There’s a herky-jerky, often incoherent feel to “Burroughs: The Movie,” a jumble of perspectives, interviews and reminisces about the life of the cutting-edge novelist and beat icon William S. Burroughs.

Luckily, the film’s subject stands front and center most of the time, lighting cigarettes one after the other, speaking in his uniquely flat, dry voice, looking back over his long and bizarre history. This is an author who was given to cutting up his manuscripts and pasting them back together (literally cutting edge) and so the film’s collage-like approach is at least aesthetically apropos.

Directed by the late Howard Brookner, the movie started out as his college thesis in 1978 (when Burroughs was 64) and was completed five years later. After screenings in the ’80s. the film was thought to be lost, but it has now been found and restored, and it certainly sheds light on the man who was essentially the father of the Beat Generation.

Brookner travels with Burroughs back to his St. Louis childhood home. He even captures Burroughs going through old family photos with his brother, Mortimer (Mortimer says he couldn’t finish his brother’s masterpiece, “Naked Lunch” — too much dirty stuff). Cowboy camp, Harvard, the Army, smoking hashish in Tangiers, heroin addiction, Brookner follows the Burroughs story with glimpses of the man’s history but never gets too detailed.

He also brings other Beat and post-Beat figures — Terry Southern, Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith briefly — to comment on the grand old man. Ginsberg and Burroughs playing characters from their youth atop a New York City rooftop is pure Nirvana for Beat fanatics; Burroughs giving a reading on “Saturday Night Live” in 1981 — one of many readings in the film — is sublimely strange.

Burroughs is frank but not talky: He recalls the drunken day he shot and killed his wild second wife, Joan, while they were playing “William Tell” in Mexico with dark regret. But that incident is what finally prods him into becoming a writer in his late 30s.

There was a kind of perverse banality to the avant garde, junkie-gay Burroughs with his conservative suits and walking sticks, and the film confirms that the maker of so much dangerous art was a comparatively bland fellow in some ways. Except for, you know, the blowgun in his bedroom.

There is probably a better, more complete film to be made about Burroughs someday, but it will likely contain parts of this film that are irreplaceable. “Burroughs: The Movie” may not be as successfully weird as its subject, but it’s still plenty weird.

‘Burroughs: The Movie’


Not rated

Running time: 86 minutes

At the Detroit Film Theatre

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