The Gysin file

FlicKeR looks through the dreamachine in search of Brion Gysin
Burroughs and Brion

I associate the dreamachine with Christmas. The first and only time I've directly encountered a version of the device was a holiday five or six years ago. My friend Julien used a turntable to set up a homemade dreamachine in a corner room of his family's cabin. I took a turn sitting with my eyes closed in front of its stroboscopic play of light and darkness. I didn't have an epileptic fit; nor did I go into a hypnagogic state. It wasn't a drugless high, but it was a mind's eye stimulus. I'd try the dreamachine again.

"I don't think [the dreamachine] really works unless you've smoked a pipe of hash," Kenneth Anger declares during FlicKeR, Nik Sheehan's documentary about the device and its chief creator, the writer, painter, and mystic Brion Gysin. "I think it's too dangerous if you've taken acid," he adds. You get the feeling Anger is speaking from experience, even if he doesn't face a dreamachine in front of Sheehan's camera. Such a meeting isn't necessary, because FlicKeR's first 15 minutes serves up a Who's Who of dreamachine enthusiasts in action: Marianne Faithfull, Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, and Genesis P. Orridge of Psychic TV are among those Sheehan captures sitting and staring — with eyes closed — before the contraption's oscilutf8g light.

The dreamachine makes for potent visual imagery, but distilling or truly conveying its effect is a tougher task for a filmmaker, even if Sheehan's camera briefly stares directly into one (and later, incorporates Tony Conrad's 1965 film The Flicker, a potent projector-based dreamachine corollary). For Sheehan, the mechanism provides a kinetic introduction to or threshold into, a portrait of the late Gysin. Though Gysin — who invented the Cut-Up literary methods popularized by best friend William S. Burroughs — is a shadowy figure to hang a feature-length film portrait on, FlicKeR's hopping, skipping, and jumping approach to his life at least energizes his enigma.

In Victor Bockris' 1981 interview collection With William S. Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker (Seaver), Burroughs — who also says, typically, "[Gysin] taught me everything I know about painting" — relates Gysin's description of a milk bar just after a terrorist blast: "People were lying around with their legs cut off, spattered with maraschino cherries, passion fruit, ice cream, brains, pieces of mirror and blood." Without a living subject, Sheehan must turn to various vivid Gysin acquaintances — mirror man Ira Cohen and a spry John Giorno, for example — to bring across similar illustrations of anarchic spirit. In the process, offhand observations come to mind: Genesis P. Orridge has transformed herself into a sisterly peer of rad auntie Faithfull (who praises Gysin's warmth in her autobiography, where she's largely disdainful of all men), for one. It's easy to lose sight of Gysin amid such colorful characters, but FlicKeR is steadfast in its belief that Gysin is influential; a variety of academics use Gysin as a gateway to discussions of everything from the changing nature of terrorism to iPods.

He may not be the center of 20th-century history, but Gysin's influence on the present is undeniable. This is partly due to another wave of '60s resurgence. FlicKeR kicks off "Stoned Apocalypse," a Joel Shepard–curated Yerba Buena Center for the Arts series that includes a program devoted to the legendary light shows that overtook late-'60s music concerts.

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