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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:

William Burroughs – Heavy Metal Guru

by Spencer Kansa.
”Tell him I’ve been reading him and I believe every word he says.”

Bob Dylan to Allen Ginsberg on William Burroughs in 1965.
I remember sitting across from William Burroughs at the dining table in his modest, porch-fronted clapboard house in Kansas, trying to take it all in, thinking this was the coolest thing I had ever done. As we sat sharing a joint – small “bomber” variety – Burroughs clocked the emblem on my baseball cap and asked in his drawling cowboy voice what the symbol meant. “Ah, it means I’m a Public Enemy” I replied. Burroughs smiled knowingly; as ever, he understood.
As perhaps one of the most important literary influences on modern music and pop culture, William Burroughs’ nightmarish dystopian visions and anti-authoritarian world view has infused and informed the work and ideas of a pantheon of rockers: Bowie, Dylan, Jagger, Lou, Iggy, Patti, Zappa, Kurt, Sonic Youth etc.

The cut-up technique he made famous has had a precursory impact on the fragmented sonic canvas of hip-hop, and was the catalyst behind the scrambled images of U2’s ZOO TV. His cosmic yobs, hipster jargon, drug induced visions and novel titles have been inspiration to a slew of bands and films: Soft Machine, Steely Dan, Bladerunner, Dead Fingers Talk, Wild Boys, Interzone, The Mugwumps, Johnny Yen, Nova Mob, Thin White Rope et al. Burroughs’ grey, spectral presence graces the iconic cover of Sgt Pepper’s, and even Duran Duran paid their own rather dubious homage to El Hombre Invisible when they based their promo-video Wild Boys on Burroughs’ futuristic story of a savage band of adolescent guerrillas.
Yet, the “heavy metal” guru – Steppenwolf purloined the phrase for their rock anthem Born To Be Wild from Burroughs’ sci-fi novel The Soft Machine, in turn giving name to a whole sub-genre of rock – viewed such reverence with knowing bemusement. A teenager in the 1920s, Burroughs always preferred Leadbelly to Led Zeppelin. However, in an interview with Jimmy Page, Burroughs did concede that “Rock can be seen as one attempt to break out of this dead and soulless universe and reassert the universe of magick.”
The cut-up technique in particular has carved a through-line in modern music and has resulted in Burroughs holding a subversive sway over pop culture for four decades. The cut-ups were discovered serendipitously by Burroughs’ main gazane, the maverick Canadian painter Brion Gysin, while the two men were residing at the bohemian Beat Hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris in September 1959.

While slicing through some boards with a Stanley knife to mount some of his drawings, Gysin noticed that he had cut through the layers of newspapers underneath and that when he peeled away the top layers he could read across the different pages – which combined stories from across the various columns – providing a new juxtaposition of words and images. Gysin had announced that “writing was fifty years behind painting” and the cut-up technique allowed the writer to borrow the painter’s tool of montage.

Burroughs immediately saw the implications and potential of this discovery and began experimenting, taking a page of his own writing and cutting it into four separate parts, then rearranging the sections to form a new composition out of the text. For Burroughs, who felt restricted by the antiquated beginning, middle and end narrative structure of the Victorian novel, it was a major artistic breakthrough and the perfect vehicle that he had been looking for. Significantly the cut-ups mirrored Burroughs’ own fragmented, mainline existence and as he pointed out, they were also a far more honest representation of how the mind really works. Burroughs explained: “someone walks around a block and paints a canvas of what he has seen. Well he’s seen someone cut in two by a car, reflections in shop windows, passing faces, a jumble of fragments. So the cut-ups are closer to the actual facts of human perception. LIFE IS A CUT-UP.”
Although Mick Jagger had shown interest in starring in a mooted film version of Naked Lunch back in the late 60s and Lou Reed’s smack-soaked sado-sex songs trawled similar subterranean territory – the Velvets even penned an ode to Burroughs, “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” on their Loaded album – the most vocal and visible disciple of Burroughs in rock was David Bowie. Although Bowie admitted to only to having a passing knowledge of Burroughs’ work – he had just read Nova Express – when the two men were brought together for a joint interview by Rolling Stone magazine in 1973, by the time Bowie went to work on his next venture, the future-shocker Diamond Dogs, his own cut-up efforts had been put into action and helped set the fractured tone of that forbidding, Orwellian opus.

During the following Diamond Dogs tour across America, Bowie was filmed by the BBC for the Cracked Actor documentary. With paper and scissors in hand, Bowie was filmed as he cut up and re-arranged a page of ideas: “I don’t know if this is the way that Gysin or Burroughs do their cut-ups, but this is how I do mine,” he explained, adding that the technique was “a western form of Tarot.”

Throughout the rest of the 70s Bowie continued with the cut-up lyrics, particularly on the trio of albums he recorded with Brian Eno: Low, Heroes and Lodger. Bowie also incorporated Eno’s own version of the cut-ups, a deck of playing cards called Oblique Strategies, on which were written a selection of musical instructions that they could randomly pick whenever they were stuck for a new idea, or looking for a new musical direction to take. The card commands helped create a series of “planned accidents” on tracks of those seminal albums.
After a decade’s hiatus Bowie returned to the cut-ups on his 1995 avant-rocker, 1. Outside. This time, however, technology had caught up, and thanks to a computer programming pal, Bowie could now feed a whole stack of information into his Apple Mac and hit a randomiser button, which could cut-up and scramble the contents and spew the results back out to him. Talking on Canadian television that year Bowie paid tribute to Burroughs and the cut-ups saying: “Burroughs particularly touched me. The way he cut-up the world and reassembled it. I felt more comfortable in that environment, that kind of chaos. That fragmentation for me felt a truer picture of reality.”
“He’s up there with the Pope”- Patti Smith on Burroughs.
His legend preceding him, Burroughs returned to New York in the mid-70s, landing smack (ahem) in the middle of the emerging CBGB’s punk scene. More arty and literate then their UK counterparts, Burroughs’ mystique and mythic reputation was idolised by many of the scenes’ leading lights, particularly punk’s own poet laureate Patti Smith, whose performances Burroughs admired and whose classic album, Horses, owed much to Burroughs own homo-erotic prose. Holding court at his famous “bunker on the Bowery,” Burroughs received a steady stream of rock n roll admirers, including Joe Strummer and Richard Hell. Though Burroughs understandably dismissed the “Godfather of Punk” tag that had been foisted upon him, he did send a telegram to The Sex Pistols supporting their anti-monarchist anthem God Save the Queen, declaring: “I’ve always said that England doesn’t stand a chance until you have 20,000 people saying ‘Bugger the Queen!’…This is a necessary criticism of a country which is bankrupt.”

A celebration of all things Burroughsian, entitled The Nova Convention, took place in New York in the winter of 1978 with a glittering galaxy of rock stars and counter-culture figures taking part. Frank Zappa read Burroughs’ Talking Asshole routine, Patti Smith covered for Keith Richards – who cancelled due to his drug bust in Canada – while Brion Gysin, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary all participated in seminars. Music came courtesy of minimalists Phillip Glass and John Cage, while Laurie Anderson co-mastered the ceremonies.
Though Burroughs had disbanded cut-ups by the eighties they were kept in pop consciousness due to the sterling work of industrial music pioneers, Throbbing Gristle, whose magus Genesis P Orridige released a collection of Burroughs’ audio cut-up experiments on the album Nothing Here but the Recordings. Recorded in London, Paris and Tangier throughout the 1960s, the album showcased Burroughs’ spooky, Dalek-like tone and introduced a generation to how the cut-ups sounded. Dubbing street noise from Tangier to London, cut in with garbled short wave radio, Joujouka music, newspaper reports, and excerpts read from his own novels, these sonic collages were Burroughs’ own subversive brand of musique concrete. Even more than the novels, Genesis P Orridge was interested in Burroughs’ concepts, in particular his idea of using these audio cut-ups as a political tool against hierarchies of control. Burroughs postulated that by selecting the appropriate random sounds, bastardized speeches, siren drones, animal noises and gun shots, a team of operators strategically placed with tape recorders could playback such recordings, inciting a riot at a demonstration, or a political rally.
In tandem the evolution of hip-hop from Bronx block parties to rebel rousing on wax was bearing all the hallmarks of a musical extension of the cut-ups. The way in which Burroughs would construct a new piece of writing by synthesizing two pieces of text and information presaged the way in which a DJ would mix between two records, fusing a third new soundtrack amalgamated from both decks, hence the DJ term “cutting.” Burroughs idea of weaving other authors’ work into his own writing anticipated the whole sampling process. So in the same way as Burroughs, through utilising the cut-up technique, broke down the old structures of the novel, creating a new literary landscape, rap, through musical cut-ups and manipulations of sound dismantled the old song structures, creating a revolutionary new sonic canvas in the process. Burroughs appreciated this new aural architecture and when pressed on the subject admitted to me that “rap music has great potential.”
Throughout the last two decades of his life, Burroughs himself made many interesting forays onto vinyl. In the late eighties he topped the bill on the Smack My Crack and Like a Girl I Want to Keep You Coming Poetry Systems albums, put out by his Bunker buddy and fellow spoken word troubadour, John Giorno. Reading his Words Of Advice For Young People and Just Say No To Drug Hysteria routines respectively, Burroughs  appeared alongside a who’s who of eighties cult figures, like Nick Cave, Diamanda Galas and Lydia Lunch, as well as more established names like Debbie Harry, David Byrne and Tom Waits.

In 1990, Burroughs entered into a full fledged collaboration with Tom Waits when the grizzled singer scored the musical The Black Rider, based on Burroughs’ book of the same name. This Faustian fable was given its theatrical premiere in Hamburg to critical acclaim, and on the subsequent album Burroughs sung the old jaunty jazz number Taint no Sin.

That same year, Island Records released a new Burroughs collection, Dead City Radio. With atmospheric accompaniment from the likes of John Cale, Donald Fagen and Sonic Youth,  old time movie strings courtesy of producer Hal Wilner – who had previously provided background music for Burroughs when he made a memorable appearance on Saturday Night Live, reading his Titanic farce, Twilight’s Last Gleamings – the album’s highlights included Satanic Bill’s downright perverse rendering of The Lord’s Prayer, his anti-American tirade, A Thanksgiving Prayer, and best of all, his croaky, vodka sodden rendition of Marlene Dietrich’s swan song, Falling In Love Again.

In 1992, the concept album The Western Lands was released by renowned producer and Burroughs fan, Bill Laswell. Based around Burroughs’ novelistic investigations into the seven souls concept of the Ancient Egyptians, Laswell crafted an equally exotic and ambient soundgarden. That same year Burroughs collaborated with industrial noise meisters Ministry for the 12” Just One Fix. Over slabs of industrial beats Burroughs intoned an appropriate smack-it-up sermon, and also provided the abstract cover artwork Curse on Drug Hysterics.

The following year another more high profile collaboration rose to prominence fuelled by the untimely death of Kurt Cobain. The Priest They Called Him was an alternate version of Burroughs’ The Junkies Christmas, and pitted his yuletide yarn against swathes of Cobain feedback in a cute cash-in. Although recorded separately, a meeting was held between the two men at Burroughs’ home a year later. Picking up on the troubled vibe of his houseguest, Burroughs later confided to his assistant: “there’s something wrong with that boy, he frowns for no good reason.”

Far more substantial was the collaboration released that same year between Burroughs and Michael Franti’s Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy rap group: Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales. Delivering his infamous Dr Benway and Talking Asshole routines against a funky backbeat, the album contained many precious moments, including MC Zulu’s amusing boxing style announcement introducing Burroughs in his thickest Jamaican patois: “Check dis out. From Lawrence, Kansas, reading from Naked Lunch and weighing slightly over 100 pounds, Uncle Bill.”

A few months later self proclaimed “Beatnik rapper” Justin Warfield paid his own Hip Hop tribute to the original drugstore cowboy, bigging up Burroughs for his “spiritual, musical and earthly inspiration” on his (B-Boys on acid soaked) debut LP, My Field Trip To Planet 9. This filmic album and his subsequent collaboration, Bug Powder Dust with Bomb the Bass supremo Tim Simenon, were littered with Burroughsian and Beat references, and speaking to me Warfield drew many parallels between the Be-Bop inspired Beat era to today’s generation of mic-slingers.

Justin Warfield told me,

The Beat writers got a lot of the rhythms of their speech from saxophone players, and a lot of white writers at the time, like Kerouac, adopted black culture, jazz and drug culture, into their work, but beyond that, Ginsberg said it was more to do with people who were just enamoured with each other. Ginsberg has a great rhythm to him because his poetry has a pulse to it, a bigger backbeat. He really flies off the handle, and it’s pretty wild, but Burroughs has a special rhythm all his own, his literary style is a big influence on me as a hip hop lyricist. I don’t think most people in the rap world are hip to the cut-ups, but if they checked out Burroughs and Gysin they’d certainly see the connections between the two.

Burroughs’ post-apocalyptic dreamscapes also infiltrated the visual Arts and inspired celebrated New York graffiti artists like Keith Harring and Jean Michel Basquiat. Appreciating art-as-crime/crime-as-art, legend has it that Burroughs himself was once caught by a transit cop, aerosol can in hand, spray painting AH POOK IS HERE – the Mayan God of the dead – upon the walls of a New York subway station.

In the wake of Burroughs’ death in 1997, Mercury Records released the 4 CD Box Set: The Best of William Burroughs. Unravelling in almost chronological order this sprawling spoken word box set spanned forty years of Burroughs’ repertoire, and served as a perfect platform for his lacerating diatribes against the phoney war on drugs: “Our pioneer ancestors would piss in their graves at the thought of urine tests to decide whether a man is competent to do his job.” Such assaults marked him out as a masterly satirist, back when that word meant something and the word fuck could not appear on a printed page. His deadpan wise-cracks ranked him up there with Will Rogers, Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks as one of the all time great black humorists: “Doctor asks what the American flag means to me. I tell him soak it in heroin Doc and I’ll suck it.” A genuine cut-up in every sense.

With rock-n-roll credibility enshrined, it was perhaps only fitting that Burroughs last public appearance would be a cameo role in U2’s promo video for their Last Night on Earth single. The sinister image of Burroughs wheeling a giant klieg lamp around in a shopping cart proved to be a perfectly symbolic one for a man whose life and work shone arcs of light with its darkness.

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.