular time, between the chaos of the 1970s and the delirious mirage of the Reagan years, a time when it briefly seemed that anything could happen—the idea of William Burroughs as a prominent public figure appearing as a signpost of one hopeful direction. Today, many disasters later, the movie stands as a three-dimensional portrait of a writer who merged with his work and became his own most complex and enduring character, and who will always seem to come from the future as much as he hails from several overlapping pasts.