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New doc uncovers the ’man within’ William S. Burroughs

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Jan 20, 2011

Beat writer William S. Burroughs might just be, at once, one of the most controversial and riveting gay writers of the 20th century. Known best for his work Naked Lunch -- one of eighteen novels and novellas he penned before his death, at 83 years of age, in 1997 -- Burroughs is credited as one of the first American writers to address topics of homosexuality, and specifically its association with drug use with an unapologetic, satirical tone.

But there was a dark side to Burroughs, too. Suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol throughout his life, he shot his second wife, Joan Vollmer, in the head while drunk in what he claimed was an accident. Nevertheless, his work -- which was often censored in its early days -- is celebrated by the many other artists he influenced over the years, gay and straight and everything in between, including such names as Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Susan Sontag, Laurie Anderson, John Waters, Gus van Sant and Iggy Pop.

Burroughs' legacy has been memorialized in film before, but perhaps never as candidly as a new film, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, by Chicago filmmaker Yony Leyser. Including interviews with many of the above names - and even featuring a soundtrack by Smith and Sonic Youth - the film catches intimate glimpses of Burroughs' troubling-at-times life through never before seen footage. The film is currently touring the world with screenings everywhere from Belgrade to Boston, including a special run at Chicago's Music Box Theatre Jan. 21-27.

In an interview with EDGE, Leyser spoke about the legacy of Burroughs' work, offering a closer look into his process of creating the ambitious film and how the experience changed his perception of one of his literary heroes.

Why Burroughs?

EDGE: Hi Yony! I was reading in preparation for this interview that you have a bit of a history of run-ins with cultural authority, including getting kicked out of art school. Would you say that contributed to your attraction to Burroughs’ work?

Yony Leyser: I mean, it started when I was being kicked out of art school for criticizing the dean of students. I started getting back into him [when I moved to] Lawrence, Kansas [where Burroughs lived for the latter part of his life] because he was able to critique our culture so well.

From a queer element, I find that gay culture is often really tame and doesn’t push boundaries any more. It settles for everything that mainstream culture is and I don’t relate to that. I relate to the rebellion of the queer revolution that maybe happened in the 1970s and I feel like I was gripping onto that. When I moved into the city when I was 14, I read Naked Lunch and couldn’t believe it. It was so extreme and out there and introduced me to punk rock and other queer literature -- everything that really formed me and was my diving point.

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Watch this clip from William s. Burroughs A Man Within:

The Ginsberg connection

EDGE: I read that your interest in other Beat authors like Allen Ginsberg died off a bit as you got older, but you’ve remained very inspired by Burroughs’ writing. Why is that?

YL: I think that, as far as queer cultures goes, Ginsberg is a lot more mainstream and I think Burroughs kind of introduced a whole subversive queer culture that was much more underground than regular gay culture. I think Allen did so too -- both he and Burroughs opened doors. They were really the first Americans to write openly about being gay, about gay sex and about being a subversive queer and that’s part of the reason why their work was censored. Both of them really broke censorship and opened up the thinking about that in their time, which is really fascinating to me.

EDGE: At what point in your process of creating this film did you realize you had something that could be a very serious, big-time project and how were you able to pll the funding together to turn it into a reality?

YL: The funding came from Kickstarter, a website that crowdsources funding for projects like this, plus there was a fundraiser at the ThinkArt Salon and then there was a grant through Frameline. I think it set in on my 23rd birthday, when I had edited down something that was really good. I had gotten most of my important interviews done and I had Sonic Youth on board for the music. I brought it back to the Burroughs estate and we watched it all. Our jaws dropped. Somehow, I’d done it, you know. Burroughs had a view of 23 as a magic number, and I guess in math it’s considered to be a magic number of sorts, so I guess that was the lucky number for me.

EDGE: I understand you met James Grauerholz, the executor of the Burroughs’ estate, while you were in Lawrence. Did you hit it off right away when you first told him about this project or did it take some time for him to trust you in offering up access to the materials he had?

YL: No, we didn’t hit it off. We were both in very awkward parts of our lives. He was teaching a course there at the University of Kansas and I was there majoring in American Studies. I was introduced to him and I told him about the project and he just said, "Good luck." I’m not sure how many times he had been approached for similar projects, but we just didn’t hit it off at all at first. It wasn’t until just before my 23rd birthday that we talked more about what I had done and we were at better points in our lives. We hit it off then.

Visiting Burrough’s bunker

EDGE: He even allowed you to check out "the Bunker," where Burroughs lived in New York. What was it like to go into that space?

YL: It was awesome. It’s completely preserved and is run and owned by John Giorno, who is this Spanish poet and was in Andy Warhol’s Sleep. He, in his own right, is a very famous artist, pretty much invented slam poetry performance style and was Burroughs’ lover and Warhol’s lover. He was very supportive and actually still had a lot of raw footage of Burroughs on 15mm that will be released sometime with this film later on, hopefully. I think it’s great, the Bunker was awesome. It used to be an old men’s YMCA.

EDGE: Is your perception of Burroughs different now than it was before you began the filming process?

YL: I noticed that he was able to write something like Naked Lunch, Queer and Junkie at a time where nobody has read or written about these topics, so you would assume this guy was really open and free-spirited and comfortable with sexuality. But he’s really not. When you see him in scenes of the movie with Warhol and Ginsberg, talking about sex, he’s totally uncomfortable and nervous. He can barely do it and is squirming on his feet. The fact that someone would be able to write about something doesn’t mean they’re completely comfortable in their personal life.

EDGE: Do you think the LGBT community has done an adequate job of honoring Burroughs’ literary legacy?

YL: Well, Burroughs would be uncomfortable with being labeled as part of any sort of community and he wasn’t exactly comfortable with the queer community. He was afraid of being pushed into any kind of group, and I can relate to that. As soon as you label yourself as part of any group, it’s though you adopt all of their ideals and ideas, but I think it’s important to remain independent. I think, too, the queer community is kind of uncomfortable with him for sure. He was an older guy and a difficult person, so he’s not as easy to swallow up like some of the gay icons we have now.

But I don’t see the relevance of Ricky Martin to any gay person’s life. Why should we relate to someone who sings songs about dating women and being a womanizer? He’s washed up and says he’s gay now, but he’s never done anything for the gay community. He did the opposite, by perpetuating heteronormative pop songs when he could have been doing otherwise. It’s counterproductive and I think the gay community should frown on that. If Burroughs was able to write so bravely in the ’50s, why can’t someone like a pop singer do it now? It’s really depressing that that is who the gay community adopts as icons today.

EDGE: There appears to be a resurgence of interest in the beat generation as of late -- given the success of the James Franco film Howl and Patti Smith’s new book Just Kids. Why do you think that is? What do you think audiences are relating to today?

YL: There’s also a movie coming out this year, a very mainstream, mega blockbuster version of On the Road, produced by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Kristen Stewart. I think that’s all happening because out culture has gone back toward superficiality and conservatism again. People are reaching out to history as a reaction to that and I think they, hopefully, are headed toward the direction of that rebellious nature again.

EDGE: Is that what you specifically hope people will take away from seeing your film?

YL: I hope that people will learn not to be afraid to be the first to do something. You can break boundaries and break the rules and that can only help things, unless you’re killing someone. I really think any kind of rebellion or breaking of boundaries is a good thing.

EDGE: What is coming up next up for you, besides touring with the film all over the world in the coming weeks -- Sweden, Turkey, Scotland?

YL: The film is continuing to play across America and I’m beginning my next film in March -- a documentary about San Francisco writers focusing on Michelle Tea and Sister Spit. I’ll be going on tour with them. Their show started as a queer women’s performance tour and now has kind of branched out to include other people.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within opens its run at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport, Friday, Jan. 21 and plays through Thursday, Jan. 27. Additionally, the film and its director will be featured, along with a DJ set from Cody Critcheloe (of SSION) at a premiere gala at Berlin Nightclub, 954 W. Belmont, on Thursday, Jan. 20. Some of Burroughs’ and Ginsberg’s work will also be featured in an exhibition, also opening Jan. 20 at the ThinkArt Salon, 1530 N. Paulina, Suite F. Visit www.burroughsthemovie.com for information on these events and more screenings across the country.

The film will also be shown as part of the PBS series Independent Lens of February 22, 2011.

Watch the trailer to William s. Burroughs A Man Within:

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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