William Burroughs – Queer


William Burroughs birthday today.  A guest-posting today from our good friend and Burroughs scholar extraordinaire, Oliver Harris, with thoughts on an intriguing subject

Oliver writes:

“The hot news is that 2023 promises to be a Queer Year for Burroughs.

Flashback three decades… It was late spring, or maybe early summer, 1992, in any case not long after Burroughs turned 78, and I remember the occasion like it was last week – the rising sense of anticipation, the boisterous excitement that became something close to euphoria going into the cinema – and the near-silence after, shuffling out into the London evening like a man suffering a light concussion. It had seemed the perfect match – William Burroughs, David Cronenberg, Naked Lunch. I loved all three, so why did it fall so horribly flat on the screen? The film has its fans, I know, and maybe it has its moments, but I hated it. I hated its pace – slow, slow, slow-slow, slow – and I hated its color palette – any color so long as it was brown. And while Peter Weller looked the part of William Lee (in a handsome fedora, brown as a turd, of course), I hated the way his identity and reality were straightened out sexually and ontologically. Wrong, wrong, wrong!  They titled the book-of-the-making-of-the-film-of-the-book Everything Is Permitted: The Making of Naked Lunch, but it’s not true – some things should never be permitted – like turning a work so unstable and contrary, so ferocious yet funny, such a rapid-fire self-consuming disarray of savage black brilliance into that slow, brown narrative also called Naked Lunch.

At the time, Burroughs congratulated Cronenberg on having “crafted a masterful thriller from the disparate elements of the novel.” It’s a diplomatic but backhanded complement. Naked Lunch was undoubtedly unfilmable but Cronenberg didn’t get it.

Fast forward three decades to the news that Luca Guadagnino is currently directing an adaptation of Queer.This is big news for Burroughs, and very good news for Queer. I could see it right away, or at least I thought I could, thinking back to the moving and beautifully-made Call Me By Your Name What better director to bring out the dark drama of desire in Burroughs’ only narrative that approximates a realist romance? But while it seems simple compared to Naked Lunch and is based closely on real-life events in South America during summer 1951, Queer only passes for a realist text. It’s as much a ghost story as a love story, and the traumatic queerness of the novel is more spectral than sexual and more political than personal – not that these binaries have any meaning at all by the end. It’s what makes it a pivotal text in Burroughs’ development. Equally contrary is William Lee, who makes his debut as a character here (in Junky he’s little more than a deadpan, faceless narrator). Lee may wear a fedora and a trench, but Burroughs’ hardboiled persona reaches towards Allerton, the reluctant object of his desire, with “phantom thumbs” and “ectoplasmic fingers,” the manifestations of a sinister psychic dimension behind the façade of realism and the props of hat and coat. If the director of Call Me By Your Name is ideally placed to do justice to the romance story of queer desire, the truly dark fantasmatic core of Queer will need the director of Suspiria. Set in 1970s Berlin, Guadagnino’s remake of an Italian horror film brilliantly plays off supernatural and political terror, juggling Nazi history, a dance school, a coven of witches, and the Red Army Faction. It’s a profoundly disturbing portrait of power in multiple dimensions, which makes it perfect prep for directing Queer, as does Guadagnino’s versatility in dealing with such intense passions and such diverse genres. He will need it to handle Burroughs’ novel.

Full disclosure: I’m honoured to have been recruited as a consultant to the filmmakers – whose commitment to Queer, I can report, is seriously impressive.

I’ll eat one of my brown fedoras if it’s not a success.”

One comment

  1. This project sounds hugely promising! I fully agree with Oliver Harris’ critique of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch film – indeed, “Cronenberg didn’t get it.”

    I’m thinking of other disastrous attempts at filming Beat literature. First in the queue must be Beat, “directed by Gary Walkow, and starring Courtney Love, Kiefer Sutherland, Norman Reedus, and Ron Livingston.” (according to Wikipedia). I found this DVD is a discount bin and boy, did it stink. Walkow truly didn’t get it – missed it by a mile.

    I imagine Heart Beat, the film adaptation of Carolyn Cassady’s 1978 memoir, is equally bad, but it’s been buried so deep I haven’t been able to find a way to watch it.

    Sad to say, Walter Salles’ filmic version of On The Road also missed the mark, despite his best intentions. It looked great, but where was the joy, kicks, darkness?

    Even Howl, by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, strikes me as hagiography that glosses over the really rough edges of the Beat legend.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to tackle the whole sprawling narrative of the Beat scene of the 40s, 50s and 60s, with all its crazy episodes, conflicts, triumphs and contradictions, would be a multi-season television series … with Oliver Harris definitely on the roster as consultant!

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