If you have even the most passing knowledge of the life and work of William S. Burroughs, nothing should seem more out of the ordinary than finding the author of surreal heroin tomes nodding pensively at the beginning of this 1993 Francis Ford Coppola-produced short film directed by Nick Donkin and Melodie McDaniel. I couldn’t help but chuckle watching Burroughs appear in a cozy, holiday-themed room complete with a roaring fireplace, tinsel and an amply lit Christmas tree. The film’s opening sequence reeks of an inappropriate wholesomeness, and the former bug powder purveyor looks as innocent as a kind old granddad ready to tell a bunch of rug rats to grab some hot cocoa and gather around for a tale of Christmas cheer. What, exactly, is going on here?
Then, Burroughs pulls a copy of his 1989 collection of short stories, Interzone off of a bookshelf and opens it to the piece called “The Junky’s Christmas.” As the black and white film cuts away to claymation, Burroughs begins to narrate the sad story of Danny, a heroin addicted hustler who finds himself being let out of New York City jail cell on Christmas morning with no cash and no immediate source for his much needed fix. Now we’re in familiar Burroughs territory.
Well, sort of. If you’ve read it, you know the story, but now try to imagine the bleak, back-alley Christmas narrative read by Burroughs while classic holiday tunes and beats from the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy mingle with his monotone. If you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it for you entirely, but suffice it to say that Danny the fiending anti-hero shares a holiday gift with an ailing fellow tenant in a shitty rented room after spending the day being kicked around New York City looking to score. Helping the guy out proves to be an act of kindness for which Danny is supernaturally rewarded.
Burroughs’ story itself is gritty, odd, sad, touching and revelatory in its way. But we’re talking about the short film as a whole here, and the ending, I think, is meant to add something. We cut back to the holiday scene from the beginning, the claymation goes away, Burroughs closes the book and walks into a previously unseen dining room filled with smiling partygoers surrounding a classic holiday dinner spread. In the closing sequence that follows, Burroughs joins the other Christmas revelers in raising a toast. He also helps carve the turkey. The whole thing comes off as kind of silly, but the juxtaposition is perhaps meant a reminder to think about how lucky some of us are. Or, on second thought, maybe it’s just supposed to add a layer of weirdness. Either way, check it out below.
Notably, James Grauerholz, bibliographer and literary executor of Burroughs’ estate, is listed in the credits as one of the Christmas guests.
A different version of this story appeared in Burroughs’ Exterminator! originally published in 1973 as “The “Priest” They Called Him” which itself was read by Burroughs over Kurt Cobain guitar noise and released in 1993.