Asked to pick the two most visionary books of the 20th Century, I’d choose James Joyce’s Ulysses for the first half and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch for the second half. Ulysses was written in 1918, published in 1922 and its Modernist stream-of-consciousness style is perfect for the relativistic Jazz Age that came after World War I. Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in the late 1950s, published it in the early 1960s, and its mix of sex, drugs and violence brilliantly predicts the post World War II Atomic Age.
Both books are bolts out of the blue and lenses though which the world is not seen in the same way again. Both Joyce and Burroughs went on to write other works, but there is something about those two books that are greater than perhaps either man intended them to be. Both were guides for their ages and both had their generations of literary acolytes who parsed out every word, angle and meaning. So it is into the well-plowed field of Burroughs scholarship that directors Lars Movin and Steen Moller Rasmussen’s present Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs on the Road.
Naked Lunch started slow. In a sense it — and Burroughs — were spin-offs of the more immediately successful Jack Kerouac/ On the Road franchise. Burroughs and fellow Beat saint Allen Ginsburg were just satellites to Kerouac’s brighter star. Then in the ’60s Ginsburg made the jump to the Hippies’ scene but Burroughs was never cut out to be part of the tie-dyed, micro-bus crowd. It wasn’t until 25 years and another generation later that Burroughs made his way to the head of the pack. Naked Lunch had continued to be read and resonate in ways that On the Road and Howl did not. By the early ’80s, Burroughs could be counted on to draw a crowd by simply showing up to an event.
The Successful Author Routine
In 1983 Burroughs was on a speaking tour of Europe and on a stop in Copenhagen was filmed doing the successful author routine. For whatever reason, that film is now seeing the light of day.
Apparently there was not enough Copenhagen material for a free-standing documentary so Movin and Rasmussen have tried to sketch out Burroughs’ post-Beat trajectory.
There are not many words of advice in this documentary. As near as I can tell, the lone example is “Thou shall not blow dope smoke into the face of your cat,” or words to that effect. Who could argue with that?
Of particular interest in Words of Advice are the places where Burroughs lived. It is the George-Washington-Slept-Here effect. Burroughs scholars will know about the YMCA/New York Bunker and the Lawrence, Kansas, farmhouse, but the uninitiated must be wondering what all that has to do with Denmark. And we get to see the current owners and/or caretakers of these shrines. Perhaps what this film should have been was a documentary on the Keepers of the Burroughs Flame. Maybe Movin and Rasmussen are working on that one right now?
If you are a Burroughs devotee, Words of Advice is a four-star event... despite having little new material (much of the archival footage of the younger Burroughs has been seen elsewhere). Movin and Rasmussen do a darned good job of editing the clips that are shown. And the images are exceptionally crisp, which makes me wonder if they have been cleaned up. We’ve come to the point in Burroughs Studies where any new bit of information, no matter how minute, becomes an event, so I say fans of Old Bill rejoice and watch Words of Advice.
If on the other hand you are coming in from the cold on Burroughs, this film is going to be a one-star mystery, if not downright tedious.
One of Burroughs’ best ideas was the Algebra of Need which says that the more you have the more you use. And the more you use the more you need. And the more you need, the less you have. Burroughs wrote this with heroin in mind, but it applies to anything, including Burroughs trivia. For a fan of Old Bill Lee such as myself, Words of Advice comes as welcome relief and leaves me wanting more.
The DVD includes a “nearly complete documentation of Burroughs’ reading in Copenhagen, Oct. 29th 1983.” There is also a statement by Ann Douglas, Professor at Columbia University, New York, and two short tribute films, One Shot I + II, in which a camcorder records its own demise. This I suppose is a tribute to Burroughs’ “Gun Art” which consisted of him shooting things and then selling the result. The cachet of One Shot is enhanced by the fact that the gun used was given to Burroughs by Hunter Thompson. How cool is that?
Picture and Sound
As noted above, the picture quality is very good on the archival footage.
How to Use This DVD
This is an advanced Burroughs Studies piece and not a place to start your education.