Giving Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy a re-watch a couple of weeks ago, I found I especially enjoyed William S. Burroughs’ appearance toward the end as — what else? — an aged but wise drug user in whose benevolent presence Matt Dillon’s protagonist comes to life-changing conclusions. That picture represented a break into the mainstream, or close to it, for Van Sant, a director previously known for Mala Noche, a stark black-and-white take on street hustlers on Portland’s Skid Row.
But Burroughs’ presence, among other things, allowed Drugstore Cowboy to keep a certain raw edge. If you really want to see Burroughs’ in a context of cinematic rawness, though, have a look at these home movies. We’ve pulled them out of the internet’s attic as a celebration of the Naked Lunch author’s 101st birthday. Only lightly and tastefully edited, these VHS gems (part one, part two) candidly depict Burroughs at home in Lawrence, Kansas in 1996, just a year before his death.
They also find him in the company of such notable friends as Patti Smith, Steve Buscemi, and Allen Ginsberg, smoking, drinking, and — in Smith’s case — busting out the guitar. Cats, as promised, roam through the frame. You might not call Burroughs himself, made somewhat less exuberant by time, the life of the party, but he does seem to have radiated a kind of askew animating spirit until the end. It certainly kept him surrounded by countercultural luminaries, all of them surely still as keen as that young pharmacy-robber to learn from him.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture as well as the video series The City in Cinema and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.