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

From Beatdom #14

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Word begets image and image is virus.

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

Look:

Interview with Tom Huckabee: Taking Tiger Mountain

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, Tiger Mountain Posterdisconnected, 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.