William S. Burroughs was a writer with a radical, yet playful vision that could not be constrained by genre, not biography, not science fiction, not comedy. But he was a difficult man to get to know as well, which made his relationship with film school student Howard Brookner all the more remarkable for he allowed him into his life for around five years to record various bits and pieces about him to edit together into a feature documentary. It had a cinema release in the United States and in Britain was broadcast as part of the arts strand Arena, but after that fell out of sight, believed lost for decades until in 2014 a copy was discovered in an archive, during which time its reputation had grown.
Was Brookner's effort worth it? Sadly, he was not around to see it assessed, as he had died in 1989 from AIDS, having completed two more films, the last of which, Bloodhounds of Broadway, was apparently compromised in production, not least because he was so ill. Burroughs, with all his bad habits and on the edge lifestyle, outlived him, which seems bizarre especially in light of what the documentary revealed, or at least recounted. Brookner was nothing if not ambitious, though there was a sense watching this that he was not so much keen to serve up a well-rounded account of the writer and more addicted to being in his company, that thrill of getting as close as he could to an enigma.
We did get an idea from this of what Burroughs was like to chat with, even if some of the other interviewees described him as being a potentially great prisoner thanks to his ability to live inside his own head and not really need others for his diversions. He is affable enough, talking in that thin, reedy grumble of a voice, a curiously conservative figure on the outside which belied the insanity he produced for the page, The Naked Lunch being his most famous novel and one we hear extracts from, and even see acted out by Burroughs as Doctor Benway and drag queen Jackie Curtis as his nurse. Here we see how much he identified with his wild, subversive and satirical characters, but it does not seem quite real.
Not that he was being inauthentic, it was simply that he had such an incongruous persona that you could barely accept such a mild-mannered old chap would have penned the controversial works that got him banned across the world, or had such a massive drugs habit, or, most notoriously, tried to shoot a wineglass off his wife's head in a game of William Tell that went horribly wrong when she was killed outright as the bullet went astray. The fact that even Burroughs is not sure if he killed her deliberately adds to his outlaw mystique, yet again there was that outward appearance more appropriate to an ageing accountant - the photographs we see of him as a young man make it plain he hardly changed outwardly throughout his life, he always resembled a little old man and merely grew into that.
Then again, Brookner obviously spent enough time with his subject for him to be comfortable with opening up a little more than the usual Burroughs interview, as we see when the writer gets onto the matter of violence. That was present in his fiction, certainly, but late on all of a sudden we see him demonstrating his weaponry collection, all knives, blackjacks and airguns (though no firearms that we can discern) and describing with some relish the damage he could do with them - then he goes on to fantasise about a homosexual militia who could counteract the gay bashers by seeking out the bigots and either injuring or murdering them, and you wonder is this a common power trip fantasy among the tormented in society, or was Burroughs quite the buttoned down character he presented himself as. Brookner starts his documentary with footage of him on Saturday Night Live, getting a few laughs from his extreme material, which proved he was growing more aware of his celebrity status, and he would show up as an actor in a variety of works as the years wore on. He was still a conundrum, but that did not make this any the less intriguing in its rough and ready way.