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…
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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.
Has Kerouac been much of an influence on your life?
Growing up in Germany I didn’t really start reading much English-language literature until well into my twenties, after I moved to the States. Kerouac was always somebody I knew about, but it wasn’t until shortly before the film that I read his work.
Had you read Big Sur prior to signing on to this project? If so, what did you think?
When I heard that Michael Polish was beginning work on Big Sur, I decided to read it – less because of the possibility of working on the film, but because I figured it must be an interesting work if Mike decides to create an adaptation. Also, Big Sur (the place) always fascinated me – I consider it to be the most stunning landscape I have ever visited. I absolutely loved the book. The first thing I noticed in it was the rhythm. It soon became clear, at least for me, that the book eludes you until you decide to read it aloud (or aloud in your head – hearing the sounds of the words, rather than merely absorbing their meanings.) So to me “Big Sur” is perhaps more a long poem rather than a novel. It was a deeply moving experience to get inside the head of someone so close to the breaking point that his perception of this amazing landscape turns from awe-inspiring to awe-ful. Kerouac’s awareness of his own state of mind is so astute yet disarming, there is no chance of keeping any “safe distance” from it. It would take a cynic to not be touched by this book.
One reason that Big Sur has been such a loved book of Kerouac’s is that it is possibly his most lyrical. He wrote it by the sea, and so the sound of the sea is reflected in the flow of the prose. In a book so lyrical, how did you go about composing a soundtrack that would adequately reflect Kerouac’s prose?
The musical palette – the instruments mostly – was already set, since I was hired to pick up the music where Bryce and Aaron Dessner left off. From the start, Mike did not want a “historically accurate” score – say, an early 1960s Jazz score – but wanted a score that expresses Kerouac’s journey to an audience of today. The Dessners set a wonderfully moody yet strong tone in the cues they completed before I took over. It was important that Jack not be made “soft” – he needed a voice that allowed his strength, wit and grace to shine through the deteriorating state of his mind and body.
After reading the book my fist step was to listen to recordings of Kerouac reading his own work, since I wanted to represent *his* rhythms in the music. That turned out to be unnecessary, since Jean-Marc Barr (who plays Jack Kerouac in the film and reads the ever-present voiceover) does an amazing job of capturing Kerouac’s sound and cadence.
Additionally, I created some sketches that were never meant to be part of the score, but only served to hone my senses to the sounds of Big Sur: I used recordings I had made of the environmental sounds there during prior visits – waves, wind, trees – and “painted” musical colors onto them – a voice coming out of the surf, a few piano chords projected onto the sound of strong wind gusts, etc. This was never meant for anyone but me, in order to give me a sense of “what could live in this environment.” Among other things, many of the electronic tones in the score were a direct result of these experiments.
In the end it became a very simple matter of reacting directly and immediately to the rhythms and colors of the environment in the picture, and especially to Jean-Marc Barr’s voice as Kerouac in the voiceover. Every film score is largely a matter of “fitting in to what’s already there,” but in this film, with the prominent voiceover, and strong poetic images, this was even more the case – the music score had to seamlessly become but one player in the quintet of actors’ performances, voiceover, visuals, natural sounds and music.
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.
It was important to crouch, though. That was stressed over and over. The enemy was hidden in the trees, possibly armed with sniper rifles, and a stray head above the bow would prove very messy. The heat, the discomfort, and this repetition of what it was we must fear had dragged morale to a record low. After long enough, we were actually eager to jump into the water, run to the shore, and throw ourselves onto the sand. What would happen next, no one knew.
Cambodia had fascinated me for as long as I’d been in Asia. It seemed more dangerous, more suited to an intrepid traveler, than the likes of Bali, Phuket, or Goa. The promise of landmines, mob “justice,” ubiquitous AK-47s, its de facto dictator, and the potential for a complete collapse back into civil war and the return of the Khmer Rouge all made it sound so very romantic. The town I’d chosen was famous for sexpats, drugs, corruption, and a freakishly high mortality rate among foreign tourists.
I’d bought an Irish bar in May, 2013, and by October I had hardly gone further than the supermarket. Business was good but my sanity was faring quite poorly. I was actually bored in Cambodia – undoubtedly one of the world’s most interesting countries.
One day I was writing an article for a French magazine when the editor asked me if I’d like to work as an extra in a movie. “Yes,” I said, rather immediately. He went on to say that it would pay and that it would feature well-known actors and directors. He told me that it was a war movie called Le Soldat Blanc (“The White Soldier”) set during the French occupation, and that the scene for which extras were required was basically a rip-off of the opening to Saving Private Ryan.
I didn’t care. I was already sold.
Back then I was working on a novella or novel (it never got finished, and looked like it was heading towards being the latter) about several generations of the same family who had fought on the Southeast Asian peninsula. I had done a lot of research into French Indochina, and it fascinated me. I was also going through a year-long phase wherein I convinced myself I could make a movie. The opportunity to see behind the scenes on a big movie was too much to pass up.
The day before shooting began, I was required to go for costume fitting at a swanky beach-side hotel. I was busy, and in an odd mood – perhaps drunk – and when I arrived there was a queue of drunken Russians outside. These, I soon learned, were my fellow extras. Despite having spent months trying to find suitable candidates in a town with as many Europeans as locals, the casting director had noted that it was nigh on impossible to find someone in this town that fit the criteria of being A) under thirty, B) not fat (ie thin enough to pass as a soldier), and C) believable as a French person.
Long ago, I could speak French very well, but now I hardly know a word. When I arrived the Russians were waiting in the sun, and a handful of French people – looking to be in charge – were standing at the doorway. I walked immediately up to them and barked, “I’m here and I don’t have much time. Where do I go?” It was quite out of character, but I really didn’t have much time and I didn’t fancy standing in line for an hour.
I was taken through labyrinth of hallways to a few joining rooms that had been taken over by the production company. A very flamboyant man gestured at me and spoke in French until he realized I couldn’t understand him, and told me: “Dear, you don’t look like a soldier at all. You’re too skinny. You’re what we’d find if the movie was about breaking into Auschwitz.”
Alas, I was one of the few “French-looking” people they could find, and certainly the only person in the target age-group. The costume department, then, spent the next hour trying to make me look less like a concentration camp survivor and more like a kid who got mistakenly drafted a few years too early.
When I walked out of the building the line hadn’t moved, and my fellow extras stared daggers as I drove off.
The following morning, at 4am, I got on a bus with a few of the Russians. The casting director looked about ready to tear his hair out. He had needed forty extras, and had ended up with less than a dozen. It was also a French production, and most of the people on the bus could neither speak French nor English. It had “disaster” written all over it.
The film was being shot in Ream National Park, almost 20km east of Sihanoukville, but a good hour’s drive. The producers had more or less bought the rights to use the beaches and mangroves from one end of the park to the other, and had gone to the trouble of cleaning every piece of trash, leaving it nothing short of idyllic.
We filed off the bus to meet our new co-stars – the Cambodian Navy. Thanks to the impossibility of finding a semi-sober, non-obese, under-thirty Caucasian in Sihanoukville, this part of the script had been rewritten to include more “local” help. What the Cambodian Navy hadn’t been told was that they were actually playing the Vietnamese. No one dared tell them.
From the get-go, I was fascinated by the flurry of activity going on around me, but left somewhat in the dark by my inability to speak much French, or any Khmer or Russian. The casting director, however, seemed eager to keep me – as the closest thing to a believable French soldier – and informed of what would happen.
The schedule was set up like this:
The scene involved a unified Vietnamese-French invasion of Indochina at some unspecified point in the region’s turbulent history. There would be one boat (I don’t know why just one) and everybody would have to crouch down and wait for the order to storm the beach. The actors would go through their lines as the dialogue was filmed from every direction, and then we’d just jump off the boat.
That was it, except it would take two whole days. I couldn’t believe it. We would probably have hours of free time to roam the beaches….
They say that Rule #1 of making movies is that, no matter how interesting the final product, the process itself is soul-crushingly boring. I didn’t know this, or else I might have thought twice about agreeing to spend several days in the jungle with a film crew.
We began by getting into our uniforms which, outside the air-conditioned hotel room were rather uncomfortable. Before, I had been concerned by the itchiness. Now it was the sweltering heat. I was padded out because apparently being a 50kg man doesn’t make you exactly frontline material, and even at 6am it was unbearably hot.
Soon we were crouched on the boat. I kept being pushed to stand next to the lead actors, who went through their lines many dozens of times over many, many hours. My knees were giving way, and people were complaining loudly in their various languages. A woman was employed to put sunscreen on our necks, and another to pour water into our mouths. (We couldn’t be trusted not to hold the plastic bottles on camera.) The real actors handled it well. They were young, wild, friendly, strange people. Mostly it was their unbridled enthusiasm that got me. I didn’t know how they could keep doing their lines over and over.
In the beginning, I would take cues from the director on how to act. I was just an extra, of course, but in the West extras usually make some effort. It is their job, after all, they probably hope that it will lead to a speaking role. Here was an assortment of hungover people who didn’t want to be there anymore, mixed with the Cambodian Navy, who were busy sword-fighting with their guns.
At first I would try to convey a look of fear through my face. I never realized acting was so hard. “The enemy is on the beach. They will kill you when they see you,” the casting director – who had the best English – instructed me. I tried to look scared and probably failed miserably, but after a dozen or more takes, I just knelt there and hoped that I didn’t do any long-term damage to my knee.
The boat was spinning in the water as the sun rose, and as the day progressed morale dropped to abysmal levels, and I think the only reason that they stopped shooting was because it had become apparent that most of the extras wouldn’t return the next day if it went on much longer. I was certainly thinking that.
When we got back to the camp, the extras filed quickly onto a bus, where the driver had been sitting since 5am. It was now 5pm, and he’d been enjoying the air-con and doing a bit of karaoke. Predictably, when he tried to start the engine, the bus just spluttered and died.
After twelve hours of sitting in the sun, the extras had to push the bus along a jungle track until the engine ticked over just enough to start, and we managed to slowly wind our way back. It was evident that most people wouldn’t be returning, even to collect the money they were due.
The following morning I awoke and got back to the bus to find that indeed the majority of extras had bailed. Film-making isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, and in a town with as many bars as alcoholics, it wasn’t difficult to drown one’s sorrows.
I didn’t really know why I was there except that I’d become reasonably good friends with the casting director and would feel guilty if I let him down. Also, a certain vanity told me that having sat next to the lead actors for their speeches, I’d probably be featured prominently again, especially with fewer white people around. I certainly had no aspirations of a career in acting, but it would be cool to have maybe gotten a line or something to show my parents.
We were told the schedule for Day #2:
- Jump off the boat.
- Storm the beach.
It was more or less that simple, except that just jumping into the water once wasn’t enough. We’d have to do it over and over in order for the cameras to capture everything just perfectly. We did a few practice runs in our underwear, screaming and running with guns held above our heads, and it was actually fun.
This went on for a few hours, and then a few more. People started complaining about blisters from having water in their boots and everywhere else, and people were slipping on the metal and hurting themselves, or jumping on top of other people already in the water. One of the main actors got cracked in the mouth with a gun butt and bled. It was carnage.
After six hours of jumping into the water and running to the beach (which was only 10 meters away) the director decided that it would look better if the boat stopped at 50 meters out, and we ran from there. In order to ensure that his inexperienced extras looked sufficiently afraid, the director had instructed the effects team to carry out their work secretly, and when the first soldiers were only 5 meters from shore, one man began triggering explosives buried in the sand, while another opened fired with a paintball gun, spraying red paint into the water. People threw themselves to the ground, genuinely terrified, and it was probably the best take of the day.
But then it was back to the boat, and back to repetition.
Along Cambodia’s coastline, the water is ludicrously shallow, and so you can sometimes walk a half-mile out into sea. In this case at 50 meters I was chest-deep and it didn’t seem a problem. However, that soon started to change. Between the heat, the weight of the gear, the padding I was carrying to make me “less-Auschwitzy,” my months of drinking and smoking, and having effectively sprinted through water repeatedly for more than six hours, I struggled.
I struggled badly.
I kept it to myself and just did as I was told, but sprinting 50 meters through water is not easy at the best of times. In fact, some people would say it’s impossible. But, when you have an entire film crew watching you, you can’t be the last one there. You can’t trail behind. You have to get it right, or people will be angry.
The extras were carefully spaced and positioned, and for some fucking reason, I was the last man. I was at the 50 meter point, while some were at 15 and 20. As the takes went on, I started to feel light headed. I started noticing myself getting to the beach later and later, and started throwing myself down into the water instead of the sand.
I couldn’t reply, so I waved his concern away and smiled, but he looked unconvinced. Other people were starting to watch me, too. It was embarrassing.
On the next take, I got most of the way to the beach and then woke up in the medical tent, slumped forward on a chair with the casting director and a doctor, and a girl giving me a head massage. (Khmers believe head massages can cure just about anything, and it certainly does feel good.)
After asking a few questions and getting some vague, confused answers, the doctor told me he was sending me back to town. “Exhaustion,” was the diagnosis. The casting director was red in the face, shouting about the director. “I told him, I told him,” he said. “It’s too much!”
I was helped back through the jungle and stuck in the crew’s temporary ambulance. My friend kept apologizing, and then handed me my money. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I got paid for the entire two days, even though I’d made it only one and a half.
We took off back towards Sihanoukville, and I kept feeling a mix of relief and guilt. I didn’t really care much about my lost career as a movie star. I felt bad for the casting director, felt contempt for the director, and quite pleased that instead of getting home at 9pm, I’d be home at 4pm with full pay.
I was worried, too, about my health. Working behind a bar isn’t exactly conducive to a healthy lifestyle. I had dropped a lot of weight and become very sedentary. That thought triggered a memory – one of the first from my time in Cambodia. It was the story of another French production company who had attempted to recruit “extras” from the local expat population. They were shooting a reality TV show that was purportedly filmed in Thailand, but to save money they’d come here and hired local drunks at a fraction of the price. The overzealous director had demanded these random barflies swim from one island to the next – a large distance – and had ignored the protestations of the various crew members, including the doctor. Predictably, one of the extras died. How they expected these poor men to make the swim, I don’t know, but the doctor and the director both killed themselves in shame.
That story was, perversely, one of my favorites when I first came here. It embodied the wildness of Cambodia – the fact that this is a place where anything goes, where everything is tinged with danger. Yet I had forgotten it, and in the end it was the lesson I should have remembered, rather than repeated as a bar story for a few months.
That I survived my own war story is a matter of luck. When you land face down, unconscious, in the sea, a victim of extreme exhaustion, you have to count yourself lucky. And hey, like I told the casting director as my jeep pulled away, “I think I’ll have the most convincing death scene in the movie.”
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.
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.
Brando should have played Dean; Jack’s 1957 letter to Marlon asking him to buy the film rights to On the Road is a cry in the dark night of his tormented soul. Marlon would have been stellar. Think of the young Marlon Brando as Stanley, Johnny, Terry, or even Sky – a guy straight out of the Omaha, Nebraska, heartland – wild, unorthodox, intelligent, rebellious, athletic, and the Zeus of Adonises. Team him with movie-star handsome Jack and what a sensation. Audiences would have been salivating.
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.
By Kurt Kline
In the poetry of Bob Kaufman, the poet is the healer, journeying down into the underworld of the American psyche in order to heal the wounds of racism, capitalist exploitation, and war. If Kaufman is, as many critics have suggested, a shaman, it is perhaps most properly in the tradition of Hoodoo, which employs music as a mode of otherworldly transport or to facilitate trance states. If Kaufman recuperates the bizarre dreamscape and linguistic paradox of the ancient shaman’s song, however, these elements have now been transplanted to alien, perhaps even hostile, Western cultural climes. I examine George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead to demonstrate more clearly Kaufman’s position as mispositioned shaman-healer of the postmodern age.
Although there is no single moment when modernism ended and postmodernism began, the period around WWII can be seen as a time of great transformation. The European avant-garde movement dispersed not only bodily to the far corners of the globe, but spiritually, as a functional vehicle of liberation. But after the war another generation arose. Allen Ginsberg seems to bridge the gaping chasm torn by the war in the middle of twentieth century American and European literature when he gives Ezra Pound a ritual spanking at St. Elizabeth’s hospital. The Beats represented a new way of configuring self, art, and world. The postmodern artist was no longer a priest of culture, but an actual enemy of the state. Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Lenny Bruce were brought to trial on obscenity charges; Carl Solomon was locked in a madhouse; Bob Kaufman was repeatedly jailed. Beat writers were fighting on the side of the imagination in a war that threatened to strip America of her soul. “The war that matters is the war against the imagination,” Diane Di Prima declares in her poem “Rant”: “All other wars are subsumed by it.” The artist became not a high priest but a culture worker, working within the mythos of the American legend to undermine its insistence on collective conformity, on homogenization of spiritual experience.
The Beats accomplish this in their poetry through the juxtaposition of elements of American mainstream popular culture (its film stars and political figures, its movies, popular myths, and songs) with elements which threatened to revolutionize and perhaps fundamentally undermine it: jazz, blues, Eastern and Western mysticism, Zen, and psychedelic drugs. When Bob Kaufman used the word Beat to describe the poetics that he and his friends were engaged in inventing, it may well have been in reference to the beat of the shaman’s drum, which propels its listeners into the Otherworld. Certainly the Beat poetics seems to recapitulate, within the changing landscape of American popular culture after WWII, the liminal poetics originating from the shaman’s song. Ginsberg writes of the madness and schizophrenia of the artist and of his country. Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantra poems GRRRR and GRRRARH their way through a secret language of the animals, filling up the dadaspace of emptiness with new possibilities of meaning. In Bob Kaufman’s art, the poet is the healer, journeying down into the underworld of the American psyche in order to discover the source of and cure to the homicidal madness that Poe, the father of American culture, had intuited as somehow an inherent part of our national consciousness.
Jewish and Black, sane and insane, Kaufman inhabits liminal space in many ways. In the eyes of mainstream 1950’s culture he is criminal, schizophrenic, the rebel, the outsider. But from the point of view of the poets, the musicians, the artists of North Beach and Paris, Kaufman is unbelievably inside, inside inside, showing the workings of the creative mind as it contorts to adapt itself to the restraints imposed by consensus consciousness. Taking into account the ancient poetics of the shaman’s song we are in an excellent position to understand the precise relationship between the poetry of this “screamer on lonely poet corners” and modern culture.
There is in the first place an inherent connection between the shaman’s song and jazz. Jazz grows out of a cultural aesthetic which places a different valuation on shamanic experience than does the European model. The African slaves brought to the new world were only recently and perhaps dubiously converted to Christianity. They preserved their old gods and shamanic customs in folktales, music and art, and, as blues musician and author, Julio Finn observes, “the Priest or Medicine Man was the chief surviving institution that the African slaves brought with them.” Elements of the Yoruba religion survived in Hoodoo and Voodoo on the bayou and elsewhere as the African witch doctor became the Root Doctor, Obi, Vodun, Wangaleur, the Hootchie-Cootchie Man or Woman. Although Kaufman did not, to the best of my knowledge, receive formal shamanic initiation at the crossroads, as perhaps was the case, as Finn demonstrates, with blues great Robert Johnson, the poet would nevertheless have been quite aware of the Hoodoo tradition, being raised in Louisiana and the environs of New Orleans. In the Hoodoo tradition, music is a key element of spirituality, and opens a channel of communication between man and loa. Kaufman writes about, as I fancy, his younger days in New Orleans, and some of the music that he heard there in the following terms:
Orleans… New Orleans… the bend in the river cleaves to the sky…
…the flowers are still up there on that wall, stem, petal, all,
Their roots playing the silences, between
Feeding pongee petals to soft breezes, flying in darting wonder.
Olatunji Babatunde is the Nigerian drummer whose 1960 album Drums of Passion was so influential on John Coltrane. “Babatunde’s drumbeats” are in clear reference to the African tribal tradition in which rhythm is the soul of life, the source of all human and universal action. Kaufman’s poetry grows out of be-bop, which is integrally linked to this intuition as well as to the struggle of African-Americans for individual and political liberation and the recovery of authentic spiritual experience. Kaufman’s improvisatory, spontaneous, oral poetics, like be-bop, is rooted in spiritual insights deriving from African tribal traditions.
…I DREAMED I DREAMED AN AFRICAN DREAM, MY HEAD WAS A
BONY GUITAR, STRUNG WITH TONGUES, & PLUCKED BY GOLD
FEATHERED WINGLESS MOONDRIPPED RITUALS UNDER A MIDNIGHT SUN, DRUMMING HUMAN BEATS FROM THE HEART OF AN EBONY GODDESS, HUMMING THE MELODIES OF BEING FROM STONE TO BONE AND FROM SAND ETERNAL…
Kaufman’s jazz rhythms set to words hurl the listener into the Otherworld even as does the shaman’s drum. His poetry is truly “Beat” in the sense that it is concerned with and expressive of the shaman’s primal rhythm.
In Kaufman’s poetry will be recognized features of the shaman’s song. The poet’s surrealistic juxtapositions of imagery call to mind the illogical, unnatural images of the shaman, expressive of the bizarre dreamscape of the shamanic Otherworld, a realm of impossible existences, of linguistic paradoxes. To express the liminal reality of the Otherworld the shaman employs a secret animal or nonsense language. Kaufman expresses the inexpressible through linguistic paradox and through the secret language of jazz. Kaufman’s poet moves across “AN UNIMAGINARY LANDSCAPE THAT EXISTS IN A REAL, UNREAL WORLD,” populated by strange “UNBEINGS.” The location of this liminal reality is somewhere, as Kaufman has written,
…BETWEEN BETWEEN, BEHIND BEHIND, IN FRONT OF FRONT, BELOW BELOW, ABOVE ABOVE, INSIDE INSIDE, OUTSIDE OUTSIDE, CLOSE TO CLOSE, FAR FROM FAR, MUCH FARTHER THAN FAR, MUCH CLOSER THAN CLOSE, ANOTHER SIDE OF AN OTHER SIDE…
The shaman’s otherworldly journey is recapitulated by Kaufman both in terms of the underworld descent in “THE POET” and a flight into “crackling blueness” in “Ancient Rain.” Such shamanic visitations are common in Kaufman’s oeuvre. “I have walked on my walls each night/Through strange landscapes inside my head,” he writes in “Would You Wear My Eyes?” In “Slight Alterations” he writes:
I climb a red thread
To an unseen existence,
Broken free, somewhere,
Beyond the belts
The purpose of these otherworldly travels is always for Kaufman to redeem suffering through love. In “Plea” he enjoins the “Voyager, wanderer of the heart” to “Seek and find Hiroshima’s children/ Send them back, send them back.” The poet must retrieve the lost and mangled souls of the new atomic age. The poet is the shaman of the culture, who must remember the truth of the nearness of death to us all, and how interconnected our lives are with all the other beings on this planet.
Finally, Kaufman’s poetics conforms to that of the shaman’s song in situating itself as an instrument of healing. Kaufman sings the “song of the broken giraffe,” the “nail in the foot song,” to bring back as if from some quagmire of Hell America’s very soul, ripped from it by greed and warfare and held in thrall by a vast brainwashing apparatus. In “The Ancient Rain” Kaufman writes:
At the illusion world that has come into existence of world that exists secretly, as meanwhile the humorous Nazis on television will not be as laughable, but be replaced by silent and blank TV screens.
The poet exposes the hypocrisy around him and dispels the illusion that has been foisted on the populace, the false myth which asserts there is a single, unitary and unchanging truth. The Ancient Rain is coming to remind everyone of the necessity of change. “The Ancient Rain splits nations that have died in the Ancient Rain…so that they can see the culture of the living dead they have become.” But if everything falls apart it also comes back together again in the Ancient Rain. It falls like balm from the sky, and brings retribution.
The Ancient Rain wets my face and I am freed from hatreds of me that disguise themselves with racist bouquets. The Ancient Rain has moved me to another world, where the people stand still and the streets moved me to destination. I look down on the earth and I see myself wandering in the Ancient Rain, ecstatic, aware that the death I see around me is in the hands of the Ancient Rain and those who plan death for me and dreams are known to the Ancient Rain…silent, humming raindrops of the Ancient Rain.
Kaufman is a visionary in the sense implied by Jonathan Swift when he writes, “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” But if Kaufman has a faith in his vision’s veracity and sagacity that rivals Blake’s, he nevertheless experiences vision in every bit the problematic manner of tortured Sioux shaman Black Elk. There is a burden to seeing for Kaufman, even as there was for the Sioux visionary. “I see the death some cannot see, because I am a poet, spread-eagled on the bone of the world.” In “African Dream” he experiences as a sort of racial memory the pain of seeing the slave ships that ripped Africans from their homes. As he sees it, he lives through the horror of it: “Green screams enfold my night.” The source of the poet’s purity, his legacy, is his suffering. He sees more deeply because he has to. Suffering is transmuted through the magic of poetry into a medicine or sacred herb. In this, Kaufman closely follows Rimbaud’s seer in seeking alchemical refinement of the soul and distillation of a universal balm such as that sought by the Rosicrucians. Kaufman hails Rimbaud as “brilliant maniac,” and “desert turtle” – in an apparent reference to the hexagonal patterned tortoise backs upon which the I Ching is based – and describes the two writers – himself and the French seer-poet –as
Remnants of neo-classical witch doctors
hurling jagged missives of flame-sheeted bone,
affecting space cures, on curved people…
Implicit in seeing for Kaufman is a deeply rooted social conscience. The grim tattoo of the beat-walker’s nightstick on Kaufman’s body becomes a watchword for seekers of life’s mystery everywhere.
Perhaps the most comprehensive, touching and absurd rendering of Kaufman’s poetic is his “Abomunist Manifesto.” In his Abomunist writings, Kaufman launches a humorous but at the same time radical critique of the mainstream American culture. Distorted scenes of American life as filtered through the media weave through Kaufman’s “Abomnewscast…On the Hour…”
America collides with iceberg piloted by Lindbergh baby… Aimee Semple Macpherson, former dictator of California, discovered in voodoo nunnery disguised as Moby Dick… New hit sweeping the country, the Leopold & Loeb Cha-cha-cha…
This is the real news, “sponsored by your friendly neighborhood Abomunist,” a collaging of media items which reveals the absurdity and yet the morbidity of American life. “Remember your national emergency signal, when you see one small mushroom cloud and three large ones, it is not a drill, turn the TV set off and get under it,” Kaufman’s Abomnewscaster advises us, juxtaposing the traditional healing, transformative, shamanic symbol of the mushroom with the destructive mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb. Standing counter to the Puritan work ethic, the beatnik poet cultivates a Zen-inspired uselessness. “In times of national peril, Abomunists, as reality Americans, stand ready to drink themselves to death for their country,” Kaufman declares, only half-jokingly. In other words, the Abomunist opts out. “The only office Abomunists run for is the unemployment office.” They will have nothing to do with the system. “Abomunists vote against everyone by not voting for anyone.” The Abomunist philosophy is essentially rejectionary. “Abomunists reject everything except snowmen,” Kaufman writes, meaning presumably that the Beats reject a puritanical mindset that subjugates everything to the degree to which it can be exploited. The Abomunist refuses to grow up, to conform to societal expectations, and privileges a child’s sense of play which is painfully at odds with the suffering he sees around him. The Abomunist is further linked by pun to the Abominable Snowman, a dubious creature inhabiting precisely the liminal region between known and unknown, between the possible and the impossible. The fusing of wonder and horror, miracle and sham, are perfectly captured in the monster Yeti. The Abomunist suggests the possibility of seeing the sham and stepping away from the brainwashing machine at the same time as staying attuned to the miraculous. But here is the difficulty. The poet has seen too much of the world’s suffering. “Long forgotten Indian tribes fight battles” on his chest. As reportedly did the Buddha when he attained enlightenment, the poet feels the cut earthworm’s pain as his own. Like the shaman, the poet has journeyed to the source of the pain in order to affect a cure. But will he make it back in one piece?
In “Still Further Notes Dis- & Re- Garding Abomunism” Kaufman presents us with a curious document, supposedly a translation of the Live Sea Scrolls, “one of the oldest Abomunist documents yet discovered.” Kaufman’s story of a beatnik Jesus is perhaps, as Damon suggests, inspired by the Lord Buckley routine “The Naz.” For all its humor, however, its characterization of Jesus seems analogous to the Jesus in Gnostic workings of the Jesus myth found in Nag Hammadi Library. In “The Dialogue of the Savior,” for instance, Jesus says:
Already the time has come, brothers, for us to abandon our labor and stand at rest. For whoever stands at rest will rest forever. And I say to you be always above…time…
Like Kaufman’s Abomunist poet, Jesus is telling his disciples to opt out of the system. The Gnostic Jesus is more rebellious and more paradoxical than the Jesus presented in the canonized gospels. He’s more the rogue and scoundrel of Bruno’s estimation. Kaufman’s Jesus reports:
Nazareth getting too hot, fuzz broke up two of my poetry readings last night. Beat vagrancy charge by carrying my toolbox to court–carpenters O.K. Splitting to Jeru. as soon as I get wheels.
Kaufman’s satire of the last few days of Christ’s life imagines Christ as a poet at odds with the conventions of society. In identifying the poet with Christ, Kaufman demonstrates the shamanic impulse in the postmodern era. Christ is the archetypal symbol of the shaman, the healer of physical and spiritual pain, the mediator between worlds. Although Christ’s image is valorized, however, the actual point of his message is often lost, and many who claim to believe in him would still consider his philosophy and actions impractical. But the Abomunist is the very master of impracticality. The drag of the thing is if one wants to be Jesus, one sooner or later must get crucified. And so our beatnik poet does – but it’s out of the pain of this crucifixion that a beatification of the poetry occurs.
Kaufman continues the lineage of shaman-Gnostic visionaries we have been tracing. Gnostic philosophy is embedded in his work. The poet is nailed to the bone of the world – imprisoned in matter. He “HIDES IN A JUNGLE OF WRECKED CLOCKS” and asks, “What time is it going to be?” He rejects time altogether and lives instead among “days and weeks/ That cannot be found on any calendar” and “hours and minutes unknown to the clock.” The Gnostic call for freedom from the Demiurge and his minions becomes in Kaufman’s oeuvre a call for liberation for all sentient beings from the retrogressive spiritual, mental and political forces that bind them.
A significant feature of postmodernism, as Marjorie Perloff has observed, is its pastiche of and commentary upon the mediated world – the texts and sounds and pictures that make up the mythological life of our culture. But although Kaufman joins the offices of poet/culture worker with that of entertainer à la Lord Buckley or Lenny Bruce, his attitude toward film has less the zaniness of John Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” or the celebratory irony of Frank O’Hara’s “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” but more of a problem that comes out of Kaufman’s understanding of the role of seeing for the poet. Although many of his poems make mention of movie stars and filmic characters, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Shirley Temple to the Wizard of Oz, Kaufman salutes Hollywood as the “artistic cancer of the universe” and holds the movie industry culpable for the brainwashing of America, to whom war is made a possibility and all record of genocide erased. On the other hand, he uses cinematic motifs and structures to re-write the brainwashing script, to reveal, by exaggerating the lie, the truth that lies behind it..
Kaufman’s filmic genre of preference seems to be the horror movie. He writes humorously of Dracula star Bela Lugosi and describes his Carl Chessman film script as “a horror movie to be shot with eyes.” That the horror movie has played such a pre-eminent role in defining the American cultural landscape says a lot about a tension that is held between us and the natural realm, especially as this is accessed through shamanic praxis. The lycanthropy and vampirism that are mainstays of horror cinema can be looked at as remnants – twisted recuperations – of the transformation into animals undergone by shamans in the séance setting. Dr. Frankenstein employs the theories of Mesmer –themselves thinly disguised recuperations of shamanic wisdom – to reanimate the dead. Poe invented American culture when he invented the horror story, the horror-madness of guilt over having gotten away with it. We got away with it. We slaughtered the American Indians. We enslaved Africans. We decimated Hiroshima. We conquered Afghanistan and Iraq. And we’ve wreaked evo-havoc on the Black Lagoon in which, in sunnier days, that strange amphibious creature used to play – before a seemingly oblivious John Agar poisoned him, set him on fire, shot at, speared, and caged him before blowing up his lagoon entirely. But now we have the dues to pay, and we’re afraid, very, very afraid. What is the horror movie if not this primal fear – the fear of some lurking remnant of ourselves, still unresolved, that might intrude itself in all its hideousness upon our pleasantly numbed state? The murdered dead don’t stay buried, but have a way of turning into zombies, or ghosts, or ghouls.
In “THE POET” Kaufman describes his underworld journey as a passage through “THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING/DEAD” – an ironic reference both to the dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross, as Damon suggests, but also to the 1968 George Romero horror film in which a hapless band of humans battle a horde of flesh eating ghouls. Romero’s lampoon of racism and conventionality is quite an appropriate allusion for Kaufman to employ. The poet too, is holding out against hordes of mindless zombies, agents of lifelessness, shambling shades inhabiting this particular version of Hell.
In Romero’s film, the protagonist, Ben, is a young black man and this single fact ironically seems both his power and his curse. Like Kaufman, Ben comes from a culture more connected to tribal shamanic praxis than that of the white folks with whom he is unhappily marooned. Only he knows how to fight the ghouls, which he does, in fact, with the conventional tool of the shaman, fire. With fire he puts the ghouls to rout before taking a fortified position in a house, which now becomes a sort of shamanic tree, an axis between worlds, between the basement and attic, between the living and the dead. He prepares a safe retreat into the underworld of the cellar, but only withdraws there when there is absolutely no hope that any of his fellow humans will be able to extricate themselves.
In the final scene of the film, the zombies have been defeated by sheriff’s deputies armed with flame throwers and shotguns. Ben emerges cautiously from his subterranean retreat, and carefully climbs the stairs of the house, only to be shot in an upstairs window by a white deputy sheriff who mistakes him for one of the remaining walking dead. Who doesn’t see him. Who renders him invisible in order to kill him. Romero makes a sly comment here – reflected in the films stark black-and-white coloration – on the culture’s condemnation of shamanic praxis and its linkage to the blindness of racism.
Kaufman’s “THE POET” shows us the Hell that is imposed on us by our own symbology. The poem is “about” how this hell is created, and what role the poet plays in its creation. The poet is the master of the process of creation. He creates the poem, the world, life itself, albeit in a strangely mutated form. The poet and the poem are each described as “A FISH WITH FROG’S/ EYES.” This forms a haunting refrain:
A FISH WITH FROG’S
CREATION IS PERFECT.
The poet appears here as half-fish, half-amphibian. A frog is a more complex organism than a fish. It is a sort of super-fish able to do everything a fish does but much more. A fish can only see within its underwater domain, but an amphibian is master of water and surface realms. A fish sees what falls into the pond but no more. The fish has no communication with or effect upon the surface world. From its lily pad, the frog can observe and interact with what from the fish’s viewpoint are the sensible and super-sensible realms. A fish with frog’s eyes has a sort of super-vision that allows it to see what other fish would dismiss as beyond the spectrum of their finny experience.
Kaufman’s “FISH WITH FROG’S/EYES” is very much an image of the atomic age. Kaufman felt the Hiroshima bombing as a terrible psychic rift. This horrible power and the war machine which produced it were sanitized by the popular media, but Kaufman sees the glimmer of murder in the cold eye of conformity. He writes with fierce sarcasm:
Silence the drums, that we may hear the burning
Of Japanese in atomic colorcinemascope,
And remember the stereophonic screaming
He wants America to realize what it has done. But meanwhile the Hollywood propaganda machine tries to make a killing at the box office with heroic portraits of men in uniform and their plucky women waiting at home. Even radioactivity was valorized in a special way.
The possibilities of mutation due to exposure to radioactivity were romanticized in science-fiction movies and comic books of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. A strange radioactive mist causes the Incredible Shrinking Man (in the film of the same title) to shrink down into the very microcosm of the atom. In Romero’s Night of the Living Dead it’s a “mysterious high-level radiation” causing a mutation that reactivates the corpses’ brains. A fish with frog’s eyes, an atomic mutant, is the perfect symbol for the poet’s alchemical transformation of the stuff of the post-atomic world.
Kaufman’s poet must write what he sees. He must “WRITE THE TRUTH/EVEN IF HE IS/KILLED FOR IT,” and then he will be killed for it. The poem is that which cannot be denied and which cannot be explained. The poem is life. When death removes its cape from him, the poet understands what he has lived through, and he has no regrets. Although he has been “NAILED TO THE/BONE OF THE WORLD” the poet has at least lived. Like Rimbaud’s seer he will at least have seen. His poem, like Lorca’s, is “WOVEN INTO THE DEEPS/ OF LIFE.” Suffering is the poet’s legacy, but it is a suffering that has been transformed, redeemed. Meanwhile,
THE POET LIVES IN THE
MIDST OF DEATH
AND SEEKS THE MYSTERY OF
It is significant that the poet seeks not the answer to life’s mystery, but the mystery itself. The mystery is the enigma, the incertitude, the paradox, that is creation, that is the poem, that is “PERFECT.”
Damon, Maria. “‘Unmeaning Jargon’/Uncanonized Beatitude: Bob Kaufman, Poet.
”An Anthology of New Poetics. Ed. Christopher Beach. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1998. Print.
Di Prima, Diane. Pieces of a Song. San Francisco: City Lights, 1990. Print.
Finn, Julio. The Bluesman. London: Quarter Books, 1986. Print.
Kaufman, Bob. The Ancient Rain. New York: New Directions, 1981. Print.
—Golden Sardine. 1967. San Francisco: City Lights, 1976. Print.
—Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness. New York: New Directions, 1965. Print.
Romero, George, Dir. Night of the Living Dead. 1968. DVD.