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Criterion Collection: Burroughs: The Movie | Blu-ray Review

Burroughs: The Movie Howard Brookner Blu-rayLooking for a worthy project to complete for his thesis film at NYU back in 1978, with his genuine sense of interest and weasily persuasive personality, Howard Brookner somehow convinced the then world famous writer William Burroughs to let himself become the subject of the warm cinematic portrait that would become Burroughs: The Movie. Brookner gathered his fellow film students Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo to serve as sound recordist and cinematographer, respectively, and they set about filming on and off for five years, observing Burroughs in all aspects of his life, both public and private. After the film premiered in New York City in 1983 and followed with a brief world tour, the film sat in storage and was nearly forgotten about after Brookner succumbed to AIDS in 1989.

Thankfully, Howard’s nephew Aaron Brookner grew up with a taste for cinema, had visited his uncle’s sets, worked as a production assistant in his teens with Jarmusch on Coffee and Cigarettes, and eventually grew curious enough to wonder what ever happened to that film about the author of Naked Lunch and Junkie that his uncle made when he was a kid. After contacting his uncle’s closest friends and reaching out to Burroughs’ assistant and estate executor James Grauerholz, it was discovered that all the footage that was originally shot during that period was still stored safe and sound in William’s old abode, a former YMCA on the Bowery in NYC that was lovingly known as The Bunker. Mountains of film was found, but the completed print was still nowhere to be found, that is, until a hit came in that a copy may have been donated to MOMA. And, low and behold, after a quick call, confirmation came through that MOMA indeed was given a brand new print back in the early 1990s and it was still in picture perfect shape.

What was recovered is a decidedly intimate portrait of a man whose wildly contradictory persona is encapsulated in propulsively revealing segments of authenticity, whether it be at a dinner party with longtime friends Allen Ginsberg, Terry Southern or John Giorno, reminiscing about his upbringing with his comparably prickly brother, hosting his tragically addiction-stricken son Billy Burroughs Jr. or showing off his extensive collection of weapons, from hand guns and blades to black jacks and deadly canes. In between observational bits and public appearances such as the weekend long Nova Convention, at which he reads sections of his work with an audacious sense of darkly humored timing, the man appears on screen with the same sense of performance encouraged by the Maysles just a few years prior. The difference is, Burroughs knows and fully understands his public persona and plays to the camera when the opportunity arises. That’s not to say he’s constantly performing. You can feel the facade drop and the self assured, but humble man dive and resurface throughout the film.

More than anything, Burroughs: The Movie is a succinct time capsule of the beat generation and their ardent punk-fueled admirers who took up the cameras and booms, and spent time with their idols, got to know them as humans and captured that sense of generous humanity to share with the world. Like never before or after, Brookner’s film portrays the notorious purveyor of graphic gay sex and hardcore drug use as the subversively three piece suit wearing cultural trooper that he was, a man of supreme wit and wholly uncompromising in his ever experimenting character, for better or worse.

Disc Review:

This newly restored transfer from the recovered print donated to MOMA in the early ’90s looks absolutely outstanding. There’s almost no visible dust or damage present and the grain is thick and natural. Despite the film’s relatively inelegant cinematography, the images presented here look exquisite, while the sound, which Jarmusch himself expected to be garbage due to the constant intake of grass at the time, is perfectly clear. Burroughs’ signature nasally croak is fully intact.

Audio Commentary by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch
Jarmusch was a sound recordist on much of the film and he shares a variety of stories he remembers from hanging around with Burroughs, as well as why he believes him to be a worthy cultural icon. There are occasional conversational gaps, but the majority of his ideas are apt and insightful.

Audio interview with director Howard Brookner from 1985
Conducted by William S. Burroughs biographer Ted Morgan, this interview is our only direct link into the mind of Howard. This conversation is lively and enlightening, though there is absolutely no visual component. 24 min

New interview with Brookner’s nephew, filmmaker Aaron Brookner
Having grown up on his uncle’s and Jarmusch’s sets, Aaron has quite a bit of elegantly worded insight to share about the history of the film and what exactly went into restoring it. 16 min

When Howard Brookner’s nephew, Aaron Brookner, finally tracked down the mountains of footage shot for Burroughs: The Movie, there was hours and hours worth of footage still sitting around in stacks. Here a selection of conversations and scenes are broken down into catagories and presented here. New York – 20 min, Weapons – 14 min, Nova Convention – 8 min, Interviews – 16 min, Travel – 11 min

Footage from the 2014 New York Film Festival Premiere of the Film’s Restoration
This footage encompassing a Q&A with Jim Jarmusch, Aaron Brookner, filmmaker Tom DiCillo, and Burroughs’s friend and fellow writer James Grauerholz sees those involved in the film reminiscing about the shoot and their dearly departed friend Howard Brookner. Jarmusch in particular has a couple fantastic tales to tell. 27 min

Robert E. Fulton III’s Experimental Cut of Burroughs: The Movie
After Brookner came to inventor and photographer Robert E. Fulton III in hopes of that he could edit together his footage, this experimental collage edit was created in 1981. 24 min

This foldout leaflet features an incredible little essay by critic and former roomate of Jarmusch, Luc Sante, collage artwork by artist Alison Mosshart, film credits and transfer info.

Final Thoughts:

As fascinating and enjoyable as Howard Brookner’s Burroughs: The Movie can be, the truth is that the film really rests solely on the participation of William Burroughs himself. Why he ever let these young men into his life to document his every move and pick at even the most remarkably grotesque parts of his mystique such as the shooting of his wife and his drug use is a mystery. Maybe he wanted to be remembered beyond the blunt words he put to page, more a man than a myth. Brookner’s film may not be worthy of the gods, but its certainly a heartfelt portrait of a man who seemed at odds expressing his own emotions beyond the violence inherent in typewriting.

Film Review:    ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

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