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William S. Burroughs: A Man Within Strokes the Myth

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William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
Directed by Yony Leyser
Oscilloscope Laboratories
Opens November 17, IFC Center

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In Yony Leyser’s documentary hagiography—which ends with John Waters nominating its subject for iconoclast-artist sainthood—William Seward Burroughs’s literary efforts are of secondary interest, noted for their influence on rock lyrics and band names. In the main, celebrity talking heads have gathered here to celebrate Burroughs’s life as an 83-year masterpiece of prurient performance art. A Man Within divides its subject into chapters, each announced by clever stop-motion wire sculptures. We follow the scion of a St. Louis adding-machine fortune (b. 1914) from a queer and conflicted upbringing, through avant-garde infamy, and finally into semi-retirement outside Lawrence, Kansas, a husk-like counterculture elder statesman hiding a pornographic dream theater under his hat. Touched on are Burroughs’s smack shooting and shotgun paintings; his fetish for venomous snakes, sword canes, and sidearms; and the accidental 1951 head shot to his wife and the early death, through imitative substance abuse, of his only son and namesake (both described mostly in terms of their impact on the Artist). Leyser’s collation of interviews and stock footage is polished enough to effectively perpetuate the Burroughs legend, while reiterating that the ’50s were such a drag that the Beats had to invent nonconformity and of course they loathed publicity, hence their continuing obscurity.

 
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