Documentary Directed By Lars Movin And Moller Rasmussen
DVD Review by Graham Rae
As evidenced by recent fine filmic productions such as A Man Within, Nova Express and The Japanese Sandman, movies about William S Burroughs, or based on his work, show no signs of stopping rolling off the production line. Thirteen years after his death, his letch-lecturer voice and ethereal otherwor(l)dly visions continue to amuse and amaze and inspire as much as they have ever done.
Words of Advice: William S Burroughs On The Road is the latest documentary to be released using the writer as its subject matter, and it certainly mainlines (sorry, maintains) the run of good quality established by the previous few sterling features. The latter part of the title, whilst a slightly clumsy Beats-tie-in to Jack Kerouac’s most famous book, also encapsulates the feature’s featured themes and threads. In it there is an examination of WSB’s lifelong world migration, his internal artistic journeying, and a literal discussion of him being on the road during a European tour in October 1983.
Let’s backtrack(marks) slightly. In 1974 Burroughs surprised himself by discovering his public-entertaining-reading talents whilst doing a show at St. Mark’s Church in New York with poet John Giorno, who is featured in this film. For decades afterwards they would do performances together, with Giorno acting as crowd-whipper-upper-and-fluffer before his good friend el hombre invisible came onstage to tear the roof off the place with his riotous pagespitting excesses.
As noted, in 1983 the dynamic dynamite duo went on the road in Europe, doing a week of performances in Sweden, Amsterdam, Finland, Norway and Denmark. The main meat of Words of Advice comes from the reading that took place in the Danish capital of Copenhagen. Interviewee David Grubb, founder of a new bookstore opening back then, the still extant Booktrader, decided he would have Burroughs do a book signing and reading to open his new invisible intersection of a million literary minds.
A pretty auspicious and conspicuous way to start.
The centerpiece of this DVD (which, handily, comes in PAL and NTSC formats for both sides of the Atlantic) is a nearly complete video of WSB reading in Copenhagen on 10/29/1983. He reads mostly from his just finished final-trilogy novel The Place of Dead Roads, with some sundry writings about the atomic bomb and other subjects (the film’s title comes from a segment with the same name) thrown in. Burroughs also rough-burrs his twitch-face way through the hilarious “Mummy” routine from The Western Lands, a skit that never fails to make me laugh (“Ooooohhh, somebody is fucking with my mummy!“) and think. Its inclusion alone, to me, makes it worth the admission price.
But you’re not just going to buy a DVD for a short piece being read. What else do you get during the 74-minute (which does not include the complete reading, done separately as an extra, though with snippets from it interspersed through the whole movie) running time to draw you in? Well, you get an interesting light analysis of WSB’s final trilogy (Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, The Western Lands), international travels, and cultural impact from the interestingly-all-female trio of Burroughs scholars Jennie Skerl, Regina Weinreich, and Ann Douglas. The trilogy analysis is interesting because it deals with a period of Burroughs’ wordwork not normally discussed but which is, of course, appropriate for the timeframe that most of the film presents.
There are fine and interesting anecdotes from the aforementioned Giorno, who shows us round The Bunker, WSB’s dank dark NY hideyhole for years. Burroughs’ friend and collaborator Wayne Propst (who has preserved a turd of the writer’s in epoxy resin after a plumbing mishap — must admit I’d like to know exactly how he knows it’s WSB’s — did nobody else ever shit in his house?) shows us the huge and gauche knife his infamous friend (whose corpse he has a picture of himself with on his wall) received from druggie admirer Kurt Cobain, and demonstrates shooting through a huge homemade silencer in the writer’s Lawrence, Kansas home.
We are shown around the aforementioned abode by James Grauerholz, who muses on William’s “Granpaw from hell” image and talks about his deceased friend fondly. One of my favorite stories in the whole film is Grauerholz talking about WSB’s poor driving skills (ironic for a film about the man on the road!) and showing us his old messed-up car (a Datsun 210), replete with rusty machete under the windscreen wipers! The image of an elderly Burroughs hunched over in his seat peering intently at the road in front of him is hilarious and utterly old-person-driving universal.
There is more to the film, but I’ll leave it for you to discover for yourself; particularly funny is footage of a combative and ill-conceived interview with Burroughs and a black-fingernailed Danish writer-admirer, Dan Turell, whom the writer thought “weird” — and when a man like Burroughs thinks you’re weird, well, how can you argue? The extras are, as I said, great footage of the Copenhagen reading; Ann Douglas giving an interesting dissection of the effect of internal-versus-international travel on WSB; and two forgettable very short films of the filmmakers (have to say, “Movin” is an appropriate name for a person making a doc about a writer on the road!) at their subject’s old house literally shooting video cameras.
The beefs I have with Words of Advice are small. It’s not entirely focused, seemingly scattershot, jumping around chronologically and not really discussing a lot of the writer’s life. Anybody already Burroughs-initiated would be comfortable with understanding the material presented, but as an overview of his multimedia oeuvre it’s not entirely satisfying. This very same long-term-fan familiarity works against the film too. There are a couple of small moments (WSB drunkenly waving a gun around, Propst demonstrating the house silencer, music producer Hal Willner talking of having the writer singing a hilarious-but-all-too-human drunken rendition of Falling in Love Again by Marlene Dietrich) that have already been covered in other recent productions, most recently A Man Within. This really can’t be held against the filmmakers. Some of the footage they have shot is from 2003, so their project has obviously been in financial limbo for a few years.
I think any William S Burroughs documentary or overview will now have to contend with overt familiarity with the material presented, because there is only a finite amount of footage available, and only so much that can be said about the writer. But this certainly doesn’t render Words of Advice unwatchable or any less entertaining, and I’m sure any Burroughs fan (cos let’s face it, who else is going to watch this?) will find enough material in it to satisfy their curiosity or entertain them — the reading footage is pretty much what the film is worth buying for, but we get much more besides. Overall this is a reverent, interesting, entertaining addition to the Burroughs-addiction-discussing canon, and I would recommend it to anybody with an interest, casual or otherwise, in the writer and his work and life.