Karen Kramer lives a stone’s throw from the intersection of Bleecker and MacDougal streets in Greenwich Village and has always been drawn to the Beat history that came out of that small crossroads. Her new documentary, Renegade Dreamers, celebrates the Beat and folk history that was born in the coffee houses of that legendary neighborhood and how it influenced a nation. Continue Reading…
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A professional filmmaker warned me against the Coen Brothers. (Why? I can’t remember.) A professional musician and nice guy warned against this movie. “Joyless,” he said. “Dark.” Our friends, a beautiful couple, charitable and she a pianist with three classically-trained musical daughters (one a violinist in a bluegrass band) didn’t finish watching it–they didn’t like it at all. I liked it. I liked it a great deal, and it’s the first movie I’ve seen in a while that didn’t insult my intelligence. Continue Reading…
This article originally appeared in Beatdom #14 – the MOVIE issue.
Kubilay Uner is the composer for the 2013 movie, Big Sur, based on the Jack Kerouac novel of the same name. He has worked with Michael and Mark Polish – the brothers behind the movie – on various projects, as well as performing live scores in concert halls. I spoke to him about setting Kerouac to music for the big screen. Continue Reading…
It wasn’t the heat that was getting to me. It wasn’t the seasickness, the overcrowded boat, getting jabbed in the ribs by the butts and muzzles of guns, or even the fact my right knee felt primed to explode.
We had been on the boat for seven hours, just drifting around the Gulf of Thailand, the temperature well above a hundred degrees, and us soldiers wearing itchy woolen shirts and trousers, oversized water-filled boots, and backpacks and guns. The only thing we didn’t have were helmets, which might have helped keep the sun off our heads. Continue Reading…
Film director Aaron Brookner discusses the restoration of classic documentary Burroughs: The Movie, made by his late uncle, Howard Brookner. The project coincides with the William S. Burroughs Centennial in 2014. Interview by Tom Cottey.
Originally published in Beatdom #14 – the MOVIE issue. Buy it here:
What is your personal connection to Burroughs: The Movie?
I grew up seeing the Burroughs: The Movie poster on the wall of my grandmother’s house. All I knew was Burroughs’ face from the beginning, before I knew who he was. Then before I had read anything by Burroughs I had seen Howard’s movie. I probably watched that film hundreds of times on VHS, from like ages ten to twenty, and then started reading Burroughs beginning with Howard’s copy of Junkie. It wasn’t until years later, seeing clips on YouTube, that I wondered where the actual film was. That led to this long search to find out where it was.
What was the restoration process like?
I started looking for a negative at first and it seemed like it was just gone, disappeared. Then it came to “can I get a print of the film?” It seemed like the only print was in Australia. They brought it out and it had all these tears in it and was really beat up. It had been Howard’s festival print. Then I found one in Berlin, but that had German subtitles burned into it and was also pretty tattered. Then finally, kind of in the back yard, it turned out that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York had a print donated shortly after Howard died by Brad Gooch, who was Howard’s long-time partner. It had been there more than twenty years, which goes to show the state of shock that Brad was in, as he didn’t have any recollection of it.
With MoMA began an interesting debate, an ongoing one with archives, which is: when you’re an archive your job is to preserve the film and it’s risky to let it out. MoMA being an archive, and I don’t fault them for this, didn’t want to let the print out of their vault. So then I was presenting the other side to the story, which is if no one knows about the film what good is having it preserved? It’s a bit of a “if a tree falls, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound,” scenario. Eventually we came to an agreement to get the print out one time and do a good remastering of it, and make a digital master of the film.
That’s when we turned to the Kickstarter campaign which was super encouraging to find out how many people all over the world (including the U.S., Europe, Russia, Far East, Japan, South America, Argentina, Brazil, you name it), were interested in Burroughs: The Movie.
What feeling did you get about Burroughs having watched the film before reading the books?
In my grandmother’s house we have pictures of our dogs, my great grandmother, pictures of us swimming on the lake, cousins, uncles, aunts – normal stuff up on the walls – and a giant poster of William Burroughs. That was the context in which Burroughs was for me andwhen you watch the film I think he feels like family; you’re just sitting there with him. Later on I heard Stew Meyer describe him in a way that clicked for me. He said: “Burroughs was the grandfather who wouldn’t judge you,” and I think that’s great. That’s exactly how I felt about having this creepy, weird, yet also familiar and comfortable character in my family up on the wall forever… it was really comfortable andcool. And yes, he wasn’t going to judge you for the weird stuff you couldn’t tell your other family that you were into.
What was Howard’s relationship with Burroughs like?
I know that Howard found him really funny and I think that definitely comes across in the film. A lot of people approach Burroughs as this serious, epically dark, epically intelligent Beat icon, you know in these big terms. And of course he is all those things, butHoward also approached him like “Uncle Bill who was really funny.” And what comes across is the sense of humour from the very first shot of him fading in from nothing into his chair, “Little did I know what it was like to be a writer.” And the way that he shot the whole film is like a very classic, public television portrait of a classic American writer, only it’s William Burroughs. It is totally perfect because of course he is in a three-piece suit; he’s American aristocracy – even though he’s really not! But the suit that he wears is the form that Howard takes to approaching the style of his film, and the substance that comes out is wild and brilliant, and fun-loving Uncle Bill. To have a structure that fit the character so well, he clearly knew his subject.
Howard was an excellent person at relating to other people. He would look you very intensely in the eyes and make you feel like you were the only person in the room. He could get that connection with people and I think he probably got that with Burroughs. In this case, it was that kind of framing; it was that kind of style because that was the Burroughs world. If he went at it and tried to make some crazy, cut-up thing it would be a different film. That would be like an interpretation of Burroughs’ creative work. This was not that. This was, “I am going to take you into Burroughs’ world as it actually is.”
How did Howard fit into that particular world?
At the time, you had the “Beat” guys living in the same place as people in their twenties. A lot of people from outside, the Midwest and other places in the country, they would come to New York because it was cheap and you could be an artist there. You could live openly gay if you wanted, you could do drugs; they found their comfort there. So Howard was one of those characters. The family lived in the suburbs, and he was gay, and had gotten an Ivy League degree in political science. He was going to be a lawyer and then all of a sudden went to film school.
Howard could have a punk aesthetic, and went to punk clubs to hear music, and had friends in bands, and was into heroin, but Howard was also very literary. He was an excellent writer and had excellent grammar. And, he knew the same spectrum maybe, obviously in a smaller way because he wasn’t a sixty-eight year old writer like Burroughs, but he was very smart, very well educated, all those elements. I think he could see the spectrum of Burroughs from the literary background to the drugs on the Bowery. Clearly Burroughs trusted him an awful lot to be the person to tell his story.
The thing that’s taken for granted, now that Burroughs is a more well-known, established figure, is that at the time he had basically been in exile from the U.S. until shortly before this movie was made. He was known as a junky and the guy who killed his wife, and maybe because he was gay – there were lots of misconceptions about him.
How does Howard deal with Burroughs’ killing of his wife Joan Vollmer?
It’s the only time I’ve ever heard a very simple straightforward account of that story by Burroughs. When I hear Burroughs convey that story through that movie I don’t see any big myth about it, I see a story as it actually happened and I do see that it really affected him. And then I think it’s great that Howard also juxtaposes it with [Allen] Ginsberg’s point of view, because Burroughs was the person who lived it. It’s a more visceral story that Burroughs is telling, but Ginsberg offers more analysis from the other side. Burroughs is elegant enough not to really talk about Joan’s role in the incident, he keeps it to himself, but Ginsberg analyses what was going on with Joan and expresses his theory that Joan was very miserable and egged him on to get her out of this world.
Who was involved in making the film?
Well it started as a twenty minute film for Howard’s master’s thesis at film school. Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo were two of Howard’s best friends from New York University (NYU). They each worked on each other’s student films, and guys like Jimmy Lebovitz. A lot of the people for example who worked on Permanent Vacationalso worked on Burroughs. That was the thing; it was just a student film in the beginning. Spike Lee and Sara Driver (who were two years younger and working in the equipment room), were checking out cameras and sound kits to Howard, Jim, and Tom to go film with William Burroughs. Then Howard realised he was really on to something there and kept going and did it “professionally” after school – which involved the hard truth reality of having to raise money. It took him five years to finish.
And what do you think Jarmusch and DiCillo got out of making the film in terms of experience?
I think what is interesting about that whole group of filmmakers that whole time is that they incorporated a very documentary aesthetic. Now of course, Jarmusch films don’t look like a documentary, but the attention to natural detail, the pleasure of what’s actually going on in the street for example, he captures beautifully in Stranger than Paradise or Down By Law, or Mystery Train or Night on Earth, all his films really – it’s these beautiful details, often moments of gritty city life – and it’s the same aesthetic as Howard’s using, as an almost fiction backdrop in Burroughs: The Movie.
You’ve got this amazing set of the Bowery with all these crazy characters, with Burroughs in a three-piece suit, with a sword in his cane walking down the street. You could say that’s as awesome as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins playing the manager of a motel in Memphis in Mystery Train. And the same thing with Tom, certainly in his early movies Johnny Suedeand Living In Oblivion, it’s these crazy characters in this crazy place of downtown New York that you can’t make up, so they’re all drawing on this same real environment that they’re around; same thing with Spike Lee by the way. He took it to such a degree that he said “I’m going to tell you about the characters, I’m going to tell you about New York, I’m also going to tell you about the weather.” Y’know – Do The Right Thing is great because it’s about the heat; it’s about how fucking hot it gets in New York.
What perspective do you think the audience will have now on the film, thirty years after it was made?
Probably how incredibly ahead of its time the subject matter was, or how incredibly relevant the subject matter is today. I mean Burroughs is talking about a lot of things like creating a gay state to “protect ourselves.” He was dealing with the Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6 in 1978, when they were trying to outlaw all homosexuals from becoming teachers basically; same thing as is going on in Russia with not wanting to spread homosexual propaganda, whatever that means. So how incredibly timely it is.
I also think that the way that the film was made is very refreshing to watch. There are a lot of documentaries made now where we’re kind of used to a certain form. I mean there are all kinds of different documentaries made, but we’re used to the sort of Oscar contender documentaries which are: talking head, archive, talking head, archive, kinda thing – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, like a pop song. By comparison, Burroughs: The Movie is so raw and pure, the story is just unfolding, it’s happening right before your eyes, and you’re also aware of how very complex it is. He’s incredibly complex subject matter to tackle.
And it’s funny to think that here was a film, made for four years, by filmmakers who started out as students in very raw, gritty circumstances that BBC Arena then broadcast twice, and it had a theatrical run. And another interesting thing is that it was self-distributed by Howard and Burroughs. They took the film around to all these art house cinemas in Europe and in the U.S. Burroughs would give a reading and then they’d play the film. They’d both be around to talk and sign things afterwards.
When and where can audiences expect to see Burroughs: The Movie?
2014 is the Burroughs centennial and I’m hoping to have the film available before that year is over. Hopefully we will make a very special edition DVD and Blu-ray, maybe even a remastered release with some super exciting new material. But I also hope we can take the film back to where it came from starting with a theatrical release and showing it at a festival like the New York Film Festival. Many Burroughs events will happen next year for the Burroughs centennial and we hope we can show the film at many of them after the re-launch.
What can you tell us about Howard Brookner’s other works? Will we see those too and where and when can we find out more about him?
I think I became a filmmaker because of Howard. Looking up these old films of Howard and Burroughs: The Movie triggered this realisation that he had other works and other films out there that are also really fascinating, like a feature documentary on Robert Wilson… Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars. I also found the original 16mm material surrounding that, along with a lot of items that tell his whole story. I have been wanting to tell Howard’s story for a long time and this was the perfect material to include in my film on him: Smash The Control Machine: Howard Brookner and the Western Lands. Jim Jarmusch is executive producing it. I hope it will be finished by 2015. It will put Howard’s life in context and Burroughs: The Movie in a greater context of his work as a filmmaker, as an artist. I think it will be a film that will look at his life and his times from today’s perspective, while also recovering a lot of his long lost art.
Passionate Kerouac starts off, “I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD…”and then explains Dean as, “no dopey hot-rodder but a real intelligent (in fact, Jesuit) Irishman.” Come on, Mar, how can you resist? And Jack’s funny: “I’ll show you how Dean acts in real life.” Jack is going to show America’s best ever actor how to act, and he extends an invitation to visit Neal and the wife and kiddies. Far out, Jack, I wanna be there, too. And a bit of a PR man plugging The Subterraneans, his latest novel, which he notes can easily be turned into a play. And ambitious: “What I wanta do is re-do the theatre and the cinema in America.” Write on, Jack, give it “spontaneous dash.” He mentions Frank Sinatra and French cinema and all Jack’s ideas are dazzling, terrific, glorious ideas.
Jack—I love him forever for this—challenges the great Brando, the ex-boxer, “I coulda been a contender” Malloy. “Come on, Marlon, put up your dukes and write!” And what does Marlon do? Nothing. He never answers Jack’s letter.
Oh, MARLON, you coulda done it, you broke our hearts. Jack, we’re still feeling your pain.
Only one other person could have played Dean, and that would have been the wild, unorthodox, intelligent, rebellious, athletic, “frantic cat,” and Adonis of Denver, Neal Cassady. Art imitating life and life imitating art, and Neal just being Dean being Neal, an American original, as American as hot apple pie left on the windowsill to cool and snatched by a wayward cowboy.
One tiny be-it-too-late suggestion, Jack – you shoulda followed your letter with another letter from that public relations wiz, Master Ginsberg. Or better yet, sent Ambassador Ginsberg on a mission. How could Brando refuse?
On the set of the movie Heart Beat, the story of Carolyn Cassady’s relationship with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs dwelled on the thought of Jack’s obsession with writing: “Who had killed Neal Cassady?” Dean Moriarty killed Neal Cassady. “He had died of exposure. And who had killed Jack Kerouac? A spy in his body known as Jack Kerouac the writer.” Life and art.
*Image by Isaac Bonan
By Michelle Rudolf
From Beatdom #14
The 2010 movie, Howl, an adaptation of Allen Ginsberg’s classic Beat poem, by Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein was largely successful because it involved approaches to adapting an artistic work that are uncommon in filmmaking. The directors had studied Ginsberg’s life, the process of writing the poem, and what happened in the aftermath of its publication, and ultimately succeeded in creating a unique and satisfying adaptation based upon a hybridization of the above elements, rather than a straight cinematic telling of the poem’s story or message. Additionally, heavy research resulted in an accuracy that made this Beat movie a more faithful representation than others. As a result, their interpretation has been better received than adaptations of the work of Ginsberg’s peers, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
It began about nine years ago, when Ginsberg’s estate called the two filmmakers to ask them if they could do a documentary about the poem, because the fiftieth anniversary of its publication was approaching. The estate deliberately chose the pair because of their reputation as in-depth documentary producers who had received many awards for their sensitive and intelligent approaches to the subject matter of their movies. Moreover, in this case their own homosexuality allowed them to understand the social pressures Ginsberg had to suffer. Friedman and Epstein are famous for their lifetime’s work, which includes films about homosexual characters, including Epstein’s groundbreaking documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.
Howl is centered on the poem both representationally and factually. In different sequences the viewer is presented with both historical context and biographical details about Ginsberg’s life at the time of the poem’s composition. Throughout, James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg in a role that features the poet as an adventurer of the counterculture and chronicler of the Beat Generation. Franco had always been a huge fan of Ginsberg, and even though he knew certain things about the counterculture and Ginsberg, he renewed his interest and embarked upon a period of private research in order to find out about Ginsberg’s gestures, his mannerism, and his rhythm of speech at the time of the publication of Howl. Though some argue that Franco does not look like Ginsberg, in the movie he talks and moves and delivers the content just like Ginsberg did.
Right at the start of the project their plan was to do only a documentary on Ginsberg, but after they recorded several interviews with the poet’s friends and lovers, they realized that everyone talked about Ginsberg as he was in his 40s and 50s. It seemed to them as if no one remembered who he really was at the time he wrote Howl. That is why they changed their plan and deliberately fused the documentary style of filmmaking together with a reenactment of the past events in Ginsberg’s life, including animated sequences. The result was a film that was practically its own new genre.
The film consists of five different sections. One section is the trial of the poem’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was indicted for distributing and publishing obscene work. The trial sequences of the film are based on the actual transcript of the trial, and so, although the scene is played out with actors, it retains its historical accuracy. For this section, they took the actual words spoken in court and, although it was edited and rearranged somewhat, the trial is faithfully depicted. Another section of the film produces a nostalgic image showing Ginsberg writing the poem on his old black typewriter, writing with his confessional, leave-nothing-out style, recounting his road trips and love affairs in search of liberation. The third section of the film is animated by Eric Drooker and Russell Barnes. Drooker’s work was collected by Ginsberg for over a decade, and so the producers thought Ginsberg would approve of Drooker’s animation style.
This animated section, which was both daring and effective in capturing the spirit of Ginsberg’s generation-defining cry, was included as there was a lack of footage of Ginsberg during that period. To a great degree, the animation lives in the film as a kind of modernized retelling of the poem, as it is the interpretation of the poem through imagery. The animation department did not want to literally illustrate what Ginsberg was talking about in the poem, even though it is obvious at times. According to John Hays, the head of animation, they tried to replicate the feeling of the fifties and what musicians, painters, sculptures, and writers were trying to do at that time.
In the fourth section of the film, Ginsberg is shown at his first public reading of the poem. Of course, this is the famous Six Gallery Reading, which turned Ginsberg into a celebrity overnight. His reading of Howl caused a sensation and earned its place in literary history. A modern audience had never before reacted so passionately. The filmmakers created this sequence as truthfully as they could by using the information they gathered from interviews they conducted with eyewitnesses, and also from the works of people like Jack Kerouac, who were in attendance and had previously described the evening. For this section, accurate research was imperative. James Franco wears the same kind of clothes in it as Ginsberg did and the people in the audience drink out of the same kind of bottle as the audience had done.
The final section of the film is a kind of flashback, an interview about Howl and the monologue Ginsberg gave to answer the question, “What makes good poetry?” In fact, this interview, which they used as the basis of the frame, is a fabled Time magazine interview. Time magazine had once flown Ginsberg from Tangiers to Rome, where a reporter recorded the interview in a hotel room. The interview was never published and so it proved the perfect device to drive the film. Friedman and Epstein let Ginsberg speak for himself to the audience out of the past, as they put together their favorite excerpts from this and other interviews from that period of time into a long defense of him, his generation, and his work.
Throughout the movie, the filmmakers, as documentarians, were concerned with accurately telling Ginsberg’s story, and so despite their unique blend of devices as described above for each section of the movie, Epstein and Friedman made sure that they didn’t just tell the story of Howl, but that they passed along its feeling and message, and took the audience back to the 1950s. The production designer, Thérèse DePrez, decorated Ginsberg’s room in the film with pictures of his close friends, and with furniture pieces of the thirties and forties that he owned. She even used the same desk lamp he owned, and wallpaper that matched with the photographs she found of his old apartment. In the courtroom sequence DePrez used the same light bulbs used back then.
Howl had its world premiere at the opening night of the Sundance film festival after the producers had gone through the struggle of making a film that would create something worthy of Ginsberg’s almost magical work. As with the recent release of On the Road, fans largely waited for a disastrous end product. They were, however, shocked to encounter a genuinely entertaining and informative movie. Through the right combination of filmmakers, and a delicate and unique balance of approaches, the movie version of Howl has become its own masterpiece – capturing the spirit and factual tidbits surrounding the poem that inspired it, yet at the same time decidedly different.
Date accessed: 10.10.2011
Epstein, Rob and Friedman, Jeffrey. Howl film. Making of Featurette. Soda Pictures Ltd. Artwork 2011
Fish, Stanley. ‘‘Literary Criticism Comes to the Movies’’. The New York Times (October 4, 2010)
Ginsberg, Allen. ‘’This is the Abomination’’. Columbia Review vol. 26 (May 1946), p. 162.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl And Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1956.
http://howlthemovie.com/poem/. Date accessed: 10.10.2011
Kramer, Jane. Allen Ginsberg in America. New York, Random House, 1970.
Sandhu, Sukhdev. ‘‘Howl, review’’. The Daily Telegraph (February 24, 2011).
Simpson, Louis. Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. London, Macmillan, 1978.
Ritch, Ruby. ‘‘Ginsberg’s Howl resounds on film’’. The Guardian (January 19, 2010).
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.”
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?
— 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 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.
By Adrien Clerc
The story of the making of Taking Tiger Mountain is one of the strangest a movie-goer could possibly hear. It all started in the mid-seventies, when two friends, Kent Smith (director) and Bill Paxton (not-famous-yet actor) decided to make a film together, loosely based on the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty. They shot enough silent, black and white images in Tangier and Wales to make a full-length film, but hit a dead-end when it came to editing, and sold the footage to a friend, Tom Huckabee, who was still an aspiring filmmaker. Huckabee decided to leave the kidnapping story behind, and to think over the whole meaning of the images to make a conspiracy sci-fi movie. Huckabee’s Taking Tiger Mountain would be set in the apocalyptic world of Burroughs’ Blade Runner: a movie, and follow Billy, a young time-bomb assassin. Yes, it sounds crazy, and yes, it is.
In the following interview director Tom Huckabee goes back on the process that led to the making of the first feature with a Burroughs’ writing credit, and talks about feminism, LSD, Burroughs, and the future of sci-fi movies.
Hi Tom. Maybe we can start with the most simple intersection point… What interested you in Burroughs’ work?
The value of Burroughs to me was that he was on the fringe between acceptable and non-acceptable, that he was an explorer of dangerous worlds. There was a vicarious, transgressive thrill to his work in subject and form… the ideas were fun to think about because they expanded your mind, made the world larger, but just like acid, which was fun for eight hours, you didn’t want to stay there. My actual philosophy comfort zone is more with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Tim Leary, William Faulkner, Hermann Hesse. I was never into opiates or boys, or noir, for that matter.
The idea you had – not to make an adaptation, but a movie set in the world of a Burroughs’ novel – is very interesting. Did it come to your mind before you saw Smith’s footage, or afterwards?
I saw Smith’s footage first in 1975. I may have heard of Burroughs back then but hadn’t read anything. In ‘76 I enrolled at UT Austin and probably started reading Burroughs then. I got the footage in ‘79 and looked at everything and logged it. There was 10 hours of silent non-sync 35mm techniscope, and its corresponding anamorphic work print. I started building scenes using the script they had which was loosely based on the J. Paul Getty kidnapping. There was no sci-fi element, no assassination, no prostitution, no feminism, or brainwashing. It was a dream film about a young American waking up on a train – with amnesia, maybe – who wanders into a Welsh town, meets a lot of people, has adventures, bad dreams, and then gets killed on the beach, or does he?
Once I had assembled all their footage into what seemed like a narrative flow, I started thinking about what the story could be. I didn’t like their story much, it was too languid for me, disconnected, but mostly they had only shot half of it and I knew I couldn’t go back to Wales. I’d been reading Burroughs and a lot of other avant-garde, transgressive, and erotic literature. Story of the Eye was a big influence. I started reading The Job. I got the idea that he was an assassin… and maybe the idea to set it in the future.
Other people were putting in their two cents and this mysterious guy named Ray Layton, who behaved like a cult leader, but only had one follower, and I think he paid her, was hanging around doing avant-garde theatre. He had the idea to make it about feminist terrorists brainwashing Billy…. and the prostitution camps. I don’t know who came up with the idea that he was a draft dodger.
I discovered Blade Runner and realized it was exactly the right kind of world, happening in America, while our events were unfolding in Wales. I lucked into finding a backer who promised $30,000, and that’s when it got real. I remembered seeing another short film that Kent and Bill had made; a thinly veiled homoerotic portrait of Bill, called D’Artagnan. I thought it could be used to represent Billy’s brainwashing. By then I’d acquired the MKUltra transcripts and was heavily into The Job.
It took at least a year to write the script to conform to the footage, which by the way was 60 minutes. I knew I needed 75 min. minimum for it to be a feature. So I built five minutes of dream sequences out of outtakes, including one where I threw the film in the air and put it together as it came down – cheating a lot.
I should mention that I was fairly regularly during this time, maybe once every one or two months, on acid, mushrooms, and baby woodrose seeds… this, added with all the experimental film I was seeing, and avant-garde and erotic and left wing and feminist political literature I was reading, kept my mind open to outré thematic and formal tropes… so, say, if a scene wasn’t working I could always run it upside down and backwards… Also by then I was thoroughly versed in MKUltra brainwashing, psychic warfare, so in that respect I think I was getting a lot of that independently from Burroughs, maybe from the same source he was getting it.
Then I wrote the opening scene and shot it… and started dubbing in dialogue. I forgot to mention Woody Allen’s Tiger Lilly as an influence. First I hired a lip reader to tell me what the characters were saying and many of them were speaking Welsh.
And you found a way to get in touch with Burroughs?
In 1980, the bass player of my band, The Huns, had an out of town visitor, Adam Somebody, who said he knew Burroughs. By then I knew I wanted the material from Blade Runner and what I would do with it. Adam said he would ask him about it and that part of it went down super easy after James Grauerholz got involved.
How did you become aware of the making of Ridley Scott’s, Blade Runner?
I was the one who alerted Burroughs that Blade Runner was the official title of Scott’s film… I was killing time in a book store where Burroughs was signing books, looking at movie magazines, when I came across a big spread on Blade Runner in Cinemafantastique.
We had just an hour before we finished watching Taking Tiger Mountain on a Steenbeck flatbed [editor], fast-forwarding through most of it but slowing down for the sex scenes, signed contracts… I think I handed them a check for $100.00 and we walked across the street together to the signing…
They had made no mention that the same book I was adapting, Blade Runner, might be used in some way, if just the title, for the basis of a mega budget sci-fi by the genius who had brought us the most popular film among punk rockers like myself: Alien. My jaw dropped… I walked it over to James [Grauerholz] and his jaw dropped. It heralded to them that there might be hope for them in Hollywood, after all. James didn’t appear at all worried at being ripped off. There had been talk about them using the name, and a price already discussed: $5000.00, which at the time seemed like a good deal to them.
That’s an amazing story! I’m a big fan of Alien too – in fact it was one of the first movies that got me interested in cinema. It’s one of these films that make the screen it is using bigger, larger; it creates a new dimension of space. I saw Blade Runnera few years ago when it was reissued for the big screen, and some of it is amazing, but I was a bit disappointed – and still am – by the fact that the narrative is very, very conventional. What do you think of Blade Runner?
I totally agree about Blade Runner. Too bad it doesn’t have just 10 percent of Burroughs, and I don’t think Harrison Ford is that good in it. Sean Young and Daryl Hannah are fabulous – and Rutger Hauer, the evil ruler, and the toy maker… in fact all the supporting characters are great, but Ford is just Han Solo. It would have been fun to see Christopher Walken in that role.
I had dinner with Ridley Scott and Bill Paxton one night to pitch a story idea of mine… I can’t remember if we even mentioned Taking Tiger Mountain-Blade Runner, probably not, for fear it could have derailed the pitch, which he didn’t buy, although his girlfriend thought he should. I’ve recently submitted my most recent script, a four hour mini-series about Timothy Leary to his production company, we’ll see!
Fingers’ crossed! Do you know if Burroughs and Grauerholz knew Scott’s movie wouldn’t revolve at all around the topics of his book?
I think they knew the script was based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? I think James had even read the script. I never saw the director’s cut, is it better? That sounds better to me… as the problem, like you say, was the conventional nature of the plot, which probably wasn’t helped by the pedestrian narration.
Yes the director’s cut is way better than the original one. I wondered about something, watching Taking Tiger Mountain. Were you aware, at the time, of Burroughs’ work with Antony Balch, movies like Towers Open Fire or The Cut-Ups?
I haven’t heard of either of those films.
Ok. Were you influenced by any other movies or filmmakers then, or were you just trying to create your own path?
Influences were all over the place since I was working with acquired footage and making it tell a story that it was not designed to tell. Things that spring to mind are Alphaville by Godard, everything by Kenneth Anger, every post-apocalyptic film that had come out by then, El Topo, The Prisoner TV series…. Maya Deren. Stan Brakhage. Buster Keaton. Stanley Kubrick movies. DušanMakavejev, Twilight Zone…. the young David Lynch. Truffaut, Passolini, Antonioni, Roger Corman, In the Realm of the Senses…. Robert Altman… John Boorman, especially Zardoz… Bruce Conner! Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow! Persona!
And outside cinema? Your movie seems to be heavily influenced by music.
Oh, yes, my tastes were punk rock… Throbbing Gristle, Devo, Talking Heads, but also the poetry of Jim Morrison, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Cale, David Bowie and Brian Eno – in fact the film was already named Taking Tiger Mountain before I or Kent Smith had heard of Brian Eno.
The other influences were from books, arts and drugs, Burroughs’ complete oeuvre but especially The Job, LSD, Xerox art, Yoko Ono, psychological theory, Antonin Artaud’s, Theatre of Cruelty. Otto Muehl. Hunter Thompson. Minimalist art like Carl Andre, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Andy Warhol. Rimbaud, the Book of Revelations, Foucault… Jean Genet, Rothko… Man Ray and Duchamp… Cocteau! Eisenstein! Buñuel! Conspiracy Theory, Cattle Mutilations and The Anarchist Cookbook.
I was drawing on every avant-garde thing I’d ever known to try to make a horse race out of the footage Bill and Kent had shot in Wales… using every trick in the micro-budget, experimental, minimalist, transgressive handbook. It had its admirers back then, more now, but probably the best review I ever got was from Burroughs, saying, “I think ya got somethin’ there, kid.” That’s all he ever said about it that I know of.
I think he was right, you had something – the only problem was, I guess, that the “thing” it was. It’s not an easy-to-sell product. It’s interesting that you mention The Job. The makers of Decoderalso said it was Electronic Revolution that was the major inspiration behind their work, not the “fictions.” You were interested in the control theories that Burroughs developed; the power of the image and sound combination in mind-control?
Yes, of course, and Clockwork Orange was a big influence too, and the Kennedy assassination, Burroughs’ interest in Hassan-i Sabbah, which still interests me… sound frequencies that can make you vomit and whatnot.
Speaking of Hassan-i Sabbah, the way the woman’s group controls the mind of the character is directly taken from the old man of the mountain’s legend, isn’t it?
Well, actually, I think that’s a merger of Hassan-i Sabbah, the SCUM Manifesto, Manchurian Candidate, and MKUltra documents.
I love the idea of a cross-over between the SCUM manifesto and Hassan-i Sabbah! By the way, as you said you were influenced by The Job, were you interested in Burroughs’ views on women, the idea that they might came from another planet, that we should build two distinct societies, male and female…
I thought it was myopic and bigoted… stereotyping a whole gender, to me, was worse than stereotyping a race or religion. It stank of elitism, fascism… unenlightened… I saw it as a flaw in his character. So, maybe that’s something that is interesting about Taking Tiger Mountain, that it was equally influenced by Valerie Solanas, a militant man-hater, and also Burroughs, the polar opposite… something to offend everyone! I was pretty influenced by feminist thought, took a class in feminist art and literature, was sympathetic toward Valerie Solanas… About Burroughs, I was conflicted about the shooting of his wife, to say the least… I barely remember any female characters from his stories. When it comes to women, I’m much closer to Timothy Leary’s views than Burroughs’.
What about the homosexual undertones of the movie?
The homosexuality of Taking Tiger Mountain – in that it dovetails so nicely with the other Burroughsesque themes – was a happy accident courtesy of Kent. It dawns on me now how perfectly the feminist brainwashing group fits in with Burroughs’ views about women trying to control men. By then I was also thoroughly enmeshed in punk rock and its intellectual preoccupations. Genesis P. Orridge… situationism… ReSearch Magazine… The Clash…. turmoil in London, and all that went in the stew. It’s interesting to me that Orridge actually became a woman like Billy does at one point. The band that did my soundtrack, Radio Free Europe, was Texas’ answer to Throbbing Gristle.
You’ve said in your eulogy for William S. Burroughs that there will probably be Hollywood movies made from Junkie or The Wild Boys. Do you still think it’s a strong possibility?
Junkie, for sure….Wild Boys, yeah, it could happen. James Franco, the likely producer… he seems to be the patron of all things outré and literary at the moment.
Taking Tiger Mountainhasn’t been easy to see, to say the least, during all these years. Do you plan on releasing it?
I don’t know. There’s a young Turk in Dallas who says he’s going to pay to have a digital negative struck from the original techniscope which would mean that the film would look a lot better than it did on 35mm… He could use some encouragement, too, that he’s not the only one interested.