Film director Aaron Brookner discusses the restoration of classic documentary Burroughs: The Movie, made by his late uncle, Howard Brookner. The project coincides with the William S. Burroughs Centennial in 2014. Interview by Tom Cottey.
Originally published in Beatdom #14 – the MOVIE issue. Buy it here:
What is your personal connection to Burroughs: The Movie?
I grew up seeing the Burroughs: The Movie poster on the wall of my grandmother’s house. All I knew was Burroughs’ face from the beginning, before I knew who he was. Then before I had read anything by Burroughs I had seen Howard’s movie. I probably watched that film hundreds of times on VHS, from like ages ten to twenty, and then started reading Burroughs beginning with Howard’s copy of Junkie. It wasn’t until years later, seeing clips on YouTube, that I wondered where the actual film was. That led to this long search to find out where it was.
What was the restoration process like?
I started looking for a negative at first and it seemed like it was just gone, disappeared. Then it came to “can I get a print of the film?” It seemed like the only print was in Australia. They brought it out and it had all these tears in it and was really beat up. It had been Howard’s festival print. Then I found one in Berlin, but that had German subtitles burned into it and was also pretty tattered. Then finally, kind of in the back yard, it turned out that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York had a print donated shortly after Howard died by Brad Gooch, who was Howard’s long-time partner. It had been there more than twenty years, which goes to show the state of shock that Brad was in, as he didn’t have any recollection of it.
With MoMA began an interesting debate, an ongoing one with archives, which is: when you’re an archive your job is to preserve the film and it’s risky to let it out. MoMA being an archive, and I don’t fault them for this, didn’t want to let the print out of their vault. So then I was presenting the other side to the story, which is if no one knows about the film what good is having it preserved? It’s a bit of a “if a tree falls, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound,” scenario. Eventually we came to an agreement to get the print out one time and do a good remastering of it, and make a digital master of the film.
That’s when we turned to the Kickstarter campaign which was super encouraging to find out how many people all over the world (including the U.S., Europe, Russia, Far East, Japan, South America, Argentina, Brazil, you name it), were interested in Burroughs: The Movie.
What feeling did you get about Burroughs having watched the film before reading the books?
In my grandmother’s house we have pictures of our dogs, my great grandmother, pictures of us swimming on the lake, cousins, uncles, aunts – normal stuff up on the walls – and a giant poster of William Burroughs. That was the context in which Burroughs was for me andwhen you watch the film I think he feels like family; you’re just sitting there with him. Later on I heard Stew Meyer describe him in a way that clicked for me. He said: “Burroughs was the grandfather who wouldn’t judge you,” and I think that’s great. That’s exactly how I felt about having this creepy, weird, yet also familiar and comfortable character in my family up on the wall forever… it was really comfortable andcool. And yes, he wasn’t going to judge you for the weird stuff you couldn’t tell your other family that you were into.
What was Howard’s relationship with Burroughs like?
I know that Howard found him really funny and I think that definitely comes across in the film. A lot of people approach Burroughs as this serious, epically dark, epically intelligent Beat icon, you know in these big terms. And of course he is all those things, butHoward also approached him like “Uncle Bill who was really funny.” And what comes across is the sense of humour from the very first shot of him fading in from nothing into his chair, “Little did I know what it was like to be a writer.” And the way that he shot the whole film is like a very classic, public television portrait of a classic American writer, only it’s William Burroughs. It is totally perfect because of course he is in a three-piece suit; he’s American aristocracy – even though he’s really not! But the suit that he wears is the form that Howard takes to approaching the style of his film, and the substance that comes out is wild and brilliant, and fun-loving Uncle Bill. To have a structure that fit the character so well, he clearly knew his subject.
Howard was an excellent person at relating to other people. He would look you very intensely in the eyes and make you feel like you were the only person in the room. He could get that connection with people and I think he probably got that with Burroughs. In this case, it was that kind of framing; it was that kind of style because that was the Burroughs world. If he went at it and tried to make some crazy, cut-up thing it would be a different film. That would be like an interpretation of Burroughs’ creative work. This was not that. This was, “I am going to take you into Burroughs’ world as it actually is.”
How did Howard fit into that particular world?
At the time, you had the “Beat” guys living in the same place as people in their twenties. A lot of people from outside, the Midwest and other places in the country, they would come to New York because it was cheap and you could be an artist there. You could live openly gay if you wanted, you could do drugs; they found their comfort there. So Howard was one of those characters. The family lived in the suburbs, and he was gay, and had gotten an Ivy League degree in political science. He was going to be a lawyer and then all of a sudden went to film school.
Howard could have a punk aesthetic, and went to punk clubs to hear music, and had friends in bands, and was into heroin, but Howard was also very literary. He was an excellent writer and had excellent grammar. And, he knew the same spectrum maybe, obviously in a smaller way because he wasn’t a sixty-eight year old writer like Burroughs, but he was very smart, very well educated, all those elements. I think he could see the spectrum of Burroughs from the literary background to the drugs on the Bowery. Clearly Burroughs trusted him an awful lot to be the person to tell his story.
The thing that’s taken for granted, now that Burroughs is a more well-known, established figure, is that at the time he had basically been in exile from the U.S. until shortly before this movie was made. He was known as a junky and the guy who killed his wife, and maybe because he was gay – there were lots of misconceptions about him.
How does Howard deal with Burroughs’ killing of his wife Joan Vollmer?
It’s the only time I’ve ever heard a very simple straightforward account of that story by Burroughs. When I hear Burroughs convey that story through that movie I don’t see any big myth about it, I see a story as it actually happened and I do see that it really affected him. And then I think it’s great that Howard also juxtaposes it with [Allen] Ginsberg’s point of view, because Burroughs was the person who lived it. It’s a more visceral story that Burroughs is telling, but Ginsberg offers more analysis from the other side. Burroughs is elegant enough not to really talk about Joan’s role in the incident, he keeps it to himself, but Ginsberg analyses what was going on with Joan and expresses his theory that Joan was very miserable and egged him on to get her out of this world.
Who was involved in making the film?
Well it started as a twenty minute film for Howard’s master’s thesis at film school. Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo were two of Howard’s best friends from New York University (NYU). They each worked on each other’s student films, and guys like Jimmy Lebovitz. A lot of the people for example who worked on Permanent Vacationalso worked on Burroughs. That was the thing; it was just a student film in the beginning. Spike Lee and Sara Driver (who were two years younger and working in the equipment room), were checking out cameras and sound kits to Howard, Jim, and Tom to go film with William Burroughs. Then Howard realised he was really on to something there and kept going and did it “professionally” after school – which involved the hard truth reality of having to raise money. It took him five years to finish.
And what do you think Jarmusch and DiCillo got out of making the film in terms of experience?
I think what is interesting about that whole group of filmmakers that whole time is that they incorporated a very documentary aesthetic. Now of course, Jarmusch films don’t look like a documentary, but the attention to natural detail, the pleasure of what’s actually going on in the street for example, he captures beautifully in Stranger than Paradise or Down By Law, or Mystery Train or Night on Earth, all his films really – it’s these beautiful details, often moments of gritty city life – and it’s the same aesthetic as Howard’s using, as an almost fiction backdrop in Burroughs: The Movie.
You’ve got this amazing set of the Bowery with all these crazy characters, with Burroughs in a three-piece suit, with a sword in his cane walking down the street. You could say that’s as awesome as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins playing the manager of a motel in Memphis in Mystery Train. And the same thing with Tom, certainly in his early movies Johnny Suedeand Living In Oblivion, it’s these crazy characters in this crazy place of downtown New York that you can’t make up, so they’re all drawing on this same real environment that they’re around; same thing with Spike Lee by the way. He took it to such a degree that he said “I’m going to tell you about the characters, I’m going to tell you about New York, I’m also going to tell you about the weather.” Y’know – Do The Right Thing is great because it’s about the heat; it’s about how fucking hot it gets in New York.
What perspective do you think the audience will have now on the film, thirty years after it was made?
Probably how incredibly ahead of its time the subject matter was, or how incredibly relevant the subject matter is today. I mean Burroughs is talking about a lot of things like creating a gay state to “protect ourselves.” He was dealing with the Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6 in 1978, when they were trying to outlaw all homosexuals from becoming teachers basically; same thing as is going on in Russia with not wanting to spread homosexual propaganda, whatever that means. So how incredibly timely it is.
I also think that the way that the film was made is very refreshing to watch. There are a lot of documentaries made now where we’re kind of used to a certain form. I mean there are all kinds of different documentaries made, but we’re used to the sort of Oscar contender documentaries which are: talking head, archive, talking head, archive, kinda thing – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, like a pop song. By comparison, Burroughs: The Movie is so raw and pure, the story is just unfolding, it’s happening right before your eyes, and you’re also aware of how very complex it is. He’s incredibly complex subject matter to tackle.
And it’s funny to think that here was a film, made for four years, by filmmakers who started out as students in very raw, gritty circumstances that BBC Arena then broadcast twice, and it had a theatrical run. And another interesting thing is that it was self-distributed by Howard and Burroughs. They took the film around to all these art house cinemas in Europe and in the U.S. Burroughs would give a reading and then they’d play the film. They’d both be around to talk and sign things afterwards.
When and where can audiences expect to see Burroughs: The Movie?
2014 is the Burroughs centennial and I’m hoping to have the film available before that year is over. Hopefully we will make a very special edition DVD and Blu-ray, maybe even a remastered release with some super exciting new material. But I also hope we can take the film back to where it came from starting with a theatrical release and showing it at a festival like the New York Film Festival. Many Burroughs events will happen next year for the Burroughs centennial and we hope we can show the film at many of them after the re-launch.
What can you tell us about Howard Brookner’s other works? Will we see those too and where and when can we find out more about him?
I think I became a filmmaker because of Howard. Looking up these old films of Howard and Burroughs: The Movie triggered this realisation that he had other works and other films out there that are also really fascinating, like a feature documentary on Robert Wilson… Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars. I also found the original 16mm material surrounding that, along with a lot of items that tell his whole story. I have been wanting to tell Howard’s story for a long time and this was the perfect material to include in my film on him: Smash The Control Machine: Howard Brookner and the Western Lands. Jim Jarmusch is executive producing it. I hope it will be finished by 2015. It will put Howard’s life in context and Burroughs: The Movie in a greater context of his work as a filmmaker, as an artist. I think it will be a film that will look at his life and his times from today’s perspective, while also recovering a lot of his long lost art.