Monday, November 1, 2010

The Beat Goes On: William S. Burroughs: A Man Within & My Queen Karo

William S. Burroughs
Unquestionably, the Beat Generation of the 1950s blazed a trail for hippies to follow a decade or two later. So we’ve essentially got the idiosyncratic subject of William S. Burroughs: A Man Within to thank for the dangerously unbridled youngsters of My Queen Karo, a Dutch feature set in Amsterdam during the early 1970s. In both films, the zeitgeist involves questioning authority, resisting conformity, criticizing the establishment and expressing a sometimes forced a joie de vivre.   

Burroughs comes across as a contrarian whose dour demeanor does not indicate much joy in a life plagued by heroin addiction. More happily, he is heralded as the godfather of the post-World War II movement that witnessed legendary figures such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso busily expanding the boundaries of American culture. But first-time director Yony Leyser layers on one too many talking heads: Patti Smith, John Waters, Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Jello Biafra, Diane DiPrima, Gus Van Sant and a number of biographers, among others. Some, but not all, offer valuable insights into an enigmatic person few really seem to have known very well. Also on hand is David Cronenberg, whose 1991 big-screen version of Burrrough’s Naked Lunch stars Peter Weller, who serves as narrator of the 90-minute documentary.

Rare footage of Burroughs chatting with friends and clips from his early avant-garde experiments with cinema add to the mystique. But the cluttered profile suffers from chronology confusion. I kept losing the thread of who, what, where, when, why and how -- the essence of storytelling -- in the rush of commentators and profusion of animated interludes.
While repeatedly defining him as a gay, the film waits about an hour to cover the heterosexual relationships. There’s no mention of his first wife, Ilse Klapper, an Austrian Jew who was in dire need of a United States visa to escape the Nazis in the 1930s. His patrician Missouri family opposed the match. Spouse number two was Joan Vollmer, who landed in a psychiatric hospital thanks to a Benzedrine habit. He cared enough to spring her from the asylum.

Although clearly out to explore the inner workings of a complex artist, Leyser doesn’t bother with these inconvenient facts. Or the accounts that suggest Burroughs may have divorced then almost immediately remarried Vollmer, although others claim they were strictly a common-law couple. In any event, they lived together from 1946 until her accidental death in 1951; he missed while trying to shoot a glass placed on top of her head in a drunken game of William Tell.

Their turbulent existence included a son, who was four when Vollmer died, and a daughter from her previous marriage. It’s hard to imagine anyone calling Burroughs “Daddy,” but he was nothing if not full of contradictions. The loss of Vollmer motivated him to become more serious about his literary efforts: “(It) maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out” is how he described the experience. Naked Lunch, published in 1959, is a wildly fanciful memoir of their time together. He’d already created the classic Junkie six years earlier. 

But, yes, Burroughs preferred men. Reportedly, he was once rebuffed romantically by Ginsberg, the longest-lasting of his Beat buddies. Their mutual legacy is like a third person sitting next to them as the novelist and the poet are captured on camera conversing with ease. They even left this mortal coil within six months of each other in 1997. Burroughs, the perpetual drug abuser, made it to the whopping age of 83.

The title character of My Queen Karo is only ten. She has moved into a squat with her Belgian parents and several other long-haired proponents of free love, getting high, no private ownership and political correctness. Their concept of utopia is so intense that bedtime means everyone flopping down on one gigantic round mattress, quite handy for an orgy in the name of Karl Marx. (This may sound preposterous, but I’ve learned of a similar situation at a Vermont collective that was started by lefties in 1969: “Everybody slept in the same room for month,” one of them recently told me. “That was supposed to be part of getting our shit together. There was an enormous amount of self-criticism; we’d sometimes spend all day at it.”)

Equally “liberated” while rigidly enforcing their principles, the movie’s communards protest the Vietnam War, capitalism and the Dutch government -- an exercise in provocation, since the police regularly beat them up. Shy, delicate Dalia (Deborah Francois) is under the thumb of bully Raven (Mathias Schoenaerts), the nominal leader of a group that theoretically doesn’t believe in them. Their precocious daughter Karo (Anna Franziska Jaeger) just wants to have fun and feel secure. So, she’s initially furious as the marriage begins to unravel when her father takes up with Alice (Maria Kraakman), an activist who flirts with him at a rally.

Writer-director Dorothy Van Den Berghe is adept at demonstrating a child’s desperate need to be part of something, to belong. Once Alice moves in, Karo starts to accept the interloper’s two kids as a brother and sister. She also is drawn to the Catholicism of an aunt who visits, which alarms the vehemently secular Raven. Her most constant source of comfort, however, is Jacky (Rifka Lodeizen), the kindly prostitute in an apartment adjacent to the squat. In contrast with the unfettered lifestyle of her neighbors and the chaos of no rules whatsoever at Karo’s progressive school, the hooker points out that human beings need ways to measure their accomplishments. Hence, her offer to pay for swimming lessons that give the girl some sense of personal achievement.

Both living arrangements -- the commune and the bordello -- are threatened by an unsympathetic landlord, another reason for the radicals to rage. Raven’s rage grows violent after discovering that Dalia, whose skill with a sewing machine brings in a little money, has paid to finally have the water turned back on. Better to smell than deal with filthy lucre! Yet the guy has no compunction about stealing fancy clothes from the rich. Which is why Van Den Berghe’s upbeat ending undermines her engrossing glimpse of the harm that too much freedom can do. Although Raven’s almost like a Charles Manson without the homicidal urge, the filmmaker suddenly forgives his self-important coercion.

A few residents of that Vermont collective had trust funds, but the conditions were downright primitive at a poorer haven for hippies located nearby. Apparently, they took in many drifters. It became known as “a hard-luck commune.” The worst luck: An April 1970 fire there killed four people. While the folks in My Queen Karo fare much better, their survival is kind of a miracle in an era when excess eclipsed idealism.  

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author, with Randee Dawn, of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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