William S. Burroughs: A Man Within


William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

Produced, Written & Directed by Yony Leyser




Peter Weller

John Waters

Patti Smith

Gus Van Sant

David Cronenberg

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

James Grauerholz

Laurie Anderson

Iggy Pop



Theatrical: Yonilizer

Video: Oscilloscope Laboratories



Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Codec: MPEG-2

Bit Rate: 6.84 Mbps

Runtime: 87 minutes

Chapters: 10

Region: 1



English Dolby Digital 2.0


Subtitles: English



• 3 Deleted scenes: Burroughs’ art supplies (2:12); The Mummies (1:45); Painting with George Condo with archival footage by filmmaker John McNaughton (2:57)

• Home movies featuring Patti Smith, Steve Buscemi, Allen Ginsberg, et al (16:45)

• Shotgun Art (2:36)

• Sonic Youth visits Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas (3:08)

• Naked Lunch 50th anniversary celebration (15:20)

• “Rub out the World” - music video (3:21)

• Patti Smith reads “Psalm 23 Revisited” (1:13)

• Q&A with Yony Leyser at BFI London Film Festival 2010 (11:50)

• Essay by David Byrne

• Essay by Richard Hell

• Oscilloscope trailers



Custom DVD case

Release Date: February 15, 2011


Oscilloscope appears to be staking out their turf of out-of-the-mainstream feature films and documentaries that include - on DVD among others so far: Howl, Exit Through the Gift Shop, I Knew It Was You (a retrospective look at John Cazalle), FLOW (Irena Salina’s examination of the international water crisis), Terribly Happy (a Danish piece of fiction about security and belonging), A Film Unfinished (how the Nazi’s portrayed the Warsaw ghetto), and Burma VJ (Anders Østergaard's award-winning documentary about the 2007 Myanmar uprising).  William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is their latest.



The Movie: 8

For his first feature length film, Jonathan “Yony” Leyser was drawn to that most fascinating and bizarre of creatures: William S. Burroughs, author of “The Naked Lunch” which, in 1959, became, along with Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1957) the founding documents for what was to become the Hip/Beat Generation.  Burroughs’ influence was far reaching in that area and, in a number of ways, despite and I think, because of the fact he was a generation older. Through his lifelong addiction to and experimentation with just about every serious mind altering substance known to Man, he became known as the Pope of Dope”.  Interestingly, he did not contract AIDS even though he would be part of needle sharing parties because, as the senior personage in every respect, he would always go first.



Burroughs was also a lifelong gun enthusiast and was known to regularly carry a gun on his person – this despite or an indirect result of his having shot and killed his wife in 1951 in a drunken game of William Tell.  Burroughs was an artist who used, among other media, something he called “shotgun art” which takes the Jackson Pollock idea of spraying paint to the ludicrous conclusion of shooting a can of paint in front of pieces of plywood.  The film also looks at the influence of Brion Gysin’s “cut-up” technique, which has more merit than you might at first think, and we take a spin on Gysin’s stroboscopic Dreamachine, as quaint as it is something right out of science fiction.  If you don’t know about it you should make its acquaintance – from a safe distance, of course.


Burroughs is also known as the “grandfather of punk rock”.  Indeed his influence reached into rock music and the pop art of Andy Warhol.  He knew everybody worth knowing in the counterculture music and art world from the 60s-80s, a number of whom we hear from in this documentary via archive bits.



Leyser’s film is not so much an accounting of the man’s life as it is an investigation of character.  And it is from that perspective that he gathers his interview clips, organized to flesh out the significant aspects of his career.  The singer Patti Smith was very close to Burroughs and she is given proportional screen time, as does actor Peter Weller, who plays Burroughs in Cronenberg’s 1991 film adaptation of Naked Lunch. While we hear briefly from some very well known cultural figures, such as Gus van Sant (in several of whose films Burroughs made appearances), David Cronenberg, Laurie Anderson and Iggy Pop, all of whom had personal contact with Burroughs, the more extensive and more intimate remarks come from people we are likely to be less familiar with:



James Grauerholz was Burroughs’ companion for the last twenty-odd years of his life and became the executor of his estate.  Grauerholz also functioned as editor for a number of Burroughs’ later literary works.  Filmmaker John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray) is on hand for some deliciously insightful comments not just about Burroughs but the time in which he lived and worked. Burroughs’ biographer Victor Bockris has his point of view, too.  Most interesting on a number of levels is the presence of the pandrogynous artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, who has a personal understanding and sympathy of identity issues that are well off the mainstream.  Leyser’s film is well worth your time just to make h/er acquaintance.


The young filmmaker, Yony Leyser, worked with Grauerholz over some four years to find material for his character study of who Ed Kozlarski writing for the Chicago Reader calls “perhaps the greatest literary outlaw of the 20th Century.”  Kozlarski’s background piece about Leyser (and critique of Leyser’s film) can be found HERE.

William Burroughs died on August 2, 1997 at age 83, just 4 months after the passing of his friend Allen Ginsberg.



Extras: 6

Oscilloscope continues to offer their DVDs in what I think is the best single disc packaging in the business: their boxes are paper instead of plastic; the disc simply slides in and out without those idiotic clasps that place unnecessary strain on the disc, frustrating the most careful user in the process.  The gatefold presentation allows for full size photos or other art, essays or booklets. Feel free to be suitably impressed.

For A Man Within, they include material that rightly would not have made their way into the feature film, yet re not irrelevant.  Lie the documentary, they are of variable image quality, though some are pretty weak by any standard.  Some, like the Sonic Youth visit end seemingly in mid sentence.  Psalm 23 Revisited and the Naked Lunch 50th Anniversary Event are presented in decent quality anamorphic 16x9.  We get to meet director Leyser in a Q&A that is also 16x9, though only fair quality.  I should also add the two brief introductory essays by David Byrne and Richard Hell that appear on the inside jacket cover.  Don’t miss them.



Image: 3~7

As expected for a documentary culled from archive footage, much of which never considered posterity - quite the contrary, it would seem - image quality varies from fair to poor.  The more recent interview clips with the various contributors, however, look pretty good.


Audio & Music: 6~4/7

The audio is generally clear enough, while occasionally segments are subtitled anticipating their relative unintelligibility.  The well chosen music that supports the drama is by Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, and The Master Musicians of Jajouka.



Recommendation: 8

Whatever you may think of Burroughs - and I am acquainted with a number of reasonable, liberal minded people who find him something of a nut - A Man Within is very much about the culture without: the culture that made him what he was, that created the icon that he became, and made possible the culture that saw itself in his reflection. So whether or not you are familiar with Burroughs, Yony Leyser’s film about the life and times of that writer and artist should be required viewing for anyone who thinks of themselves as interested in twentieth century Western culture.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

February 8, 2011




Return to Top

Oscilloscope Home Page

Score CardScore_Card.htmlScore_Card.htmlshapeimage_3_link_0
About MeAbout_Me.htmlAbout_Me.htmlshapeimage_4_link_0