William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (Arthouse Films) (2010)

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Released 10-Aug-2011

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Deleted Scenes
Additional Footage-Home Movies
Additional Footage-Sonic Youth Visit
Music Video-Rub Out the Word
Featurette-Naked Lunch 50th Anniversary
Featurette-Psalm 23 Revisited
Interviews-Cast-Q&A Director Yony Leyser
Short Film-Bill and Anna by Yony Leyser
Theatrical Trailer
Featurette-Shotgun Art
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 2010
Running Time 87:00
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Yony Leyser

Madman Entertainment
Starring Yony Leyser
Fred Aldrich
Laurie Anderson
Amiri Baraka
Jello Biafra
Victor Bockris
William S. Burroughs
David Cronenberg
Diane DiPrima
Patricia Elliott Marvin
Case Slip Case
RPI $34.95 Music None Given

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles Audio Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

     William S Burroughs, who died in 1997, was a titanic figure in 20th century culture. He enjoyed that special place in modern literature to have been there at the time of great change and to have been a catalyst to initiate that change. For all this, there are not many people who could honestly claim to have worked their way through any of Burroughs’ complex, difficult novels and poems. Whilst time and social change softens the shock of the new it is fair to say that the works of William Burroughs will always be outside the mainstream. His most famous work, the highly controversial Naked Lunch was a dizzying story of drug abuse mixing the odd with the obscene in a way that saw the original publisher, Grove Press, charged for indecency. It also found its way into wider pop culture when "sort-of" filmed by David Cronenberg in 1991 in a version that combined Burroughs’ life, such as the accidental shooting of his wife, with elements from the book. The actual book is unfilmable, or at least, unwatchable. Coming out of the R Rated session Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons declares : "I can think of two things wrong with that title".

     This documentary by Yony Leyser attempts to explore in the life of this complex figure and define and celebrate his influences. Burroughs was born in 1914, the heir to an office machine empire. His life never went down that path. His same-sex desire coloured his early years and his alternative, drug influenced, life created the figure who today is acknowledged as being both a forerunner of queer culture and ushered in the Beat Movement.

     As this documentary shows Burroughs is loved and revered by some of the great artists of our time. Patti Smith, Iggy Pop,John Waters, Sonic Youth and others provide their reflections. Perhaps the most screen time goes to Waters and pandrogynous entity Genesis Breyer P. Orridge who are clearly moved and still puzzled by the Burroughs they knew. His lovers are also moving contributors.

     Though they met him, associated with him and almost worshipped him, none of these associates really got to the bottom of his character. Recognisable by his besuited appearance, craggy visage and odd cadence of voice Burroughs seems determined to defy expectations at every stage. An opponent of government power and militarism, he nevertheless surrounded himself with loaded guns. A forerunner of queer culture he nevertheless rejected any suggestion that he was "gay". A strong influence on the emerging punk movement in the 70s he distanced himself from any notion of being their Godfather. He was a dabbler in drugs to an almost unheard of degree, one interviewer remarking that he tested the first batch of LSD, made by the CIA!

     Burroughs observed and furthered the "cut-up" process where phrases are cut-up and reassembled into more meaningful passages. A fascinating look at an influential figure in cultural history even if, at the end, he remains a mysterious figure.

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Transfer Quality


     A Man Within was shot on digital video. It comprises a series of talking heads interviews combined with archival footage. The film is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is 16x9 enhanced.

     Wherever historical footage is blended with modern material there is bound to be a variance in picture quality. This film is no exception. The new material is crisp and clear whereas the old, to varying degrees, is faded and in poor condition. That is no criticism. It is amazing that some of it has found its way out of the dusty vaults.

     There are subtitles in English which are generally pretty good although I noticed a few mis-translations.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


     The sound for A Man Within is English Dolby Digital 5.1 running at 448 Kb/s. That is somewhat surprising for a film that really consists of talk. There is really little for the surrounds or sub-woofer to do.

     Peter Weller is credited as the narrator. He does his part well however the film is only sparsely narrated. The dialogue can generally be heard clearly once you get into the rhythm of Burroughs' particular cadence (imitated by a few of the interviewees).

     The music is by Burroughs fans Patti Smith and Sonic Youth amongst others. The score is a mellow affair.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


     There are a wealth of extras on this DVD.

Deleted Scenes

     Three deleted scenes are included featuring Burroughs' friend Wayne Probst looking though his friend’s old art supplies, a piece called the mummies and sessions of Burroughs working with artist George Condo. They are:

     Art supplies - (2:16), The Mummies - (1:50), Painting with George Condo - (2:58)

Home Movies (16:46)

     A series of very rough Super 8 movies shot in Lawrence, Kansas when Patti Smith, Allan Ginsberg, Steve Buscemi and other literati's descend on the home of their spiritual leader. Smith strums some tunes whilst, as usual, talk is about weapons.

Shotgun Art (2:37)

     In later years Burroughs combined his love for art with his love for shooting by firing a shotgun at a paint can in front of a canvas and calling it shotgun art. Grant Hart of Husker Du films a grainy Super 8.

Sonic Youth Visit (3:09)

     A short and very scratchy Super 8 video shot by Sonic Youth in Lawrence, Kansas. Burroughs shows the masters of noise his cats, guns and knives.

Naked Lunch 50th Anniversary (15:20)

     A collection of guests, from the urbane and respectful like Peter Weller, to the bizarre like Penny Arcade, tell of the power of Naked Lunch and the importance of the book in their own lives.

"Rub Out the Word" (3:22)

     An odd music video (what else would it be?) of Burroughs reading a poem over music backing.

Psalm 23 Revisited (1:15)

     A reading of Burroughs’ poem by Patti Smith.

Q+A with Director Yony Leyser at the BFI London Film Festival 2010 (11:57)

     An enthusiastic Leyser talks about his exposure to Burroughs and the journey making the film.

Anna and Bill - A Short Film by Yony Leyser (23.22)

     The director’s love for the marginalized comes through in this dark, documentary/film about a group of argumentative individuals living in a motel type accommodation. Hard to watch through.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

     The Region 1 version of the film shares the extras however Region 4 buyers also get the short film. Not something that was a big factor for me but increases the value nonetheless.


     William Burroughs is an enigma, a strange creature who changed the literary and cultural world but never revelled in his role.

     This DVD is a little too Burroughs like to draw in new fans but it is an interesting look at this complex, crazy character.

     The DVD is fine quality given its reliance upon some atrocious original material. The extras are voluminous and interesting.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Saturday, October 08, 2011
Review Equipment
DVDCambridge 650BD (All Regions), using HDMI output
DisplaySony VPL-VW80 Projector on 110" Screen. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationPioneer SC-LX 81 7.1
SpeakersAaron ATS-5 7.1

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