Monday, September 12, 2016

"Call Me Burroughs": El hombre invisible, in the bunker and out

Barry Miles' doorstop-size 2014 biography Call Me Burroughs is likely to be the go-to print resource for anyone interested in the parapatetic author's long battle with the forces of Control. From the C.I.A. to heroin, guns to aliens, his hatred of dogs and his houseful of cats in Lawrence, Kansas, it's all here in 700-plus pages, along with Burroughs' never-ending [and never resolved] anxiety over whatever strange thing happened with Nursy when he was a toddler. 

It's an exhaustive and obsessive report, as only a long-time observer [in this case, Barry Miles, the founder and editor of London's  International Times] could assemble from memoirs, new interviews, and private letters from Burroughs associates. Ironically, the more Burroughs is revealed in the book's pages the more he achieves his reputation as el hombre invisible :  he moves through his own life as a shadow and wrestles often with the Ugly Spirit [Burroughs' own term], trying to hide from the destructive force that seems to dominate his life.
The historiography of William Burroughs, now enters an elemental half-life, sustaining an entire writerly sub-culture by itself since the cat-daddy of beat-noir disappeared from the scene in 1997. What Burroughs himself would think of all this is a guessing game -- although it would be a promising bet he would offer his cantankerous opinion to anyone who might listen.

While Uncle Bill is busy now in another Bunker tending his cats, it's instructive to listen to the stories of those who interacted with Burroughs as an artist. Reputations, especially cultivated ones, are funny things: beyond the publicity it's still about the ideas. And, of course, ideas are not responsible for what happens to them.

At this remove, the life of William Burroughs has become an antidote to the church of Elvis: rock-and-roll may have been thoroughly subsumed by the culture, but drug addiction remains a mess of creative impulses without a hero. Excepting, of course, one's self: as a bad boy, Burroughs was his his own best creation. 

With Ginsberg and Kerouac to support and promote his work, and with a burgeoning underground press in America bored with tailfins and refrigerators ready to howl in the 1950s and 1960s, Burroughs' walks on the wild side [booze and sex and powders and opiates in exotic locales] became the template for members of a post-war generation that didn't feel it fit in the Eisenhower era.

 William S. Burroughs & Marc Olmsted,
from Burroughs on Bowery (1978)

Self-creation is an unbeatable American fixation for bad boys: Marc Olmsted -- as one description puts it -- "is a writer who did some time in prison, got straight while staying gay and writes poetry while making the world a better place." In 2007 he blogged as The Trash Whisperer, picking up trash near Los Feliz, California and writing about it online. 

Before that -- in the 1970s -- he was a film student at San Francisco State, where he suggested making a film to Burroughs, and Burroughs agreed to participation and a subsequent interview; yet creativity, even with the best intentions, seldom runs smooth -- a lesson Olmsted learned in the process. Here's an excerpt from Olmsted's piece online at Rusty Truck, called "Burroughs in the Bunker and Out:"

... 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 a sort of half-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.”  At another point he just leaned on his hands and gazed at me, openly appreciative.   I felt like a young boy at the swimming hole – which was slightly unnerving coming from Burroughs.

I told Burroughs about this great sci fi movie I had seen that reminded me of his work, 
They Came From Within, 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, who would later make Naked Lunch some 15 years later.

Burroughs presented me with a signed copy of a recent chapbook.  As we began slowly gathering ourselves to leave, I had the brainstorm to use Burroughs as the subject for a rephotography film experiment I was considering.  I talked to James Grauerholz out of Bill’s earshot and asked what he thought.  James went off to Bill and came back with a positive from Bill.  We’d meet for breakfast at a diner the next day and shoot Bill walking around the neighborhood.

So the next morning, I went to the diner and got to bring old pal Richard Modiano (who lived in NYC then), previously denied when I attempted to wrangle him an invitation to the Bunker from Allen.  So we were both quite happy about this new development.  Besides my Bauer Super 8, I was also armed with a primitive cassette tape recorder.

We met at the breakfast joint, and 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 movement 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 legible 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 ZeroFrom 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 T
ribulation ’99), because it allowed all kinds of crude rephotography off the TV screen, going in for close-ups on what was original a full shot, and filming 2nd and 3rd generations of Super 8 footage. Craig had a big influence, cementing an interest in found footage and deconstruction of image.  Craig lived in this big ramshackle house on Andover 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?

saucer-ray-crowd water

gun window


saucer take-off



spider face-end

– 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 one unit lab, basically because I wouldn’t do what she said.  I had been used to a great deal more freedom & empathy in my undergraduate years.   They were the worst grades of my entire film school career. ...
Through these difficulties, Olmsted persevered: He completed Burroughs on Bowery and then American Mutant, with Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Timothy Leary. His website is a kaleidoscope of reinventions, from punk musician to Buddhist student to filmmaker.  

Burroughs on Bowery, described by Olmsted here as a student film project, would be hard to distinguish the writer beyond the projected image and intercut randomness: still, as WSB once wrote, "you have to take a broad, general view of things." Olmsted is quoted in an interview as saying Burroughs "laughed ... when I showed it to him in 1978.  Then he said, “Great movie, Marc,” after that funny evil, closed-mouth mmmmm, hmmmm, hmmmm laugh throughout the 4 minute movie." 
It's a safe bet Burroughs never had to get a passing grade from a demanding film instructor, though: "The movie was HATED by my film school, San Francisco State University.  They voted not to include it in the Film Finals of that year."

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