Howard Brookner’s 1985 Burroughs movie is, as we’ve said before, essential viewing (notwithstanding the presence of another equally comprehensive one, Yony Leyser’s William S Burroughs: A Man Within (2010)) . Ed Koziarski, in 2009, in the Chicago Reader, explains the reasons for the second film – “(James) Grauerholz [Burroughs’ friend, confident and literary executor] had been unhappy with (the) previous documentary..in which he’d also played an active role” – Koziarski quotes James – “I was surprised to see how my role in William’s life had been handled in the final editing process..Basically, the BBC editors took a dislike to me. They..couldn’t resist a “controversial” angle on “the Grauerholz guy”. So they chopped together dozens of different speeches by me into a phony voice-over “monologue” accompanying a montage of scenes of me and William working together, etc. If you listen on headphones, you’ll hear many, many audio splices. They made me look like a usurper and a smug, self-satisfied wise guy”.
Despite that, the film remains a marvel – As Janet Maslin wrote, in a rave review in The New York Times, “Rarely is a documentary as well attuned to its subject as Howard Brookner’s “Burroughs”, which captures as much about the life, work and sensibility of its subject as its 86 minute format allows. Part of the film’s comprehensiveness is attributable to William S Burroughs’ cooperation, since the author was willing to visit old haunts, read from his works and even playfully act out a passage from “Naked Lunch” for the benefit of the camera. But the quality of discovery about “Burroughs” is very much the director’s doing, and Mr Brookner demonstrates an unusual degree of liveliness and curiosity in exploring his subject”.
Brookner, a wunderkind, tragically, died of AIDS in 1989 (he was only 34). The obituary writer in the Times noted the sardonic note he had taped to his refrigerator during the last years of his life: “There’s so much beauty in the world. I suppose that’s what got me into trouble in the first place.”
Featured in “Burroughs” (alongside Allen), John Giorno, Brion Gysin, Terry Southern, Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr, Patti Smith, Jackie Curtis, Francis Bacon (sic) , Mortimer Burroughs (William’s brother) – and, particularly poignant, footage of William Burroughs Jr. (“Billy” Burroughs), Billy died in 1981, during the early stages of the filming.
The film had its genesis as Brookner’s NYU master’s thesis. It was screened in 1984 at the New York Film Festival. The BBC “Arena” version we have here appeared shortly after the writer’s death in 1997, (with the beginning slightly re-edited to make it an obituary piece but with the rest of the film otherwise complete).
A transcription of Allen’s contribution (he is featured mostly speaking of the infamous “William Tell incident”, but also his early days with Burroughs – the two of them are filmed on a rooftop, recollecting their old “routines” and Allen can also be seen when Lucien Carr is “interviewing” Burroughs):
AG: “Well, Kerouac said that Burroughs was the most intelligent man in America and I probably repeated that a million times..”
AG & WSB (on the rooftop):
AG: You know what line of yours Kerouac liked the best?
AG: “Motel motel motel loneliness moans across the still oily tidal waters of East Texas bayou”. You remember? You know that? He wrote me a letter and then he spoke about it.
WSB: Yes, yes.
AG: He said that that proved..that was the first time that he dug your prose, because of your ear, as a musician.
On 115th Street in the apartment we shared with Joan and Jack, do you rewmember when we played out routines at that time, remember the characters?
WSB: Well, I remember some of them. You played “the well-groomed Hungarian”
AG: (affecting the accent); Yez., my deat, I vas the well-groomed Hungarian, and I am still here with you now and I am wanting to know, do you by any chance have some shade of recollection of the personage which you yourself identified with?
WSB: I think I was playing a sort of an Edith Sitwell part.
AG: Quite right, yes
WSB: I got in drag and I looked like some sinister old lesbian
AG: I do believe you also affected the title of “(the) Baronness”?
WSB: Ah, definitely, yes.
AG: And do you remember the liason we had to bring the foolish, rich, young, ruddy-cheeked American to my art gallery?
WSB: (keeping in character) Aha, of course, yes. You know, Americans, they are so full with money, it is our duty..
AG: Yez, and this was a very choice American..
WSB: …it is our duty to relieve them of a little bit, you know.
AG: He had a straw hat, do you remember?
AG: What was that magic name? thirty years ago.. He was an American named..Kerouac..He was a nice boy, very nice boy. He was a writer, very good writer,
WSB: Very good writer
AG: Very good writer, very American..
WSB: Later, he became quite well-known, I believe (and) very famous.
AG: Yes, yes, very famous
WSB: He wrote some book called “On The Route”, I think.
AG: On Route
WSB: En Route..
Well, I remember the line from “Howl”, “I saw the best minds of my generation, starved, hysterical,naked..
AG(mock-exasperated): You can’t even quote it right!
WSB: …looking for an angry fix.”
AG: Oh that, you got that.
AG: Burroughs fell in love with me and we slept together and I saw a very soft center where he felt isolated, alone in the world, and really needed a human, humane, gift in return of feeling and of affection, and, since I did love him, and did have that respect and affection, I think he responded. So I kind of felt privileged that I had.. “j’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” [Allen is quoting Rimbaud] – I alone had the key to this savage parade – which was the key of tenderness.
Huncke stole a prescription pad from an old doctor in Brooklyn and Bill wrote up some phony scripts (purportedly) signed by the doctor which he cashed right around Columbia…(Huncke and Burroughs got busted)..(and) then, I think, his (Burroughs’) family send enough money to get him out, or his father came, or maybe his brother came. We were all very upset and very desolate because that was the first ring of iron I (we)’d heard in our small circle there..
Jack and I decided that Joan and Bill would make a great couple, that they were a match for each other, fit for each other, equally tuned and equally witty, equally intelligent and equally well-read, they were refined of mind..
He would lie down on a long couch, talking. She would sometimes lie next to him, put her arm around his abdomen..
I once went with Lucien on a trip to Mexico and we were with Joan about 24 or 48 hours before she died.. He was going around these hair-pin turns, and she was urging him on, saying, “how fast can this heap go?”, while me and the kids were cowering in the back.
“Dream Record, June 8 1955” (Allen reads from his dream journals) – “(I dreamt of) a drunken night in my house with a/ boy in San Francisco. I lay asleep./ darkness/. I went back to Mexico City/ and saw Joan Burroughs leaning/ forward on a garden chair, arms/ on her knees. She studied me with/ clear eye and downcast smile, her/ face restored to a fine beauty/ tequila and salt had made strange before the bullet in her brow./ We talked of our lives since then./ Well what’s Burroughs doing now?/ Bill on earth, he’s in North Africa/ Oh, and Kerouac? Jack still jumps/ with the same beat genius as before,/ notebooks filled with Buddha./ “I hope he makes it she laughed./ Is Huncke still in the can? No,/ last time I saw him on Times Square/ And Lucien? – “Married, drunk/ and golden in the East/ You? New/ loves in the West – Then I knew/ she was a dream and questioned her/ – Joan, what kind of knowledge have/ the dead?…”
Joan was not making it with Bill and was a little irritated with him. Bill had been off with a young friend. I had talked to her the day before. Julie, her daughter..was actually quite cute, was flirtatious, and I said, “She’s gonna give you some competition!”, and Joan said, “Ah, I’m out of the competition”. So she’d sort of given up on love life..
My impression when we left was there was something scary about her, suicidal..
Just as she had said to Lucien, “how fast can this heap go?”, I think she said to Bill, “(wanna) shoot that (glass) off my head?”..
I always kind of thought that she had kind of challenged him and led him into it, that it was sort of like using him to..that she was, in a sense, using him to get her off the earth, because I think she was in a great deal of pain..
Years later, I heard a few different things from Bill. He said he wept a great deal. He also said that at one time, many many years ago, he was puzzled at what got into him, that he would actually pick up on it..
Well, it gave Bill, certainly, a taste of mortality. It opened him up quite a bit. It was then that he began writing. It was then that Bill got very serious and began casting about for something to do to connect him to the reality around him. I think it grounded him a bit, because it’s from then on, as I remember, that he begins writing Junkie.
[on “cut-up“] – Well, all of Burroughs seems to be coherent once you know his method. What Lucien called “charlatanism” is actually experimental writing (otherwise you’d call Cezanne a charlatan for trying to work with hot planes advancing and cold planes receding in the optical field of the eyeball – so Burroughs in cutting up was creating gaps in space and gaps in time, as also, as Cezanne (or as meditation) does).”