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Storming the Reality Studio with Uncle Bill: Some Thoughts on William S. Burroughs and the Movies

From Beatdom #14

 

Until really quite recently, of the “big names” that one thinks of in association with the Beat Generation, it was always William S. Burroughs that was easiest or most likely to think of in connection with film – for a variety of reasons, some fairly obvious and others not so. It is something of a cliché that of the Big Three, each had a decade of which they were very much a figurehead and representative: Jack Kerouac, with his cross-country driving marathons and hitch-hiking, and denims and lumberjack shirts, was clearly the Action Man of the Fifties; Allen Ginsberg, with his free love, long hair, beads, and trips to India, was clearly everybody’s favourite Gay Auntie for the Sixties; and William S. Burroughs – uptight and undercover, with his anonymous suit and hat and coat, and his sardonic, knowing manner – was A Man Within for the Seventies… or was it the Eighties, or Nineties, or…? Despite the best efforts of Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, Ginsberg’s appearance in all manner of cinéma vérité, and documentaries from the Swinging Sixties, it is Burroughs whose presence is now everywhere.

What imaginary world of adventure is complete these days without a depiction of some incredibly louche bar where strange beings meet to slake even stranger thirsts, ply dubious but usually fantastic trades, and indulge unknown appetites? Black ops and conspiracies, arranging deception and double-cross on a monstrous scale? Emerging supernatural, mutant, or alien-beings contending with humanity, for better or worse? Increasing polymorphous perversity, as the parameters of desire expand in an attempt to accommodate the possibilities presented by these beings – and, consequently, blurring of the boundaries between gender and species… Or, in the case of those who take androids or cyborgs as lovers, even between the organic and inorganic? From the “Casablanca-in-Space” template of the cantina in Star Wars – where all the riff-raff, flotsam and jetsam of who knows how many galaxies all go to get off, hook up, and lie low, and the “followers of obsolete unthinkable trades . . . black marketeers of World War III” of Naked Lunch, would hardly be out of place – to the latest Fantasy and Sci-Fi extravaganzas, it’s all there.

The serious literary types might have taken their time over Burroughs, but the really forward-looking Sci-Fi writers of the 1960s onward were there pretty much from the get-go: Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard (remember when he wrote Sci-Fi ?), Samuel Delaney, Philip K. Dick, Michael Moorcock… and, later, William Gibson, then Richard Calder. Burroughs is like The Velvet Underground of Science Fiction: he may not be famous in mainstream Sci-Fi, but all the people he did influence are the really cool, smart people who went on to influence everybody else. He got an acknowledgement in the credits for Blade Runner – even though it was based on a Philip K. Dick story. Some people would argue that Alien is H. P. Lovecraft updated for the Space Age, via Burroughs. And, of course, his later playmate, David Cronenberg, built a whole career and mythos around Body Horror . . . Cyberpunk, Steampunk, you name it.

Along with Sci-Fi, Horror and Fantasy are some of the fastest growing, most exciting and innovative areas in contemporary film and TV, reaching bigger and bigger audiences all the time. Increasingly, even mainstream audiences are becoming more familiar with and accepting of themes and tropes that were previously only really the subject matter of more speculative Science Fiction: virtual reality, time travel paradoxes and non-linearity, parallel universes, nanotechnology, mind control and mental powers – the whole lot more often than not helped along by strange new designer drugs… Or, in the case of HBO’s hugely successful True Blood, a drop or two of euphoria-inducing, habit-forming, mind-expanding vampire blood (you heard me.)

Savvy commentators such as Emma Doeve and Camille Paglia have observed that the Fine Arts, increasingly orphaned by Conceptualism, have sought refuge in the movies. It has also been pointed out that, increasingly, the best contemporary draughtsmanship and innovative design is to be found in the comic books now come-of-age and known as “graphic novels” – the best of which frequently have the epic storytelling and mythic resonance of powerful motion pictures, and with their frame-by-frame form, often resemble high quality storyboards for imaginary movies. With so many of today’s more exciting and innovative films often having their origin in comics and graphic novels, the relationship is a close one.

“Graphic novel” is a marketing term that was introduced sometime in the 1980s. It was considered a more “grown up” description for a medium that had been evolving ever since the hippy doper underground comics of the 60s, with better artwork, better writing, and, frequently, more adult themes; also it was found that high street bookshops were more likely to stock something if it was called a “novel.” One of the more commercially successful stepping-stones was a long-running, high-quality French comic magazine, Métal Hurlant, featuring far-out (and often erotically explicit) work from leading artists and writers. When an American version was launched in 1977, it was renamed Heavy Metal, after the phrase that William Burroughs had originated in The Soft Machine.


Coincidentally, the long-running collaboration between Burroughs and the young British graphic artist Malcolm McNeill, Ah Pook Was Here – which they conceived of as a totally new form of book, with some pages of text, some pages of just artwork, and many pages of art and text interwoven and juxtaposed, commenting on and illustrating each other – would be incredibly prescient of the graphic novel form that would emerge over a decade later. Although only a small fraction of the combined art-and-text appeared in the British Underground Press – and, tragically, after seven long years the project was abandoned – it’s innovative example was considered hugely significant by those in the know, and it is perhaps not surprising that three of the biggest names which emerged from the world of British comics to lead the way for graphic novels – Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison – have all spoken of their admiration for Burroughs, and the liberation of the imagination they see in his work.

In contrast, it is hugely ironic that such “transgressive lit” poster-boys as Dennis Cooper,  Will Self or Irvine Welsh, chose to sneer that Burroughs was passé – once they had made their names and reputations, taking for granted their freedom to now safely follow trails that he (and other pioneers like him) had blazed while they were still in short trousers. When being queer, or a junkie, a criminal, or boy-lover might still have had real-life consequences, and wasn’t just something to add colour to the C.V. of a “bad boy” writer…

One of the ways in which El Hombre Invisible has been almost a little too successful, perhaps, is that his ideas and influence are often absorbed indirectly, in keeping with his role as éminence grise. The most obvious example of this is, of course, his iconic status with generations of rock stars, experimental musicians, DJs, and their fans – even if most of them had hardly read a word of his actual writings. Like surrealism, which is now everywhere, from advertising to comedy to fashion, Burroughs is almost too much part of the DNA of post-modern culture for a lot of his contribution to be recognised…

But take away the queer sex and hard drugs, and the creations of the fantastic, imaginative realms of William S. Burroughs’ Magical Universe can be seen all around us. Are the worlds of Avatar, The Matrix, X-Men – even Pirates of the Caribbean and the equally swashbuckling romp of that other Burroughs, Edgar Rice’s John Carter of Mars – really that far away?

His influence seems to have passed, almost by some kind of weird occult osmosis – or perhaps by the post-modern agent of viral replication known as the meme – going about their business like an undercover agent, unnoticed and undisturbed, almost invisible, subtly altering, infecting, and mutating.

Word begets image and image is virus.

The seeds of our Future were sewn Once Upon A Time in the Interzone of his imagination, and he is still with us.

Look:

American Mutants Spawned in the Bunker

Originally published in Beatdom #14, and excerpted from the forthcoming memoir/scrapbook, Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg ’72 Through ’92.

 

Allen Ginsberg invited me to see William S. Burroughs in January 1977, when I was visiting NYC. As you may know, Burroughs’ residence at 222 Bowery was nicknamed The Bunker. It was a converted YMCA, with literally no windows and a shiny steel door. The walls were painted white with tiny minimalist art, like that of his old colleague Brion Gysin’s.

I thought it was definitely a great space and safe shelter, then and now. Various young people were hanging out with Bill at a big table like you’d see in a conference room, like James Grauerholz, his longtime secretary and then-platonic companion. Burroughs was extremely gregarious in this environment – a few drinks in him and some weed, and he became a hilarious story teller.

I told Burroughs that I had a dream about him where his face was covered with tattoos like Quequeg in Moby Dick, and was wearing a Hawaiian shirt like Hunter S. Thompson, and also looked like Thompson, which was not a stretch. In the dream, he told me he was a master of Peruvian magic. Burroughs didn’t seem to like the Thompson part, scowling slightly as I told it, but then leaned forward and said, “I am a master of Peruvian magic, my dear.”Allen Ginsberg X-Ray

I told Burroughs about this great sci-fi movie called They Came From Within – released as Shivers in 1976 – that reminded me of his work, where man-made parasites (looking like a cross between a penis and a bloody shit) turned you into an insatiable sexual zombie. It was actually David Cronenberg’s first feature, made fifteen years prior to his Naked Lunch adaptation.

Burroughs presented me with a signed copy of a recent chapbook. As we began slowly gathering ourselves to leave, I had the idea to use Burroughs as the subject for a rephotography film experiment I was considering. I talked to James out of Bill’s earshot and asked what he thought. James went off to Bill and came back with a “yes.” We’d meet for breakfast at a diner the next day and shoot Bill walking around the neighborhood.

The next morning, accompanied by my old pal, Richard Modiano, I went to the diner armed with my Bauer Super 8 and a primitive cassette tape recorder. But when we met, Bill was considerably more reserved, stiff, and looked a little hungover. Still, he was friendly in an otherworldly sort of way. He was also most definitely a good sport.

I turned on the cassette player, thinking I’d use it for background to the film. Our discussion turned to film itself, and I made some mention of Godard’s maxim that every camera angle was a moral statement.

To move the camera or not to move the camera,” said Bill. “Right,” I answered. It turned out to be the only remotely audible section of the entire tape, which was mostly a cacophony of restaurant background noise. I later used these two sentences as a loop for the film, though there were only a few mortals who could recognize the words.  Basically, Bill then took a walk around the neighborhood and I filmed him.

Later, I intercut the then rephotographed footage with fragments shot off the TV from Monster Zero, From Russia with Love, and White Heat. I also shot some peep show gay porn right off its rear-projected screen where fellow film student Craig Baldwin worked. Some cruising cat wanted to join me in the booth. I declined.

The San Francisco State University Film Department had this device where you spooled the Super 8 through and it would show up as a TV image, a sort of pre-VCR device the industrial world used that would allow cheap screenings of Super 8 training films. I had been introduced to this device by Craig (he was later to make the great Tribulation ’99: Alien Anomalies Under America), because it allowed all kinds of crude rephotography off the TV screen, going in for close-ups on what was originally a full shot, and filming second and third generations of Super 8 footage. Craig was a big influence, cementing an interest in found footage and deconstruction of image. He lived in this big ramshackle house on Andover Street in the Mission. It would eventually be condemned, with problems like a giant broken hole in the bathroom floor into the apartment below, covered with a sheet of plywood.

 

Blue first Burroughs walk?

saucer-ray-crowd water

gun window

fence

saucer take-off

walk

flare

spider face-end

 

— found poem of my own scribbles: how to edit Burroughs on Bowery.

 

I finished the work print in my graduate film production class, having a terrible contest of wills with instructor-filmmaker Karen Holmes. She gave me a C in the class and a D in the unit lab, basically because I wouldn’t do what she said. I had been used to a great deal more freedom and empathy in my undergraduate years. They were the worst grades of my entire film school career.

I continued working on Burroughs on Bowery, finally finishingand screening it for students and faculty for the San Francisco State Film finals. In those days, they would post how everyone voted. Three-fourths of students and faculty voted against including it. I was devastated but took the print to Naropa University in the summer of 1978 when Allen invited me out.
Burroughs on BoweryBurroughs had this cool queer secretary at Naropa, not James Grauerholz but a new kid named Cabal, dressed in thrift store New Wave – literally the quintessence of “skinny tie band” as the disdainful punks of the era referred to this refined look. I had never seen it before. Extremely short fifties hair, top button of thrift store collar buttoned, black skinny tie, natch, and a small lapel button like a Vote Ike sort of political button, only it was just a solid color with no words of any kind – a no-slogan button. Wow! This guy was one cool motherfucker. Here I was with my Jackson Browne hair and this cat was the next thing, like an alien off a space ship or some warp into the future – the new X-Man, baby! He also wrote prose that closely resembled Burroughs’ cowboy porn, The Place of Dead Roads (as Burroughs would later jokingly refer to the dismal stretch of Highway 5 between Oakland and Los Angeles). Years later I heard he was a little tyrant at the Bunker, bringing friends home to fix while James tried to shoo them away. Our little tyrant apparently told James off – he was Burroughs’ lover now, not James – as recounted by my ex-junkie pal who’d shot up with Cabal.

A teaching assistant, as per Ginsberg’s request, arranged the 16mm projector I needed to show Burroughs on Bowery to Burroughs. Cabal slipped on some white cotton gloves he’d picked up from an editing bench (this was the audio-visual classroom), prompting Burroughs to say, “Interview with the Vampire, my dear.” I struggled a little getting it threaded. Outside Burroughs apparently asked Richard if he smoked. He wanted a cigarette although he’d quit and then Richard came back in to the room with the projector and said, “He’s getting restless.” Fortunately, I then had it and finally showed the movie to Burroughs, who chuckled enthusiastically throughout with his characteristic Renfield/Dwight Frye close-lipped “mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm.” They say that closed lips make for a sinister laugh. They’re right. “Great film, Marc,” said Bill. The truly great thing was that I’d always thought the movie was very funny myself, but this seemed lost on virtually everyone who saw it. I remember asking my older brother if he thought it was funny. “In a psychotic sort of way,” he had replied.

Anyway, better to please Burroughs than the entire S.F. State University Film Department, fuck those motherfuckers.

Burroughs invited me and Richard over to his apartment. He offered me a vodka tonic which I first turned down. He frowned so I took it. Gun magazines littered his place. We hung out, made small talk, and sipped our drinks. Cabal was there too and joined in the drinks and pot smoking. It was actually a pleasure to talk in a low key way with the old man. I was just glad it wasn’t awkward.

Costanzo Allione, Italian documentary filmmaker and future husband of meditation teacher Tsultrim (nee Joan Rousmaniere) Ewing, (They met here for the first time), was shooting what became a great film on ’78 Naropa – Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds. Beat translator Nanda Pivano came along. She was the connection between Allione and Ginsberg, and had set up this meeting in Ginsberg’s apartment. Allione was in Allen’s apartment with his crew catching the conversation of Burroughs, Timothy Leary, and of course Ginsberg himself. Part of the time, I was also running around with a Super 8 camera making what would become my short collage, American Mutant. Gregory came in with his 16mm camera and announced, “I’m gonna shoot everybody’s feet,” and proceeded to do so.  The film crew caught me over Burroughs’ shoulder.

The New Wave hip look came up again when this interesting queer had wrangled his way into Allen’s kitchen to hang with Leary. The guy had a weird sort of glam look, not quite on the money with it – but he was clearly not a hippie even with Prince Valiant hair – maybe it was vague eye make-up or his clothes, but it was some different quality that was glitter queer like the New York Dolls (whom I didn’t even know about yet and were actually straight anyway).

“What do you think of Crowley’s Book of the Law?” he asked Leary. “Not much,” Leary replied. That was interesting, since he had said in his writing that he considered himself to be carrying on where Aleister Crowley left off, and the queer had just mentioned Crowley’s most important work. It was fairly clear Leary felt no need to be consistent about anything. Ginsberg made some reference to me being of the David Bowie generation, and Leary said, “He isn’t Bowie, this guy is Bowie,” pointing to the glam queer. Well, he had that sorta right, and I duly noted it, even if Bowie had moved on to his Thin White Duke persona already – which was more like Burroughs’ Naropa secretary. I wanted to be like Bowie or Burroughs’ secretary, if not this glam queer, but not some old hippie, definitely, not anymore.


As for Leary’s lack of consistency, Allen and I were talking with him and Allen made some reference to his claim that LSD could cure homosexuality. Leary said, “Oh that was Ram Dass, not me.” Apparently colleague Richard Alpert a.k.a. Ram Dass had once wall-papered a room with Playboy centerfolds and attempted to reprogram himself with a massive dose of LSD. Remembering how astounded I was by porn when on mescaline at age sixteen (vaginas like the mandibles of strange alien fauna); I could guess this hadn’t worked out. After Leary left, both Ginsberg and I recalled that Leary had made such pronouncements in the past, particularly in a Playboy interview. Ginsberg wondered if they’d done something to Leary’s brain at Folsom, since Eldridge Cleaver had also come out of there as a “Mooney,” a follower of Sun Myung-Moon, the self-proclaimed Korean Christian Second Coming; Cleaver later identified himself as a Republican. During Leary’s Folsom stay, Tim started talking extensively about outer space travel, and in particular about alien contact, but dropped the alien bit very rapidly – a wise move, to be sure. Dolphin scientist John Lily had completely discredited himself once he began about his alien chats on LSD. Tim’s new slogan was SMI2LE, “Space Migration/Intelligence Squared/Life Extension.” He was also saying “Stamp Out Death.” Burroughs was actually intrigued, since he saw little hope for the planet.

I think it was this same conversation with Leary about the Book of the Law and homosexuality that included one of his typical quips that if Buddha was back today he’d be a molecular scientist or one of the Bee Gees. He also referred to Ralph Nader as an ecological fascist, which really bugged Ginsberg. “Now stop that!” he actually shouted, adding, “What does that mean, anyway?” Leary quickly backed down and said it was his position to be provocateur, not necessarily believing what he said; just stirring things up. A good gig if you can get it.

Burroughs had already shown the proper way to handle a .357 Magnum borrowed from student poet Richard Roth, drawing “the correct way, not the bullshit way they do it in James Bond.”

One morning, I got up and saw them both brushing their teeth in the bathroom mirror, both naked. Leary was tall with a basketball gut. He saw me and gave his characteristic conspiratorial wink. Tell me life isn’t a dream.

I finally started to really physically crash from the Ritalin and profound lack of sleep that everyone seemed to run on while partying at Naropa, with Allen at the head of the list. I was upstairs lying in bed when Allen came up and said, “Burroughs and Leary are downstairs!” “That’s ok, Allen. I’m tired.” “You’re missing all the good parties,” he said.  “What’s the matter, you depressed?” I was depressed, and hated that he could see it. It was one of those depressions where you know that what’s going around you would be the envy of many, but it wasn’t working for you. I really just wanted a girl like in the movies. That’s why they call it samsara, or as my dad’s favorite reference, “the vale of tears.”  Nobody gets what they want. Poet Amelie Frank later saw me brooding on a couch in a scene from Fried Shoes and said, “the little pouter.” Bingo. By the way, my traveling companion Richard Modiano is in the movie throughout, way more than me, and he’s probably one of the least ambitious people I know. More proof of Buddhism’s sensible irony in a brutal world. Cue that Buddhist monk with the tennis racket drum we kept hearing all over the place.

So in my American Mutant film, Leary was a CIA government official (when I asked him to be in the movie he was doubtful until I told him he’d be playing the head of the CIA), Allen some sort of Tibetan Mutant King, and Burroughs had already shown the proper way to handle a .357 Magnum borrowed from student poet Richard Roth, drawing “the correct way, not the bullshit way they do it in James Bond.” When I tried to direct Burroughs a little more closely, he said “I am not an actor.” Apparently he changed his mind, given the number of roles he wound up playing on screen, though arguably they were just about as demanding as what he did for me. Leary was even harder to direct – he kept looking in the camera and grinning idiotically. “That was great, Tim, but ah… could you not look into the camera next time?” Tim announced he always looked into the camera and smiled. It was a rule of his. “Well, if it’s a rule…” I trailed off, obviously disgusted. “Oh fuck it,” he said, and did it my way. I think I may have spared the directors who later used him (as in Wes Craven’s Shocker, of all things – good movie, odd choice for Leary).

I tried to persuade Gregory Corso to take a part as a sci-fi gangster. I had a .45 replica BB gun for Gregory but when I talked to him he was very hungover, saying with disinterest “Guns are bad karma, man.” I shrugged and his toddler son Max escorted me to the door, slamming it behind me while shouting “Get out!”

Leary came back from a meeting with Allen’s Tibetan Lama, ChögyamTrungpa Rinpoche, expecting to be recognized as some sort of colleague, it seemed. Instead he was made to cool his heels in what he described as a dentist’s waiting room, and when he was finally allowed to see Trungpa, all that the Lama said was “stay out of trouble,” seemed good advice to me.

Naked Lunch at Fifty

“‘Disgusting,’ they said . . . ‘Pornographic’ . . . ‘Un-American trash’ . . . ‘Unpublishable’ . . . Well, it came out in 1959, and it found an audience . . . Town meetings . . . Book burnings . . . And an Inquiry by the State Supreme Court . . . That book made quite a little impression . . .” — William Burroughs

In 2006 Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” turned fifty years old. A year later, in 2007, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road hit that same milestone. Now it’s William S. Burroughs’ (the oldest of the trio) turn to see his masterpiece turn fifty.

In July of 1959 Naked Lunch was published in France by Olympia Press. American obscenity laws prohibited the publication of the book in the United States, and so it wasn’t until 1962 that Naked Lunch came to be published by Grove Press. The two editions differed greatly because the Grove Press version was based on a much earlier manuscript, given to them by Allen Ginsberg.

The title of the book is a somewhat contentious issue. According to Burroughs’ introduction, Jack Kerouac was responsible for naming the book, and that “the title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Kerouac appreciated the accreditation, as he stated in a 1960 letter to Ginsberg, but pointed out that the phrase had been misread. Originally it had been “Naked Lust”.

And so from the misread “Naked Lust” we came to “Naked Lunch”, which the publisher of the book and many of fans over the years have all mistaken for The Naked Lunch. Over the years editions have varied in titling the book with or without the article “the”.

But the debate over the title of the novel is hardly the limit of its controversy. Naked Lunch caused an uproar upon publication, and has been infamous ever since. Its obscenity trial in Boston was the last significant obscenity trial in American literature.

Upon its publication in the United States it was banned in both Boston and Los Angeles. The Los Angeles ban was repealed in 1965 and the Boston ban was repealed in 1966, due to the fact that the books were deemed to have some social value.

Ginsberg – who helped Burroughs write Naked Lunch – was instrumental in orchestrating its success over the obscenity charges brought in a Boston courtroom. He was, of course, no stranger to such controversy and censorship. In 1957 the Supreme Court’s Roth v. United States decision saved all copies of “Howl” from being destroyed and freed Lawrence Ferlinghetti from criminal charges of distributing obscene material through his City Lights bookstore.

Ginsberg thus testified as an expert witness on behalf of Grove Press, who succeeded in having the book tried instead of individual retailers – as a means of protecting its constitutional rights. When he appeared in court he even went as far as to wear a shirt, tie and jacket – something that was unheard of for Ginsberg at the time. He normally fit the bill as a stereotypical Beatnik.

Ginsberg spoke about the novel in court for more than an hour, discussing its structure, themes and literary merit. Having helped Burroughs compose it appeared to have given Ginsberg a better understanding of Naked Lunch even than its author. He dissected every element of the book and demonstrated how it acted as an incredibly complex piece of social criticism, and was therefore an important piece of art.

Despite Ginsberg’s testimony – not to mention that of Norman Mailer and the other witnesses – the judge branded Naked Lunch obscene, and few people were surprised.

However, on July 7th, 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favour of the appeal that was launched by the defense, and a huge victory was struck for free speech and for art. Naked Lunch was no longer deemed “obscene”.

It is notoriously difficult to describe or summarize Naked Lunch, which is why it is so surprising that Ginsberg so adequately put forth its case in Boston, and why critics reacted so well to David Cronenberg’s 1991 film version.

Naked Lunch isn’t meant to make any particular sense in a conventional, linear way. The book is intended to be read in any order, in keeping with the cut-up method used to create it from Burroughs’ giant manuscript, and the chaotic volumes of writing from which various parts of his novels were drawn. He believed that by distorting the text he was revealing implicit meanings. As Ginsberg demonstrated in his courtroom defense, Naked Lunch was hardly lacking in meaning.

There are passages in the text that deal with capital punishment, with drugs, sex… The prose flits between locations from New York to Tangiers, and predicts with startling precision a future that the book continues to outgrow. It deals with themes and ideas that are still relevant today – and as such one could claim is more significant a piece of writing that either On the Road or “Howl”. One could spend years pulling Naked Lunch apart and explaining each scene or sentence or moment. In doing so, if Burroughs’ theory has any credence, we are exploring the author’s mind.

Indeed, Naked Lunch was more than social commentary – it was a highly personal book in many respects. Although Kerouac and Ginsberg helped Burroughs compile his book, it was drawn from stories and journals inspired by his own warped life. Naked Lunch unfolded sporadically over nine years and never truly settled on any finalized version. It was – like Burroughs himself – in a constant state of flux and development. Reading the “Editor’s Note” from the Restored Text edition, it is a wonder that the novel ever came to be published.

But published it was, thanks entirely to Ginsberg’s role as literary agent for the Beats. He managed to have excerpts published by Robert Creeley’s Black Mountain Review, LeRoi Jones’ Yugen, and – controversially – the Chicago Review. The book was composed throughout travels on four continents, but finally came to a “final” version only when Maurice Girodas told Burroughs that he had two weeks to make the Olympia Press deadline.

*

For more information on Naked Lunch and its fiftieth anniversary, please see www.nakedlunch.org or read Naked Lunch @ 50: Anniversary Essays, published by Southern Illinois University Press.

Naked Lunch on Film: Filming The Unfilmable

by David S. Wills

The novel does not obviously lend itself to adaptation for the screen: it has dozens of characters, few of whom are developed from their initial appearance; the action is set in cities all over the world; it is composed of many small, fragmentary, kaleidoscopic scenes; and there is no traditional story line. It is a novel with a great deal of talk, and the rule of film is that movies move, with minimal talk.

William S. Burroughs, speaking in 1991

With the publication of Naked Lunch there immediately came the cries of “obscene!” from so many conservatives and critics. Nevertheless, the book won its obscenity trial and was released to the general public in the United States, becoming a notorious classic – one of the most depraved and perverse books in modern history, and more importantly a ferocious assault on society and government.

It seemed unlikely, then, that Naked Lunch would one day become a feature film. Yet, not long after the obscenity trial that declared the book of enough social value to be unleashed upon the public, William S. Burroughs was plotting its way into cinema.

From the late sixties until the mid seventies Burroughs tried to turn his literary masterpiece into a commercially viable film. He enlisted the help of legendary British director and producer, Antony Balch, and fellow cut up master and friend, Brion Gysin.

The three men formed a production company in 1970, called Friendly Films Limited. They reviewed screenplays, treatments and ran through ideas together on how to make Naked Lunch work as a movie.

Of course, there were myriad problems. For one thing, it had been a major headache releasing the book because of laws regarding obscenity. It wouldn’t be easy to put together such a pornographic project without incurring the wrath of the censors, or, once again, the law.

Furthermore, Naked Lunch isn’t comprised of a traditional narrative that would adapt well to the screen. The story jumps around wildly through time and space, with characters rarely developing, if at all. Its fragmentary composition would surely baffle film-goers.

This all made the project increasingly unlikely, especially given the cost of making films. Whereas as book could be written with no more wasted than the time and effort of the author (and perhaps a few hundred sheets of paper) a movie cost at least a few hundred thousand dollars to make. And Naked Lunch would have been no ordinary movie: the constant shift from city to city to city would demand filming on location on several different continents.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many considered Naked Lunch “unfilmable”.

Documents still exist in the archive of Terry Wilson – a friend of Burroughs, Gysin and Balch – that let us see what the three men had in mind for filming the “unfilmable” project. Through letters, screenplays and storyboards it is possible to examine the vision they had in attempting to bring Naked Lunch to the screen.

To get around the disjointed narrative the story was to be reordered around certain key points – “intersection points” – that Burroughs dictated. This would have given the plot a little more coherence. Additionally, characters would develop more than in the novel, in line with what Burroughs’ later works suggested would happen – switching quickly through a variety of possible scenarios. For example, Dr. Benway, who appears in several of Burroughs’ novels, would have developed according to his activities outwith Naked Lunch.

Of course, Naked Lunch was never an entirely fictional book. Certain elements were highly autobiographical, and it was possible to elaborate upon the text by simply looking at reality. Gysin- who was the primary screenplay writer for the project – only had to look back at people and places he and Burroughs had encountered together in Tangiers, to find inspiration for additional material. As Gysin said, “Interzone, of course, was Burroughs’ very personal vision of the Tangier scene in the 1950’s, here reinterpreted by me to include the cast of characters whom we both knew there at that time.”  The result was a strange mix of fiction and reality.

It was also a challenge finding someone to play the role of William Lee, who would most likely have taken a larger role in the movie than in the book (as in fact was the case in Cronenberg’s movie, twenty years later). Burroughs wrote a confusing, frantic note to Gysin on May 6th 1971:

You see Lee in a sense is an idealized image of the writer able to do all sorts of things the writer can’t do well so maybe start would be possible writer I mean actor who could do a predistiginal you dig. You want somebody to shoot find somebody knows how to shoot just like we find somebody who knows how to hang for the hanging scenes. Just a thought. CAN WE MAKE OUR OWN LEE FROM THE C SCRIPT? It seems to me that the first essential for Lee is PHYSICAL PRESENCE BEING THERE. Love, William.

To get around the shifting and switching of time and space, Gysin proposed something called “Transvestite Airlines” – a device used to transport characters from one time/location to another in an instant.

Perhaps the least surprising element intended for use was that of wild and creative cuts to slice through the randomness of the text. One can’t help but observe that readers of Naked Lunch decades after its first publication probably perceive the book differently in part because of the developments of cinema, which have imposed upon our minds a framework of possibility – allowing present day readers to imagine such cuts as we read, applying some of the rules of experimental cinema to the text of an experimental novel.

An example of the above techniques and ideas can be seen in the following excerpt of a synopsis, one of many versions of many possible plots:

Some say that A.J. is the real controller of the world. A.J. kept Dentway alive to use his genius, hidden in his secret fortress in the heart of Africa in Interzone. Lee travels on a very strange airline to Interzone, determined to find Dentway and get his secret. However, on arrival in this strange land he finds that no one has ever heard of A.J. or his fortress . . . no one that is, except for a small boy. The Shoe Shine boy tells Lee he knows the hideout and will take him there. On arrival at the fortress they are met by Salvador O’Leary Chapultapec, A.J.’s right hand man who was expecting them. Inside the fortress, Salvador shows Lee the hospital wing where the captured Dr. Benway, who has gone mad, is perfecting his newest and even more hideous technique for A.J. A secret meeting for heads of state and visitors from space will be held to demonstrate Dentway’s latest horror. The show is so frightening that Lee, helped by the Shoe Shine boy, sets fire to the fortress and escapes. Nick’s hand extinguishes the fire which is in the ashtray on the Everhard bar and hands Lee his junk. Lee leaves the bath at dawn and buys an old typewriter . . .

One of the more interesting things to note from this excerpt is the cut that keeps the story flowing in spite of the massive jump in time and space. They intended to move as smoothly as possible from an image of a fire in a jungle fortress into a gay bar ashtray.

In 1963 Burroughs, Gysin and Balch collaborated on the short film Towers Open Fire. Directed by Balch, the film featured Moroccan music performed by Gysin, and voice-overs by the unmistakable sardonic Burroughs.

Perhaps of most interest to us are the shots of Burroughs and Gysin performing their cut-up technique, by slicing up a piece of writing and then reading the disjointed results. We also see the “Dreammachine,” Gysin’s zoetropic device that is watched through closed eyes…

In 1966 Burroughs and Gysin worked together to create the short film, The Cut Ups. Whilst filmed before they began plotting a movie of Naked Lunch, The Cut Ups nonetheless came from their collaboration in the aftermath of the publication of Naked Lunch and thus may be able to tell us a little about what we could have expected from the doomed project.

In a word, The Cut Ups is weird. It is a highly experimental film, with a soundtrack of the words “Yes” “Hello” “Look at that picture. Does it seem to be persisting?” “Good” and “Thank you!” run together over a series of seemingly disconnected images that feels very much like an odd dream sequence.

The clips that accompany the unusual soundtrack are mostly of Gysin and Burroughs. When Gysin appears we see him wearing a sweater with a calligraphic design of his own creation, walking through the street. In another scene he is working on paintings. We also see his “Dreammachine.” These scenes often begin with a roller painting a grid.

Burroughs is usually seen looking for or hiding something or things. He is going through a large collection of objects.

All of this is cut together extremely fast, with some of the action sped up. An image is barely on screen for more than a second or two, but then we return moments later and see another brief glimpse of whatever seemingly random thing it was that we were being shown.

These films can both be seen on Towers Open Fire and Other Films by Antony Balch. They also collaborated on other projects, which can be viewed freely on www.ubu.com along with a great many other Beat resources.

In 1991 Naked Lunch was finally committed to film by the director David Cronenberg, and with Burroughs’ permission. Cronenberg acknowledged the book’s label of being “unfilmable”, saying that a straight forward adaptation would “cost 100 million dollars and be banned in every country in the world.” Indeed, that’s not hard to imagine.

Instead of filming the events and characters of the book, Cronenberg merged the book with the life of Burroughs, and even with some of his other works. It is metatextual in as much as the film depiction the creation of the book.

Interestingly, Cronenberg decided to blur the lines between reality and hallucination. What transpires the in novel and what actually happened to Burroughs in life are all viewed as a hazy drug-trip. One is never entirely sure what is going on.

Many well known friends and associates of Burroughs are depicted in the movie, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as well as events that formed part of the Beat consciousness, such as the shooting of Joan Vollmer.

In fact, one could view the movie less as an adaptation of the book than as a biopic with elements of Naked Lunch thrown in to represent the perpetual junk haze in which Burroughs spent most of his life.

The movie featured some of the book’s most memorable moments, including the characters William Lee and Dr. Benway, as well as the Mugumps and the talking asshole, and the locations Interzone and Annexia. All of these were used very differently in the movie than in the book.

With the release of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Burroughs distanced himself somewhat from previous attempts to film the “unfilmable.” He said that “the late Brion Gysin and Antony Balch, set out to adapt it for film,” failing to mention his own input. Also, Gysin’s screenplay had been “long on burlesque . . . a series of music-hall comedy songs that he composed.” He appeared content with the result of a twenty year pursuit for a silver-screen version of his literary classic.

It should be noted, however, that Burroughs scholar Timothy S. Murphy made some very interesting points in criticising the movie. He argues that whereas Burroughs’ depiction of drug abuse and homosexuality were politically and socially charged, Cronenberg’s proved merely for show, a heartless portrait of something without any meaning. Moreover, the literary techniques Burroughs used for his devastating social and political critiques become merely the ramblings of a junky in the movie, rather than something to be respected and studied.

Indeed, fans and critics seemed generally sated by Cronenberg’s effort. Whilst many complained about a lack of faith to the original text, many realised that it had indeed been “unfilmable” in its true form. Cronenberg had certainly achieved something spectacular by coming this close.