Clearly I'm a Johnny-come-lately where the 1993 film The Junky's Christmas is concerned. As I'd already surmised before sending the YouTube links for it out to my literary mailing list, most (but not all, mind you) avid William Burroughs fans were long since familiar with this Francis Ford Coppola claymation production, even if many had not seen it in a while. Just as quite a few knew the original short story (from the 1989 Interzone collection) or had heard it on the CD Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales (released the same year as the film). But it was those others on my list (easily the majority) to whom I was mainly wanting to give this touching Yuletide present. And touch it certainly does, even if not pleasantly till towards the very end.
"How can you say that?" the Dutch writer Simon Vinkenoog screamed at me onstage, after I had publicly thanked William for participating in the reading event I'd been emceeing, and additionally for "the countless hours of reading pleasure" he'd afforded me over the years. "Pleasure?! He wants to stick a knife in your heart!"
Yes, well, we all get our kicks in different ways. And I seriously doubt I'm the only person in the world who 'enjoys' reading Bill Burroughs. Or, judging by the responses to my mailing, came away from watching The Junky's Christmas feeling spiritually uplifted. One lady actually wrote back saying, "That lovely film you sent brought tears to my eyes." Sweet of her, but it's not a 'lovely' film. (Unless you want to count the closing sequence, showing William and friends tucking in to a holiday feast, which is quaintly cozy but somewhat peripheral.) It's a mini cinematic masterpiece, brilliantly scripted and engagingly presented. Same as the story is a fictional portrayal of the core messages contained in the Sermon on the Mount. The Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus are likewise ultimately beatific, but still far from being in any way nice.
Here we have a necessarily twisted tale (narrated throughout by the classically gravel-voiced author) of a mild-mannered junky, Danny the Car Wiper, in search of a Christmas fix. The clay animation characters suit the desperate situation on a cold and bleak urban winter's day perfectly, occasionally with an aura of tenderness but for the most part horrific: huge bulging eyes, excruciatingly painful shivers, near-demonic grimaces. The two severed legs Danny finds in an abandoned suitcase merely accentuate the overall sense of despair.
"Holy Jesus!" he exclaimed. "The routines people put down these days. Legs! Well I got a case anyway."
Especially exquisite for us, is that there is nary a hint of what we are leading up to. When Danny does eventually cop (gratis, courtesy of an inebriated but nonetheless sharp-witted doctor) a quarter-grain tablet which he later prepares spoon and needle fashion for injecting, the form his badly-needed Christmas present will take seems a forgone conclusion. Until on the verge of shooting up, he hears a series of annoying groans emanating from the room next door. Oh hell, go have a look. It's a young man in the unbearable throes of a kidney stones attack. Without really thinking about it, and hesitating but momentarily, Danny forgoes alleviating his tortuous junk sickness and shoots the kid up rather than himself. Then, the sacrifice made, he returns to his own room resigned to suffer the bitter reward for his charitable act. Instead a warm flood suddenly pulses through his veins and breaks in his head "like a thousand golden speedballs."
"For Christ's sake," Danny thought. "I must have scored the immaculate fix!"
The vegetable serenity of junk settled in his tissues. His face went slack and peaceful, and his head fell forward.
Danny the Car Wiper was on the nod.
The short story was apparently penned around 1954. And is therefore representative of relatively early Burroughs. Yet it is also hauntingly reminiscent of that famous final entry in the Last Words journal of more than four decades hence, describing love as "the most natural painkiller what there is." Notwithstanding everything else at once complicated and straightforward that William S. Burroughs was about, both as a man and a writer, he was never a stranger to the essential ingredients of love, compassion, karma and mystical reality. If you are in any doubt of that and haven't yet done so, do yourself a favor and see The Junky's Christmas. I bet Charles Dickens would dig it, too!
The Junky's Christmas
Directors: Nick Donkin, Melodie McDaniel
Writers: William S. Burroughs (story), James Grauerholz (script)
Producer: Francis Ford Coppola
Running time: 21 minutes
Color: Black & White
DVD release: Koch Visions (2006)
Available at Amazon and elsewhere
This review first appeared in Beat Scene 64 (Coventry, England).