Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Burroughs and Bowles: Two new films

The New York Times this week carries articles about two films of interest to readers of Paul Bowles and William Burroughs. One of the films, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is a new documentary by Yony Leyser that humanizes the writer's dark pronouncements of death, drugs and human failings -- the writer as bleak modern satirist.

(With Thanksgiving near, Burroughs' "A Thanksgiving Prayer" is a strong antacid to the long holiday season of national excess that extends until the coming new year.)

Although the Times review by Stephen Holden makes it clear that the writer's outlaw reputation made him a hero to many others, Burroughs ideas about the ultimate controlling force of drugs and addiction were those he himself struggled with, and advised others against.

"His on-and-off heroin addiction and writings about drugs may have made him a hipster saint, nicknamed 'the pope of dope,' but his message about heroin was a warning not to take it. He was obsessed with control, and for many years was controlled by his addiction."

The documentary is narrated by Peter Weller, who portrayed the writer in David Cronenberg's 1991 adaptation of Naked Lunch. For a writer who delighted in irony and wrote a piece called "The Last Words of Dutch Schultz," Burroughs's last scrawled message is "among the most conciliatory he ever wrote," Holden writes. “Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is.”

(Scenes above and below from You Are Not I, by Sara Driver)

The other film is a real discovery, a serendipitous finding covered in literal dust and insect powder in an empty house in Tangier. A print of You Are Not I, completed on $12,000 in 1981 by Sara Driver, exists only because the nervous filmmaker sent a copy of the 48-minute film to Bowles himself in Tangier. As the article states, Ms. Driver was "praying simply not to be sued."

As it turns out, this first-ever film adaptation of a Bowles story suffered not from Bowles's wrath -- he replied with a long letter to the young filmmaker -- but the ravages of time and a leak in a New Jersey storage warehouse: the original negative was destroyed. In time, Driver's only print was in such bad condition she would no longer let it be shown.

The print Driver sent to Bowles was among the papers and items found in a locked room in an empty house owned by Abdelouahed Boulaich, the writer's designated heir. On his invitation, Francis Poole of the University of Delaware describes what the two men found when the door was unlocked:

“For a second I felt like I was in one of the bug powder scenes from David Cronenberg’s film of William Burroughs’s novel ‘Naked Lunch,’ There were even letters from Burroughs to Paul Bowles scattered around. And some of those had insecticide on them.”

There are some humorous stories attached to the re-discovered film that come to light. Because the budget was so limiting, Driver asked friends to participate; one was the writer Luc Sante, who needed to drive in one scene. As the Times reports, Sante did not know how to drive. “I just needed to go across a parking lot in one scene, and I thought, ‘O.K., I can handle this,’ ” he said. “And I managed to run into a garbage can, which was the only other thing in the parking lot.”

(photo of Burroughs by Jon Blumb/Oscilloscope Laboratories; stills from You Are Not I by Nan Goldin, all from the New York Times.)

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