I have a long time admiration for Beat writer William S Burroughs. I have read many of his books and have seen him read his works before an audience. Part of my fascination has been with his voice. I have a couple CDs of Burroughs reading his work aloud. There are also several interviews where he gets to go off with his various views on life. A lot of his work will not be enjoyable until I imagine him reading the work aloud.


William Burroughs had a great voice. He had an uncanny sense for knowing which words need the greatest emphasis. I have often been stunned by his ability for making his abstract writings seem perfectly normal through vocal emphasis. He also had a quirky sense of humor. This is something that will be lost on a lot of people who read his works. He often wrote or said things that he didn't necessarily believe. He was often trying to get points across but he was just as often merely trying to get listeners (or readers) to think. I don't think anyone should approach Burroughs' works with the view that he believed every thing he actually wrote (or said.) They should accept that Uncle Bill may have been pulling their leg.


William S Burroughs--Commissioner of Sewers is a rather interesting film. This film was made by the German filmmaker Klaus Maeck. It includes footage from the last public reading Burroughs performed. The reading was in Berlin on May 9, 1986. This was eleven years before Burroughs would pass away. The film features some interesting footage from this performance.


The film is largely based on an interview conducted by Jurgen Ploog. The interview is filmed in black and white but the picture is very clear. Ploog questions Burroughs on various topics. He is a good interviewer from the literary standpoint because he focuses on Burroughs views on the word and the use of language. There are some interesting passages on dreams and the afterlife that allow one to get inside Burroughs mind.


I don't think Burroughs will appeal to everyone. He had some paranoid views toward government and organized religion. He was also a homosexual who survived addiction to heroin. I say survive because he lived to the age of 83. Burroughs' paranoia will come through in much of his writing. Many people will have heard of his works such as Naked Lunch or Junkie. Some may have been bold enough to try venturing through the murk of his writing. He was disjointed even in his best writings so it's always a challenge.


(Quick side note: Norman Mailer once noted that had Burroughs not become a junkie, he would have been the greatest American novelist of the 20th Century. My own feelings are mixed because what Burroughs did produce were the result of the experiences that he endured and survived. Had he not become a junkie, he might not have ventured to write at all. You can't just remove one aspect of a writer and expect everything else to be the same.)


Now the film called Commissioner of Sewers does not really seek converts. My impression is that this film was made for people who already appreciate Burroughs. I enjoyed a lot of the footage from the last reading. Thanksgiving Prayer is a piece I enjoyed from Burroughs' CD Dead City Radio. He did alter the piece a bit in this performance.


 Another piece that appears in this film is Words of Advice. Sometimes the title is stretched out to be Words of Advice for Young People. This appeared on a CD called SpareAss Annie where Burroughs was backed by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. This piece was also included on an album called Hallucination Engine by a group called Material.


Burroughs was in good form for this interview as well. I like when he was being queried on re-incarnation. He stated that he couldn't summarily dismiss it but on the other hand he agreed with the Buddhist notion that it was to be avoided if possible. Burroughs humor is something that is often overlooked. This guy did have a funny view of life that managed to surface in spite of his paranoia. Commissioner of Sewers is a great film for anyone who likes Burroughs. It even includes some brief footage of Burroughs appearance in Drugstore Cowboy. Burroughs made an appearance in that Gus Van Sant playing (in a real stretch) an elderly junkie priest.


I would only really recommend this one for Burroughs fans. I don't think the film will have much value for anyone else. There might be some people who can find use for it otherwise but I find this more as a punctuation mark for an already existing admiration for Burroughs. I don't think this film will really convert non-believers but I will advocate giving it a try.               



Author's Notes/Comments: 

a few thoughts on a film about a twisted American author

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