It’s difficult to overstate the impact William S. Burroughs had on the counterculture of the 20th century. To get a general idea of the scope of his influence, here is a brief, roughly chronological (but by no means complete) list of his various collaborators: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern, Frank Zappa, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Genesis P-Orridge, Gus Van Sant, Tom Waits, David Cronenberg, Sonic Youth, and Kurt Cobain. Yet in spite of his long shadow, Burroughs remains an elusive figure for many, more often name-checked than actually read (much less understood). This, largely, because his best-known works – touchstone novels like Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine – are deeply impenetrable, their narratives warped through stream-of-consciousness cut-up prose and filled with disturbing (some have argued obscene) imagery and themes. In short: they’re not exactly easy to film.
Not, however, impossible, as evidenced by the Brattle’s weekend lineup: three very different cinematic takes on Old Bull Lee. While it may be impossible to encapsulate the man’s sprawling, messy life and work inside a single running time, taken in combination these films might just give a reasonable (if somewhat cubist) overview.
First up is the straightforwardly titled BURROUGHS: THE MOVIE, Howard Brookner’s long-lost documentary. Shot with Burroughs’ full cooperation (something no other film can quite claim), BURROUGHS focuses its camera squarely on the man himself, allowing his unmistakable hangdog visage and mesmerizingly gravelly voice to weave a self-portrait (and, inevitably, discharge some firearms indoors). Along the way, we also hear from Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, longtime collaborator Byron Gysin, painter Francis Bacon, and others.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the area premiere of Andre Perkowski’s “adaptation” of NOVA EXPRESS. Clearly something of an eccentric himself, Perkowski has spent the last fifteen years (and counting!) assembling this sprawling collage of public domain news footage, movie clips, and other ephemera to a soundtrack of readings by Burroughs himself, as well as Ginsberg, Gysin, German poet Jürgen Ploog, Firesign Theatre alums Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, and others. At last report, Perkowski’s director’s cut had exceeded three hours (!); the Brattle will be screening the more manageable 70-minute “Assault Version.”
Finally, there’s the most widely seen (though not exactly the most accessible) representation of Burroughs on screen: David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of NAKED LUNCH. Here, Peter “Buckaroo Robocop” Weller plays Burroughs’ literary avatar Bill Lee, an exterminator who becomes addicted to his own pesticide and begins to hallucinate and/or travel to strange new dimensions. Once again, “adaptation” is not quite the most accurate word, as Cronenberg combines elements from Burroughs’ novel (Interzone, Roy Scheider’s turn as Dr. Benway) with aspects of his life (Judy Davis’ tragic turn as Lee’s wife), as well as some of Cronenberg’s own flights of fancy (typewriters which are also cockroaches with talking anuses). It’s messy, disturbing, and will stick with you for years – just like Burroughs’ work.
BURROUGHS: THE MOVIE (1983) dir. Howard Brookner
Friday, 12/12 – Sunday, 12/14
NOVA EXPRESS (1999-2014) dir. Andre Perkowski
Friday, 12/12 – Saturday, 12/13
NAKED LUNCH (1991) dir. David Cronenberg
Saturday, 12/13 – Sunday, 12/14
40 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
CLICK HERE for showtimes. $10 (matinees $8).
Note: All screenings single features.