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Art-house films: ‘A Man Within,’ ‘Dissolution’ and more

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Opening this week on the local specialty film circuit:

‘William S. Burroughs: A Man Within’ ★★★

Director Yony Leyser profiles William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) by interviewing the author’s admirers, boyfriends, collaborators, neighbors and other intimates, including his “gun handler.” Along the way, he collects anecdotes from a coterie of scenesters, ranging from filmmaker Gus Van Sant and performance artist Laurie Anderson to rocker Iggy Pop and poet Amiri Baraka.

A former Chicagoan, Leyser worked with a Chicago-based co-producer and editor on his documentary. He draws upon four decades of footage that depicts Burroughs in the Beat, dope, hippie, pop art and punk subcultures (essential clips come from the 1994 documentary “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg” by former Chicago filmmaker Jerry Aronson). There’s no shortage of celeb shots of Burroughs with the likes of Andy Warhol, Kurt Cobain and Leonardo DiCaprio. “[He] seemed to have a con­nection to anything and everything,” testifies singer-poet Patti Smith, who admits to a major crush on this openly homosexual man who hated the word “gay.”

“William S. Burroughs: A Man Within” focuses more on Burroughs’ personal life than his literature. His notorious, semi-autobiographical novels Junky, Queer and Naked Lunch are not analyzed in any detail. Nor is there much about his craft or how he managed to survive.

Leyser tries to figure out his idiosyncratic subject, who comes off as a waspy WASP. A Harvard grad, Burroughs was the grandson of the founder of the Burroughs Corp., which made adding machines and other business equipment.

“He was not easy to like,” director John Waters admits, with admiration. “I think probably Freud would think him to be deeply, deeply troubled; profoundly mentally ill,” offers Dennis M. Davies, a Burroughs neighbor and author of the landmark book The Sexually Unusual. Burroughs’ last written words were: “Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller there is. LOVE.” The former heroin addict had scored one final line.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 88 minutes. Opening today at the Music Box. Leyser will do Q&A sessions after the screenings at 8 p.m. Friday and 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

‘Kalamity’ ★★

“Kalamity” sounds like it could be the street name of a drug. It’s not. This ill-titled thriller, shot in northern Virginia, is not akin to the film “Kalifornia.” Nor is it Kafka-esque.

Writer-director James Hausler makes other missteps in this story of a shaky friendship. The last names of pals Billy (Nick Stahl) and Stanley (Jonathan Jackson) both begin with “K,” and their ex-girlfriends both have first names beginning with “A.” This may start to spell “Kalamity,” but fails to make sense of Stanley’s psychotic rage against Alice and Ashley.

“Women can make you feel like you’re just a dot on the map,” Stanley vents. The roots of his sexist resentment are murky. Inconsistent visual and audio effects attempt to get us inside his twisted head. Just as erratic are flashbacks to the romantic backstories of the two couples: Billy and Alice, and Stanley and Ashley. Christopher Magnum’s music hits an odd array of notes that further distracts.

“Kalamity” aims for depth about a malignant misogyny, but its psychological insights are limited to such banal lines as: “People are people, there’s no one way to see them” and “It’s experience that makes us who we are.” A concluding crane shot that goes up to a close-up of a traffic light on a suburban street is an especially facile symbol for life-and-death choices.

Rated R by MPAA for pervasive language including sexual references, and some violent content. Running time: 100 minutes. Screens 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Music Box Theater.

‘Dissolution’ ★★★

Experimental filmmaker Nina Menkes undertakes sojourns with isolated characters out of their element in “Dissolution.” The results are unsettling inquests rendered via expressionistic black-and-white camera work. She sets this film in an Arab quarter of Tel Aviv, and shot her “Phantom Love” (2007) in the Korean district of Los Angeles. The woman featured in the earlier film worked at a casino and dealt with a psychotic sister. Now Menkes observes a young man (played by first-time actor Didi Fire) who kills an elderly pawnbroker.

Menkes cites Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as an inspiration, although she cuts all the philosophizing of that dense 1866 novel. Instead, we intuit the antihero’s psyche through unusually distant, handheld shots. Menkes, who’s also credited as camera operator, makes him look insignificant in long alleys, late-night diners and lonely clubs. Extended shots of him walking into the far distance are the most expressive.

The nameless man never gets a closeup. When women in his neighborhood peer into the lens, it’s not him they face. We see him sharpen a knife, buy a cow lung from a butcher, crush a scorpion on his bedroom floor, touch a big snail on a sidewalk, dodge his landlady and run from Arab toughs. Just as “Phantom Love” startled viewers with a surreal image of a dreamer, “Dissolution” mystifies with a closing scene of galloping horses. Menkes gives her unforgivable killer a vision of grace.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 86 minutes. In Hebrew, with English subtitles. Opening today at the Facets Cinematheque.

‘Great Directors’ ★★½

First-time filmmaker Angela Ismailos interviews 10 film directors from Europe and the United States for this pleasing if not surprising sampler of apercus, bon mots and clips.

“I felt like I knew them from their cinema but realized that I really knew nothing,” admits Ismailos in her opening voiceover. “I wasn’t exactly sure what it was I was hoping to discover.” Upfront about her vague impetus, she pushes no thesis about directing. English director Stephen Frears backs her auteurist impulse: “The actual making of a film — that’s not a particularly complicated process. What makes it interesting is who you are.”

In koan-like cadences, David Lynch explains why he should not be talking on camera: “The film is the talking. The film is the thing. So you go see the film. That’s the thing.” Don’t miss his riff on baiting a hook with desire to catch ideas like fish that bubble up from the unknown.

Besides talks with Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Ken Loach and John Sayles, there are segments on Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder drawn from earlier docs. Todd Haynes and Richard Linklater talk a bit about their own ca­reers. “Great Directors” gets better when these artists interpret their mentors. They know so much more than Ismailos.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 86 minutes. In English and French, with English subtitles. Screening at 7:45 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Film Center. Ismailos will attend the Saturday show.

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