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On making a new William Burroughs documentary

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 

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'Star Trek,' old school and up close


Startrek365_1 It's supposed to last all year, "Star Trek 365," a 2.5-inch thick brick of a photo book from Abrams. The publisher has a series of 365 books -- on baseball, roadside America, penguins, punk -- all without any burden of calendaring, just a whole lot of whatever. And this is a whole lot of the original "Star Trek."

Casual fans will be tempted to devour it in less than a year; I say this with authority because I am one. "Star Trek" fandom is tricky: I never went to a convention; I remember the name of only one episode ("For the World is Hollow, and I Have Touched the Sky"); I've seen every episode multiple times, but only serendipitously -- I don't own the DVDs. So to many people who are more devoted than I, I realize that I don't count as a fan at all. Then again, I did once dress for Halloween in a blue polyester "Star Trek" minidress and frosted lip gloss, which has got to mean something.

And when I got to the photo above, I got chills. Because it shows the actors in full costume, from a well-remembered episode, while also revealing the set. A script! A cameraman! An annoyed crew! It's oddly thrilling to see the full imaginary world of "Star Trek" intermingled with the everyday production.

The picture is from the episode "Plato's Stepchildren" (the book makes titles easy), legendary for including the first interracial kiss on broadcast television, between Capt. Kirk (William Shatner) and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). Sadly, it was a kiss under duress -- Kirk and Uhura's actions were being forced, telekinetically, by the evil Platonians. Authors Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann, who've written other "Star Trek" books, gently try to debunk the legend. "Do they actually kiss?" they ask, concluding with, "Well...."

Each episode gets a few pages, with short text on the left page and a full-bleed photo on the right. Many of the photos revisit the series as it was experienced by those who saw it on TV. There are production stills and well-done image grabs from the episodes themselves. Nothing looks cheesy, except for the special effects, which, frozen on the page, don't have nearly the power they did on the screen, where they flitted by quickly, often with creepy music giving them extra oomph.

But the photos that are the most fun, at least for me, are those that reveal what was going on behind the scenes. The picture above shows actor Bruce Hyde -- whose appearance as Kevin Riley in "The Naked Time" featured him singing "Kathleen" one too many times -- being coached, as Hyde says, to "loosen up" by director Marc Daniels.


Just another day at the office.

The book starts with Gene Roddenberry's pitch and the original pilot, going chronologically forward, an episode at a time. The episodes are summarized effectively, so if, like me, you're wondering what exactly that horned white gorilla was, you learn it was fauna on a planet Tyree. And that while the episode was marred by atrocious hairpieces and some embarrassing dialogue for the peaceful natives, it was originally intended to be a pacifist critique of the Vietnam War.

"Star Trek 365" hits shelves -- with a whomp! -- on Sept. 1.


-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credits: Top and third, CBS Studios; second, Bruce Hyde; bottom, Abrams.




Wednesday: Molly Ringwald at Vroman's

Mollyringwald_2010 Molly Ringwald, star of the iconic teen films "Sixteen Candles,"  "The Breakfast Club" and "Pretty in Pink," has grown up. She addresses this head-on in the first pages of her book "Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family and Finding the Perfect Lipstick."

"On Feb. 18, 2008, I turned 40 years old," she writes. "It hardly seemed possible." The book celebrates growing up -- to 40 and, well, beyond.

Maybe it helps that it comes from a woman who is aware how much her youthful self has remained alive in the minds of fans. To some, she remains frozen as Duckie's love interest, or as the girl who did that impossible lipstick trick -- yet she's grown up and lived a complete life beyond those roles.

Ringwald, who has lived in France, once took an L.A. Times photographer along while she went book shopping in Venice. In the thanks to "Getting the Pretty Back," the long-deceased John Cheever makes a surprise appearance. "Not only for reminding us of the 'salvation of prose,' " she writes, "but for inadvertently and fortuitously leading me to my husband through the elegance of his prose." Ringwald's husband is a writer and editor; quotes from Cheever are included in Ringwald's book, with his estate's permission.

Ringwald, who is a star of the television show "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," will be at Vroman's Books Wednesday in Pasadena at 7 p.m. She'll be signing copies of "Getting the Pretty Back," and the bookstore asks that fans leave any memorabilia they might want signed at home. But that doesn't mean that she wouldn't welcome a gift of some vintage Cheever.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Molly Ringwald at the 2010 Oscars. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

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Best zombie title of the year? [Updated]


Does Alan Goldsher's new book "Paul is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion" have the best title of the year? Although the Paul-Is-Dead rumor happened before my time, it still made me snicker.

For those of you, like me, who missed the Beatles when they were still together, here's the back story, as I understand it. When the album "Abbey Road" came out in 1969, its cover featured a photograph of the four members of the Beatles walking in a crosswalk (across Abbey Road, near the music studio) and because Paul McCartney was barefoot -- and lots of college students were in a smoky, paranoiac haze, misinterpreting song lyrics -- a rumor spread: Paul is Dead. Speculation was so rampant that Life Magazine ran a cover story disputing it, "Paul is Still With Us."

[For the record, 2:33 p.m. Tuesday: An earlier version of this post said "Abbey Road" came out in 1966. It was released in 1969.]

The album cover that started it all:

Of course, Paul is still with us, as is Ringo Starr; and it's John Lennon and George Harrison who are gone.

In "Paul is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion," Alan Goldsher revives them, sort of. He makes John Lennon a zombie since childhood, one who turns Paul into a zombie; George follows. The book is told as a kind of oral history (get it?), with the band members, friends and foes all getting a say. In this fiction, the zombies are all re-vivifyable, so even John Lennon's 1980 murder is only an unfortunate setback. As much as Beatles fans might desire eternal life for the band, would they really want their Fab Four chewing and chomping their way to the top?

Ringo, by the way, isn't a zombie: he's a ninja. And this is where I stop giggling. What is it with zombies and ninjas? Why, of all of film's subgenres, have these two been mashed up in fiction? Zombie fiction lurched onto the bestseller lists with the cleverly conceived mashup "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" -- which took Jane Austen's classic, mixed in zombies... and ninjas. And here we are with zombies and ninjas, again. Playing "Love Me Do."

Oh, never mind me. The book's title is still chuckleworthy -- enough to get it optioned for a film by Double Feature partners Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, who've made "Pulp Fiction" and "Get Shorty."

[UPDATE 6/29 2:30pm: an earlier version of this post said that "Abbey Road" came out in 1966. It was released in 1969.]

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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