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On making a new William Burroughs documentary

February 22, 2011 | 10:55 am

Williamburroughs_1996 Yony Leyser had been kicked out of CalArts and recently celebrated his 21st birthday when he landed in Lawrence, Kan., and decided to try to make a documentary about William Burroughs. 

Despite the fact that Burroughs had been dead for a decade and Leyser had never made a documentary before, the result is the quite excellent "William S. Burroughs: A Man Within." It's a star-studded portrait of the author, his peculiarities and the deep saturation of his persona through underground arts and culture in the late 20th century. It's been playing in festivals for the last year; it airs Tuesday night on PBS stations nationwide.

Leyser came to Burroughs through his iconic book "Naked Lunch," which someone gave to him as a high schooler in Chicago. "It was so obscene in such a good way, shocking and amazing all at once," Leyser told The Times in a phone interview from Berlin. Burroughs' book was, he says, "my entry point to punk rock, surrealist art, literature, the Beat Generation -- it was an amazing diving point."

So how did a kid with no experience and few connections get directors David Cronenberg, John Waters and Gus Van Sant, actor Peter Weller, rockers Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Genesis P-Orridge and literary agent Ira Silverberg to talk to him? "When you're young, people want to help you out," he says. "When they heard it was about Burroughs, they were very receptive."

Much of the film's rarely seen archive footage came from this general goodwill toward the project, people digging up old films and videotapes that had been stashed away in basements. "Even Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth had Super-8 that had never been transferred," Leyser says.

As fitting a documentary about Burroughs, the film isn't exactly linear. Leyser uses stop-motion animation with wire figures to frame sections focusing on different aspects of Burroughs' life: his books, his boyfriends, the accidental killing of his wife in Mexico, his move to Kansas from New York, his art, his drugs, his guns.

And through it all, there is Burroughs' distinctive voice. "If you had a choice, would you rather be a poisonous snake or a nonpoisonous snake?" he reads in voiceover. And later: "I bring not peace, but with a sword."

The version of "William Burroughs: A Man Within" that will broadcast Tuesday night on PBS has been cut to fit the slot of the show Independent Lens. A longer, 88-minute version that has been showing at festivals is available on DVD from Oscilloscope Pictures for $23.99. 

The trailer for "William Burroughs: A Man Within" is after the jump.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: William Burroughs at the Earl McGrath Gallery with his art piece, "Don't Sit On This Chair." Credit: Michael Edwards / Los Angeles Times