Out of circulation for decades, Howard Brookner’s documentary Burroughs (1983) is the most intimate and revealing screen portrait of the legendary experimental writer, which is a real distinction given how often his life has been treated in dramas (Beat, Naked Lunch, On the Road, Kill Your Darlings) and documentaries (William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, The Beat Hotel, and others too numerous to list). Brookner began the project in 1978 as a 20-minute thesis film at New York University (his classmate Jim Jarmusch served as sound man) and later expanded it to feature length, following Burroughs to his native Saint Louis and to London (where he captured him in conversation with painter Francis Bacon). Along the way Brookner scored interviews with not only the writer’s famous friends (Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Terry Southern) but also noncelebrities who add to the portrait of a lonely, insecure boy and a rebellious, sexually confused young man.
In fact Brookner’s film predated the first substantial biography of Burroughs, Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw (1988), and as such presents the earliest objective glimpse of the writer’s formative years in upper-class Saint Louis. Burroughs revisits his old house in the tony Central West End neighborhood, where he lived with his “ethereal” mother, his remote father, and his older brother, Mortimer. He remembers the Irish maid who taught him how to summon toads with a peculiar humming sound, and surveys his old bedroom, where he lay awake at night, plagued by nameless terrors. Mortimer, whose staid patrician life contrasted dramatically with William’s many years of drug addiction and itinerant slumming, recalls “pitching” his brother’s book Naked Lunch (1959) because of its bad language: “I know he was using it for the shock purpose. But to me it doesn’t do that. It just disgusts me.” In a reaction shot, William looks up at the sky in boredom.
Burroughs also marked the first time the writer came clean about the infamous 1951 incident in which he shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in a drunken game of William Tell. “An absolute piece of insanity,” he calls it. Two years after the movie’s release, when he addressed the episode again in print, he declared, “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.” The couple had a four-year-old son, and by the time Brookner was shooting his movie, William Jr. was a pitiable addict and alcoholic himself who had already endured a liver transplant at age 29. Sitting in his tiny bedroom, Billy picks up a stuffed animal he plucked out of the garbage and notes, “It has no eyes, which I identify with.” He would die two years later, before the movie was even completed, and his sad demise serves as a grim reminder that, most of the time, the Ugly Spirit wins.