You almost certainly know the name of William S. Burroughs, and more than likely you know him as the author of the novel Naked Lunch. If the idea of plunging straight into his writing intimidates you, given how drug-saturated, psychologically unconventional, and formally “cut-up” that writing can get, where should you go to get some background on this unstoppably influential member of the Beat Generation? After all, knowledge of Burroughs’ work seems creatively beneficial: so many different kinds of artists found inspiration in his chaotic, fragmented work and even more chaotic, fragmented life that he wound up making collaborative appearances in nearly every medium known in his lifetime: film, music, television, performance art, rock videos.
When German filmmaker Klaus Maeck, for example, needed a star for the dream sequences in Decoder, a low-budget dystopian tale of the government weaponizing emotion-killing muzak, he recruited Burroughs. The two men’s acquaintance proved even more fruitful than that: in 1991, Maeck directed the hour-long documentary William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers. In it, he takes an in-depth interview with Burroughs, a series of his readings, a collection of his appearances in other movies, and even images of his paintings, then cuts them up (as is the Burroughs sensibility) and reassembles them using all the finest — or at least the strangest — visual effects and video filters the early nineties had to offer. Should documentarians work this way? Burroughs himself, in one of the film’s interview segments, has an answer: “There is no such concept as ‘should’ in art. Or anything.”