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William Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers (1986)
Static, non-performing art forms translate poorly to film, generally
speaking. Movies about painters tend to suck, with Pollock being one of the few exceptions. Movies
about writers are often even worse, particularly when a desperate director resorts to the
guy-typing-with-voiceover trick. Documentaries about writers arent much
betterthe general formula is 1/3 clips from readings, 1/3 interviews with friends
talking about what a genius the subject is and 1/3 sycophantic interviews with the writer
him- or herself.
One of the few literary films of any note is David Cronenbergs paranoid and genuinely creepy adaptation of William Burroughss "novel" (its really more of a collection of vignettes, featuring recurring characters and fixated on a couple of themes), Naked Lunch. That worked because, rather than adapt the novels scenes into any kind of story, Cronenberg created a protagonist who was clearly a Burroughs stand-in, and imagined the world, inner and outer, that would lead such a man to write such a book. Commissioner of Sewers, a documentary about Burroughs by German filmmaker Klaus Maeck, doesnt dive into his world/worldview nearly as avidly as Cronenberg did, and the result is moderately compelling if the viewer is already familiar with Burroughs, but mostly tedious otherwise.
Burroughss books dealt with addiction, mechanisms of social control, and ways to break out of the physical bonds of existence and into the freedom of the mind. He wasnt an atheist; his fascination with Egyptian mythology was as powerful as his contempt for American society. He was often a painfully funny satirist, but just as often an addled contrarian milking a few rhetorical tricks and patching over the holes in his theories with obfuscatory, mock-Surrealist word games, like dicing whole paragraphs into random strings of words which, re-ordered, supposedly revealed hidden meanings. This methodology and subject matter attracted a particular type of reader and fan, and its those folks who showed up at the readings filmed for this movie.
Burroughs was not an exciting public speaker. His voice was a lizards croak, which rarely shifted its inflection or pitch. On first hearing him read from one of his books, its nearly impossible to tell when hes narrating and when hes speaking in the voice of a character, because he simply plods ahead like a tortoise, one word following the next like blocks clicking into place. Still, the audiences are appreciative, in their waythey cheer and applaud loudly whenever the old man curses or makes a reference to pot-smoking.
The interview clipsshot in black and white (judging by Burroughss appearance, they date from the mid-1980s) arent great. The interviewer, Jurgen Ploog, doesnt ask any particularly penetrating questions, preferring to deal with general questions like "Do you enjoy traveling?" or asking about advice to young writersCharlie Rose territory.
The best thing in the movie is a chunk of Burroughss "Thanksgiving Prayer," as filmed by Gus Van Sant. But its cut off before the end, its incisive edge blunted. And ultimately, thats the problem with Commissioner Of Sewers in a nutshell: its both self-contained and truncated. While one more set of interviews with Allen Ginsberg and whichever other Beats were still alive at the time of filming (approximately 1986-7) might have seemed superfluous, it would have put Burroughs into context more fully than this film does, or attempts to do.
Commissioner Of Sewers is a fan letter on filmit presumes that its viewer is at least as familiar with the subject as the filmmaker. Such an approach does William Burroughs a disservice. His writing is ill-served by the clips of him reading it, and the interview segments, while occasionally illuminating and often funny, dont do much to explain why anyone should care. Its just taken for granted, and however much anyone wants to argue that, at this point, Burroughss status should be taken for granted, a film should always strive to reach the largest possible audience, and Commissioner Of Sewers settles for preaching to the choir.