Revelation Perth International Film Festival – William S Burroughs: A Man Within

William S Burroughs: A Man Within – Directed by Yony Leyser. By Danielle Marsland.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within plays the Revelation Perth International Film Festival on Sunday July 24.

This documentary is not so much focused on the celebrity of William S. Burroughs, or his role as one of the key leaders of the Beat movement; those fashionable aspects you’d expect to comprise a film about the formidable writer, who wrote one of the last books to be outlawed by the U.S. government (Naked Lunch – later deemed to be a work of ‘redeeming social value’). Instead, filmmaker Yony Leyser hones in on Burroughs in a more human sense (as the subtitle ‘A Man Within’ prescribes), shedding light on Burroughs’ home life, his bizarre personal obsessions, and his lifelong drug addiction; all of which Leyser frames within a greater question of whether this notoriously nihilistic writer was capable of love and emotional attachment.

Leyser made the film with the assistance of Burroughs’ companion James Grauerholz, thus gaining access to plenty of home videos and never-before-seen archival footage. It’s humbling to see the same person that popular culture has fed to us as ‘crazy junkie/writer of profound, obscene work’, tottering about with a cane at home with his cats, chatting to close friend Allen Ginsberg at his kitchen table, and hanging in his backyard with the musicians who made pilgrimages to see him (aka Sonic Youth).

Fascinating, personal interviews with Burroughs’ friends, collaborators (and all round heroes of counterculture) are the doco’s highlight, including Laurie Anderson, Iggy Pop, Gus Van Sant, Diane DiPrima, Patti Smith and John Waters among others.

A Man Within is an insightful look into how a weird, old dude became something of a ‘saint’ in the punk music scene (despite Burroughs’ own insistence on being apart from everything and everyone: “I’m sure as hell not part of any movement’’). It’s also a humbling look into the personal tragedies of the writer: his flawed relationship with his son and the death of his wife, Joan (who suffered accidental murder at the hands of Burroughs himself). Leyser cleverly aligns Burroughs’ much-praised destruction of social, literary and moral traditions in the public realm with the equally-as-thorough destruction of the relationships of his private life, and ultimately, that of his own self.


William S. Burroughs: A Man Within plays the Revelation Perth International Film Festival on Sunday July 24.

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