William Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers

Written by:
Phil Freeman
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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 aren’t much better—the 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 Cronenberg’s paranoid and genuinely creepy adaptation of William Burroughs’s "novel" (it’s 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 novel’s 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, doesn’t 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.

Burroughs’s 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 wasn’t 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 it’s those folks who showed up at the readings filmed for this movie.

Burroughs was not an exciting public speaker. His voice was a lizard’s croak, which rarely shifted its inflection or pitch. On first hearing him read from one of his books, it’s nearly impossible to tell when he’s narrating and when he’s 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 way—they cheer and applaud loudly whenever the old man curses or makes a reference to pot-smoking.

The interview clips—shot in black and white (judging by Burroughs’s appearance, they date from the mid-1980s) aren’t great. The interviewer, Jurgen Ploog, doesn’t ask any particularly penetrating questions, preferring to deal with general questions like "Do you enjoy traveling?" or asking about advice to young writers—Charlie Rose territory.

The best thing in the movie is a chunk of Burroughs’s "Thanksgiving Prayer," as filmed by Gus Van Sant. But it’s cut off before the end, its incisive edge blunted. And ultimately, that’s the problem with Commissioner Of Sewers in a nutshell: it’s 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 film—it 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, don’t do much to explain why anyone should care. It’s just taken for granted, and however much anyone wants to argue that, at this point, Burroughs’s 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.

Phil Freeman

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