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.