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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » William S. Burroughs In The Dreamachine
William S. Burroughs In The Dreamachine
Cult Epics // Unrated // April 14, 2015
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted May 6, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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William S. Burroughs In The Dreamachine:
Jon Aes-Nihil presents this maddening collection of images and sounds featuring the elder statesman of junkie letters. The movie hinges somewhat on David Woodward, who reintroduced Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville's '60s invention, the Dreamachine, to heavy heads in the 1990s. The Dreamachine stimulates brainwaves and produces hallucinogenic effects in users, without the use of drugs, only rhythmic pulsations of light. Burroughs was fascinated with the device, delivering it to a wider audience in the '80s (around the time when I heard about it) and now this film will introduce it to you, if you don't know of it already. The question is whether you will be rendered into a hypnagogic state, or merely emerge with a hangover.

Famed director Kenneth Anger provides a quote for the DVD box, which I will helpfully transcribe, to help you with your appreciation of the documentary: "More interesting than most documentaries in that it is presented in the way Burroughs writes." That is, the documentary is presented in a cut-up style, elements spliced together without respect to cognitive throughput, in hopes (one guesses) that a new narrative emerges. Front-loaded with smallish amounts of essentially silent black-and-white footage of Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg at an event at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, then progressing to shots of Woodward reading Burroughs or narrating of his own accord, and finally winding up with lots of footage of Woodward and Burroughs hanging out in WSB's Lawrence Kansas home, the documentary starts off mysterious and strong.

Burroughs and Ginsberg hold court at LACMA, throngs beseech them for autographs. Leo DiCaprio asks for a photo-op. Aes-Nihil gently intersperses still shots of the luminaries. As they speak, and we can't hear, we wonder what wisdom they impart. We wonder why we haven't done anything that impacted the word and the world in the way that these gentlemen did. But mostly we just wonder about the quality and import of the footage. Were it not for the two men who sit front and center, either waving their wrinkled hands or smiling benignly, the footage would be strictly B-reel for your own home movies.

Depending on your perspective, things go sideways when the cut-ups begin in earnest, with Woodward explaining the origins of the 'flicker phenomenon,' (the progenitor of the Dreamachine) aka the effect of pulsating lights on the brain. Woodward's narration is intercut between his sporting of a nice shirt while in a ruins he calls the 'hole to hell,' and a New Mexican tavern playing '70s AM Gold. I don't know that it works. And, despite my immense love for Burroughs, an author and artist whom I hold in very high esteem, the bulk of the documentary then leans heavily on footage of Woodward and (I assume) Aes-Nihil hanging out and shooting the shit with Burroughs in his living room, which doesn't do a hell of a lot for the man's legacy.

The footage lacks focus, literally and figuratively, as a Dreamachine spins in the foreground, at which Woodward stares intently. Woodward asks questions of Burroughs, who, ever the Southern Gentleman, responds gamely, though with some mild remove. Is he unimpressed with Woodward's game? Or can't he very well hear (as we can't) what's being said? Burroughs scans a paper to enliven the conversation. Drugs and Government policy are discussed. I wonder if, at this point, Burroughs wasn't sick to death of speaking about drugs? He produces a handkerchief to blow his nose. The coup de grace is the last footage of Burroughs ever, literally a few seconds of him finishing a reading, standing up and taking a bow with his crew.

I know I'm being overly harsh, and this documentary is likely a must-see for serious Burroughs acolytes, but the whole affair left me flat. I'm not sure that in its off-the-cuff, pretentious cut-up form, that it does anything to advance the idea of the Dreamachine. The device seems to be more of a hanger on which to hang the mainly unrelated footage. Lack of camera focus and poor audio make the living room sequences difficult to absorb, not to mention the fact that said sequences don't seem to have much more of a theme than, "we're quite fortunate to have an audience with Burroughs, let's tape it!" Those who love Burroughs will find it fascinating, but I dare say, lacking. Rent It.

The DVD

Video:
The 1.33:1 ratio black and white/ color footage treads the boundaries of DVD standards for the last decade. The B&W footage from LACMA looks best, with rich and subtle tones and relatively good details. Woodward's narrative footage is digitally grainy and lacks detail, as does the footage from Burroughs' living room. Don't expect much and you won't be too disappointed.

Sound:
Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo hasn't much to work with, since other than a somewhat grating, hypnotic musical motif, the bulk of the audio is left over to conversations recorded with room microphones. As mentioned, when it counts the most, it's hard to hear, so you'll have to crank things up.

Extras:
A Still Photo Gallery and David Woodward Dreamachine Installation (49 Minutes) are your extras. The installation takes place at the Freud Museum of Dreams in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2007. Woodward reads solemnly about the Dreamachine (after which, his reading is translated into the Russian) while spectators listen and observe the machine in action. Woodward is earnest, if not a bit dour. The Machine is best experienced with eyes closed, and damnit, I want one anyway. It has to work in some fashion, if only to aid in meditation with its pulsations and whirring sounds. Perhaps this is the bit that ties the whole affair together.

Final Thoughts:
Burroughs In The Dreamachine is likely a must-see for serious Burroughs acolytes, but the whole affair left me flat. Its off-the-cuff cut-up form, doesn't do much to advance the idea of the Dreamachine, which seems to be more of a hanger on which to hang mainly unrelated footage. Lack of camera focus and poor audio make sequences difficult to absorb, scenes which seem to mainly say, "we're quite fortunate to have an audience with Burroughs, let's tape it!" Those who love Burroughs will find it fascinating, but I dare say, lacking. Rent It

- Kurt Dahlke

~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com

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