Blu-Review: Burroughs: The Movie (Howard Brookner, 1983) - Criterion Collection

by Mara Norman

The best William Burroughs documentary is finally out on Blu-Ray. Filmed from 1978-1983 it is made with primary sources, friends and colleagues including Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke, John Giorno, Francis Bacon, and Terry Southern.  Much of the film is William himself describing events in his life and the development of his writing practice and style.

This is a great introduction to the work and personality of the writer.  Later documentaries tend to glorify, deify and mythologize him in a way that this intimate portrait avoids.  Burroughs: the movie maps out the historical development of his writing style and writing practice.  He discusses his literary development and historical aspects of his life. Long excepts of the film have William reading from various texts including Naked Lunch, Cities of the Red night, Lost Boys and Nova Express.

The film shows his progression as a writer from a young boy in St. Louis, his life in New York City in the mid 40’s, the tragic shooting death of his wife in Mexico City in 1951 to his development as a writer in Tangiers.  Footage includes Burroughs’ New York City Bunker apartment, his childhood home in St. Louis, Silent films shot in Tangier, his London writing space he used in the mid 60’s, public readings and even an excerpt from a Saturday Night Live reading.  He also gives explanations of his writing style including the use of the cut-up method, “applying painting montage techniques to writing” with large excerpts of Burroughs reading segments from writings over photos and silent films.

The story of the film itself has an interesting side note: the film was nearly lost.  The extras cover the retrieval and release of the film by the director’s nephew.  This Blu-Ray has a slew of extras including rare outtakes, and audio interview with the director, extra scenes and an audio commentary by Jim Jarmusch who did the sound on the film. Only available up until now on VHS. I am so happy this film is being released in this new format so fans and scholars can further study this important work.