Burroughs: The Movie

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Made up of intimate, revelatory footage of the singular author and poet filmed over the course of five years, Howard Brookner’s 1983 documentary about William S. Burroughs was for decades mainly the stuff of legend; that changed when Aaron Brookner, the late director’s nephew, discovered a print of it in 2011 and spearheaded a restoration. Now viewers can enjoy the invigorating candidness of Burroughs: The Movie, a one-of-a-kind nonfiction portrait that was brought to life with the help of a remarkable crew of friends, including Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo, and that features on-screen appearances by fellow artists of Burroughs’s including Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, Patti Smith, and Terry Southern.

Picture 8/10

Howard Brookner’s thought-to-be-lost documentary, Burroughs: The Movie, makes its home video debut with Criterion’s new Blu-ray release of the film. It is presented in its original aspect ratio of about 1.33:1 on this dual-layer disc, delivered in a new 1080p/24hz high-definition digital presentation. The new scan comes from a 35mm print found at the New York Museum of Modern Art.

The film only received a modest initial theatrical release in 1983, a “roadshow” of sorts by the sounds of it, where Burroughs himself even toured with the film and did readings at some of the screenings. It sounds as though it never received any larger distribution and as far as I can tell never received any sort of home video release. According to Aaron Brookner (Howard Brookner’s nephew) in the special features he was able to view the movie thanks to an old VHS copy made from the film but other than that I don’t believe the film existed on home video in any other way. Aaron Brookner eventually found a 16mm print of the film (including a lot of other footage that had been shot) and immediately began a restoration of it, and it’s this new restoration we get here.

Even when you don’t take into account the rough history of the film this transfer really does look amazing. Other than some stray hairs and dirt that appears to have been there during filming, the film has been beautifully cleaned up. A few minor specs remain, and some footage that looks to be from home movies can look a bit rough (though still pretty good on the whole), but otherwise the image is very clean in this regard. The film is very grainy (not surprising) but it is nicely managed here. The encoding problems that have been noticeable on a lot of Criterion’s recent releases don’t appear to be a problem here. For those not overly familiar with that issue there are a number of titles where macroblocking or noise is evident, some titles being worse than others. In most cases, at least for me, this was mainly evident in dark or low lit scenes, though there are a few releases, with Shoah and My Own Private Idaho being the ones that come immediately to mind, where the issue was more evident throughout (overanalyzing screen captures made the problem far more evident but it wasn’t always noticeable while viewing). Burroughs doesn’t seem to suffer from this. As I said the grain is nicely managed here and remains clean and natural. Even the darker sequences, including a really dark one during the last section of the film, don’t present any obvious problems. I thought the image, in this regard, looked really good.

I can’t really fault any other areas of the transfer either. Though the image isn’t intensely sharp, limited by the film stock, I still found detail to be quite strong, and the colours look shockingly good: bright, vivid, and beautifully saturated. Black levels are also rather good looking nice and deep, and crushing isn’t too big a concern.

In the end it’s a really nice looking image, with the restoration work looking to have been thorough and Criterion giving us a rather nice encode. It really looks quite stellar.

Audio 6/10

Another surprise to this disc is the audio. Presented in lossless linear PCM, the 1.0 mono track, despite its age and shooting conditions—and again, the fact the source has apparently been just sitting around for years, pretty much forgotten—the sound is actually really good. There are a few times where dialogue can be edgy or harsh, or almost unintelligible (I also thought the audio had dropped at one point but realize it was in fact just the interviewee, James Grauerholz, mouthing the “F” bomb under his breath), but on the whole it’s fairly clear and fidelity isn’t all that bad. It’s still limited but it managed to surpass my expectations.

Extras 9/10

Criterion packs in a few nice supplements starting with a rather strong audio commentary by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch acted as the sound man for the film, and was also friends with director Howard Brookner, so he’s able to provide a very in-depth recollection on making the film. He starts with a backstory on how he and Brookner first met and then how the film came about. He shares his memories about being around Burroughs and the rest of the participants, sharing some moments that don’t appear in the film while also offering a little more context to a few sequences. I was most fond of passages, though, where Jarmusch recalls that period of his life in New York and how it more than likely led into building him as a filmmaker. I enjoyed the track a great deal, which offers a number of different perspectives on the film, its making, and the time period and it’s one I highly recommend viewers listen to.

Howard and Uncle Bill is a 16-minute interview with Howard Brookner’s nephew Aaron Brookner. Here he talks about his uncle and his memories of this film (which he saw on VHS) and he explains how it was put together and released, basically touring the country. After his uncle’s death the film unfortunately disappeared and Aaron recounts how he looked for the film, initially coming across footage shot for the film (a lot of footage that wasn’t used) and then finally coming across a print of the film (in MOMA surprisingly), which was then restored. Jarmusch’s track nicely covers the filming while this interview perfectly accompanies it by covering its release and what happened to the film afterwards, while Aaron also fondly recalls his uncle and how he got him interested in filmmaking.

Further adding on to the previous two supplements and giving another prospective is an audio interview with Howard Brookner, conducted in 1985 by Ted Morgan. This one is pretty great, with the two talking about whether film could break out into the mainstream and talk about the editing and assembling it. They also talk about any input Burroughs may have had on the film and Brookner shares concerns the writer had (amusingly he didn’t like the bit about how his wife called him a “pimp in bed”) and how he was able to work with him to keep certain things in. They also talk at great length about the shooting of Burroughs’ wife, Joan, and how Brookner was able to get Burroughs to open up (if only a bit) about it. In all it’s a very engaging and fascinating 24-minutes.

Criterion then includes some of the outtakes that were discovered, all of which are in fantastic condition. The outtakes, which run about 69-minutes in total, have been divided into five sections: “New York City,” “Weapons,” “Nova Convention,” “Interviews,” and “Travel.” The material is all very good, loaded with some great footage, including more from the Nova Convention, footage of Burroughs buying a trench coat in London, and footage of him revisiting his childhood home. My favourite moments, though, are where we see more on the acted out “Dr. Benway” sequence along with a good amount of footage of Burroughs showing off his weapons. Really wonderful addition.

Criterion also includes footage from a Q&A session at the 2014 New York Film Festival, where the film was screened, and features Jarmusch, director of photography for the film Tom DiCillo, Aaron Brookner, and Burroughs’ friend James Grauerholz. Everyone here talks a bit about the film and the man himself, while also sharing stories from the filming, Jarmusch, despite sharing a few in the included commentary track, managing to share even more. The set-up is a bit dry but some of the stories and the general discussion are interesting enough.

One of the more interesting features on this disc is an alternate edit made by Robert E. Fulton III. This cut, which runs 24-minutes, was created by Fulton after Brookner approached him to see what he could do with what he had filmed. It’s a very experimental edit, to say the least, quickly cutting through interviews and footage to build a portrait of the man, without any interest in a straightforward narrative. It’s interesting to view, just in terms of editing, though it’s certainly frustrating and I’m glad Brookner didn’t go this route.

Criterion then includes one of their large fold-out inserts, this one featuring a lengthy essay by Luc Sante, who covers Burroughs, Brookner, and then the film and its construction.

In the end Criterion has put together a very engaging collection of material, further adding on to the film itself and beautifully covering its filming, release, and eventual restoration. I think admirers of Burroughs will be thrilled with everything here.


Criterion has put together a stunning release for the film. The transfer looks incredible, stunning even, and the supplements have been wonderfully put together, featuring terrific material on the film’s making while offering further insights into the life and work of Burroughs. A fantastic release.

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Directed by: Howard Brookner
Year: 1983
Time: 90 min.
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 789
Licensor: Pinball London, Ltd.
Release Date: December 15 2015
MSRP: $39.95
1 Disc | BD-50
1.33:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 New audio commentary by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who was a sound recordist on the film   Audio interview with director Howard Brookner from 1985, conducted by William S. Burroughs biographer Ted Morgan   New interview with Brookner’s nephew, filmmaker Aaron Brookner, who oversaw the film’s restoration   Rare outtakes   Footage from the 2014 New York Film Festival premiere of the film’s restoration, featuring a Q&A with Jim Jarmusch, Aaron Brookner, filmmaker Tom DiCillo, and Burroughs’s friend and fellow writer James Grauerholz   Thirty-minute experimental edit of the film from 1981 by inventor and photographer Robert E. Fulton III   An essay by critic Luc Sante and collage artwork by artist Alison Mosshart