Made up of intimate, revelatory footage of the singular author and poet filmed over the course of five years, Howard Brookner’s 1983 documentary about William S. Burroughs was for decades mainly the stuff of legend; that changed when Aaron Brookner, the late director’s nephew, discovered a print of it in 2011 and spearheaded a restoration. Now viewers can enjoy the invigorating candidness of Burroughs: The Movie, a one-of-a-kind nonfiction portrait that was brought to life with the help of a remarkable crew of friends, including Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo, and that features on-screen appearances by fellow artists of Burroughs’s including Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, Patti Smith, and Terry Southern.
William Burroughs was a major figure of the Beat Generation, rising to fame in the 1950s alongside friends and notable authors Jack Keroauc and Allen Ginsberg. They, along with others, turned their lives into literature by informing their writing from their experiences, some of which were illegal, activities such as drug use and homosexuality. They were outlaws whose lives didn’t conform to society's rules, and their work expanded the boundaries of what was permissible to be published in the United States. Among the many things Burroughs landmark novel "Naked Lunch" is notable for is being the last book, due to text alone, that was prosecuted for obscenity, a charge that was eventually overturned in the courts in 1966.
In 1978, NYU film student Howard Brookner started to shoot his senior thesis film about Burroughs and with the author's support spent years together creating the documentary 'Burroughs: The Movie'. Assisted at times by friends/fellow NYU students/future filmmakers Tom DiCillo ('Living in Oblivion') on camera and Jim Jarmusch ('Down by Law') on sound, Brookner tells the story of Burroughs' life.
The film opens with Burroughs appearing on 'Saturday Night Live' in 1981 reading from his 1964 novel 'Nova Express'. At the time, he's approximately 67 years old and speaks with an interesting Midwestern drone. He sits behind a desk wearing a suit and tie, looking like an insurance salesman, like someone's grandfather. There's no hint of his desires that even at that time would have been considered shocking to reveal. He doesn't look the stereotypical homosexual or drug addict that appeared in the media, which is likely why a good many didn't know what to make of him.
Burroughs recounts his family history and takes Brookner to his childhood home in St Louis. It's funny to hear William's brother Mortimer give his opinion of "Naked Lunch". In 1944, he would meet the men who became the Beats and characters in his first novel, "Junkie." Allen Ginsberg is one and he is interviewed for the movie, offering his view of events, from their love affair to the infamous "William Tell" incident in Mexico that Burroughs claims set him on the path to be a writer.
The film is engaging but borders on the hagiographic. Burroughs has famous friends and fans such as Patti Smith, Terry Southern, and Lauren Hutton, but there's not much criticism of him or his work, which there's certainly room for it without being disrespectful. His son William Jr. is an addict and clearly in worse shape than his father. The cut-up technique, "in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text," as described on Wikipedia, is discussed but there's no dissenting voice about the practice and whether it works is certainly debatable.
Although Howard Brookner passed away in 1989, his nephew Aaron Brookner is keeping his name and work alive. He organized a successful Kickstarter campaign that allowed the film to receive a digital restoration.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Burroughs: The Movie' (#789 in The Criterion Collection) comes on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. A folded leaflet contains liner notes and the essay “Burroughs, That Proud American Name.”
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.33:1. According to the liner notes, "This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine film scanner from a 35 mm print held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI's DRS, while Digital Visions Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, jitter, and flicker."
The film was shot in 16 mm and smaller formats, so it is quite lacking in clarity and depth, which diminishes the ability to offer details. Colors can come through in strong hues but blacks vary in richness. The image looks clean for the most part except for the occasional hairs that pop up around the frame. Film grain is quite prominent. The image quality lessens during archival black and white footage of Burroughs in Tangiers from the mid-'50s and his 'SNL' appearance, which was shot off a TV monitor.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
The liner notes also state that "the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX 4."
The interview subjects can be heard clearly, though it may take a bit to get used to Burroughs' accent. However, they appeared to only have one microphone available because the occasional off-camera questions can be difficult to make out. As expected for a documentary, the dynamic range is limited and bass in negligible.
'Burroughs: The Movie' initimately presents the fascinating story that was the author's life up to that point. While those who don't know the man might not get a complete picture explaining his importance, fans of his work should thoroughly enjoy it.
Criterion's HD presentation is as good as can be expected considering the sources, and they make the purchase worthwhile with the bonus material included.