As a writer and a man, contradictions defined William S. Burroughs. Born into a well-established family, he carried himself with an aristocratic air, even when reciting grotesque narratives of drug addiction, or rapturously explicit descriptions of gay sex. Frail and professorial in appearance, he surrounded himself with firearms and other types of weaponry with the commitment of a fetishist. His writing often made no literal sense, yet it carried the same authority as his voice, a seductive croak that demanded attention and worked a slow persuasion on listeners as he returned obsessively to pet subjects like “the algebra of addiction,” the unseen forces of “Control,” and how it all tied together. Burroughs wrote with the conviction of someone who understood the secret shapers of the universe, or someone who had lost his mind. Possibly both.
Yony Leyser’s reverent documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within offers a concise summary of Burroughs’ life and works. Maybe too concise. At a mere 88 minutes, it feels a bit glancing. But as an introduction or refresher course, it gets the job done. The usual mix of talking-head interviews with friends and admirers, plus archival footage interrupted by some animated chapter headings, A Man Within hits all the major touchstones, showing how Burroughs fit into the Beat movement, and rightly emphasizing just how much he rebelled against the conventions of the 1950s. Of the interview subjects, John Waters does an especially fine job of explaining how nobody talked about being gay and addicted to heroin, much less made a career of writing about it.
The best parts of A Man Within reveal the man behind the public persona, one haunted by his wife’s death—the result of drunken, William Tell-inspired gunplay—and resistant to opening himself up to love. During an shared interview, Allen Ginsberg asks whether Burroughs ever felt attracted to him. Burroughs demurs on an answer, but a later interview subject isn’t shy about revealing Burroughs’ unrequited love for his fellow Beat icon. Elsewhere, a friend recalls Burroughs discussing his fears over how a nuclear war would affect his cats. That anxiety, in its own way, aptly summarizes one of Burroughs’ most persistent themes: the impact of incalculably huge forces on tender flesh and blood.