I'm about to start reading 'Cursed from birth' (review coming soon at Indienauta), the memoirs of the unhappy and short life of William Burroughs Jr. and I remembered I had this documentary on the (long, overlong, infinite) movies-to-watch-list. Perfect timing, right?
'A man within' tries to offer an insight, based on archival footage (seems some never-seen-before) plus an impressive cast of interviewed people (Peter Weller, John Waters, Laurie Anderson, Gus Van Sant, Jello Biafra or Genesis Breyer P-Orridge to name a few), of William Burroughs, the writer, cultural-social activist and counterculture icon. It's an extremely difficult goal, as Burroughs might be one of the most elusive, contradictory and hermetic authors/human beings I can think of. Director Yony Leyser's does a nice job of assembling the movie, dividing it on a number of topics regarding "the man", as well as making it quite dynamic, with and engaging pace. But after the ending credits roll on, the mysteries surrounding Burroughs remain the same.
As entertaining 'A Man Within' is, revelations are few for the already converted. Ok, you have a point. With Burroughs you can pretend to have clear answers. But with the exception of a few remarks and memories from some of his most intimate friends and colleagues (not the bunch of famous admirers, with the exception of Patti Smith, who was really close to her and has a wonderful account on him near the end of the documentary), and the scenes on which we see him sharing the table with Allen Ginsberg or shooting cans outside his house, the promised insight on his work, life and times it doesn't go beyond the surface. More like an introduction, done with heart and wisdom, but just an introduction.
In terms of structure, 'A Man Within' is a worthy attempt of gathering all the pieces that conform Burroughs' legend & complex puzzle: his role within the Beat movement; his subversive, rebellion against his time, against control & restrictions; drug addiction and experimentation (another of the most remarkable aspects of the film, he was a slave of drugs, not his defender); gun lover and main responsible of the death of his wife, something that tortured him for the rest of his life; absent father; punk godfather; and a revolutionary writer (a dubious painter too). But maybe Leyser's approach was too modest? It seems to me there's a lot more to dig in every chapter. For example: I'm not that interested in knowing that Iggy Pop wrote a song about him (despite the anecdote and how he explains is hilarious) or that Sonic Youth visited him in Kansas, but it would have been great to know why he collaborated with so many artists and what the artists were looking for with these collaborations. Besides I do miss a much deeper account on his books, having the impression 'The Naked Lunch' and 'Queer' are vindicated by many... but have been read by very few.
But let's keep with the moments that endure, as a 'A Man Within' has plenty of them. Aside from the already mentioned relation between Ginsberg and Burroughs, there's the amazing 'Thanksgiving Day ' short film ("thanks for a Continent to despoil and poison"...), his suffering after the ill-fated, demented William Tell. And the lovely, surprisingly charming end. Even the alien, the iconoclast, the irreverent, the guru, the cut-up pioneer, futuristic visionary, needed the same we all strive for...