Distributed By: Cult Epics
DVD Release: April 14, 2015
Rating: Not Rated
Reviewed By James M. Dubs
I’ll watch anything…including William S. Burroughs In The Dreamachine.
In my short bio I state that my personal film viewing philosophy is that I “believe every movie is worth watching once and, as a film fan and critic, believe that even the worst movies offer something in return.” William S. Burroughs In The Dreamachine is the first feature in which I question my own philosophy.
The title elicits certain expectations and promises on not just one, but two very intriguing concepts that could be explored separately to great success. Reading the DVD synopsis on the back of the packaging offers a glimpse into something possibly fascinating. It reads:
“The Dreamachine created in the early 1960s by artist Brion Gysin and mathematician Ian Sommerville is possibly the most effective of all the brain-wave simulators, which can create hallucinations and induced visions, without the use of drugs.”
Let’s stop here for a second. This sounds amazing, not because I’m looking for a safe drug alternative, but documentaries delving into the depths of the working human brain are fascinating. Imagine all of the cool imagery the filmmakers will use to visually express and explain the effects of the dreamachine. But how is Burroughs involved? The synopsis continues:
“When Beatnik writer William S. Burroughs (Junkie, Naked Lunch) introduced it to a wider audience in the 1980s it became a phenomenon in the underground scene, and was re-introduced by Dr. David Woodard in the 1990s when he started re-creating the dreamachines.”
Incredible, right? A creative force like Burroughs intimately knowledgeable on the science of this dreamachine. He will no doubt be able to share his collective experiences using actual drugs and comparing those experiences to the psychotropic effects of a brain-wave simulator. The synopsis concludes:
“In this document, filmmaker and photographer Jon Aes-Nihil films Woodard and Burroughs at LACMA, Los Angeles, California (1996, featuring Allen Ginsberg and Leonardo DiCaprio), the Nova Convention, Lawrence, Kansas (1996) and visits Burroughs at his home (1997), recording the last footage of him, in a conversation on drugs and government policies, 6 months prior to his passing. Cult Epics presents on the Centennial of Burroughs birth In The Dreamachine for the first time on DVD.”
Featuring Allen Ginsberg and Leonardo DiCaprio? Featured how? With interviews? Is Leo going to narrate?
No. DiCaprio and Ginsberg are seen in the background video taping each other for their own home movies. You may as well print, “featuring that guy drinking a glass of wine.” Or better yet, “featuring Breaking Bad’s Walter White.” (That’s not actually Bryan Cranston, but you did a double take didn’t you?)
If I were to summarize the greatest sin of the DVD synopsis, it is this… Having read the synopsis, you will neither learn, see, nor hear anything new or informative beyond this point. Any questions or ideas posed prior will neither be answered nor explored. William S. Burroughs In The Dreamachine does little more than languish in amateur home video territory for its 64 minute run time.
In an attempt to break up the monotony, the filmmakers have broken up their raw footage into segments or chapters:
- L.A. County Art Museum Show (7-16-96) Part 1: This is little more than 14 minutes of “home movie” footage showing Burroughs sitting at a table signing autographs, and a few random “shaky-cam” shots of some of his art pieces in the gallery. “Featuring Allen Ginsberg and Leonardo DiCaprio.” Tongue firmly in cheek.
- Dr. Woodard on The Flicker Phenomenon: Holding a piece of parchment from which to read his notes, Woodard drones on about a bunch of nonsense ranging from Nostradamus, Highway 666 in New Mexico, and the “Hole to Hell”. What any of this has to do with Burroughs or the dreamachine is anyone’s guess.
- At Home With Burroughs, Lawrence, KS (02-27-97) Part 1: Woodard visits Burroughs and they talk about a lot of nothing and randomly stare into a dreamachine. Half the time I question whether Burroughs is even listening to Woodard.
- Dr. Woodard On The Dreamachine: More about Highway 666 and Woodard is documented building a small dreamachine. Also includes more of Woodard starring into a dreamachine.
- At Home With Burroughs, Lawrence, KS (02-27-97) Part 2: More of the same.
- Dr. Woodard on The Cut-Up Method: Woodard stands in the middle of a field and reads unintelligible ramblings. Did Woodard just say, “Mother with four titties?” I don’t even know what he’s talking about anymore!
- At Home With Burroughs, Lawrence, KS (02-27-97) Part 3: For the love of God!
- Burroughs’ Last Public Appearance, NOVA Convention, Lawrence, KS (11-26-96): Burroughs reading his own work.
You may have noticed the first chapter is titled with a “Part 1” yet there appears to be no “Part 2”. Yeah, I noticed that too, but by this point it is neither shocking nor surprising.
This feels like a good stopping point since I’ve never said this much about nothing. William S. Burroughs In The Dreamachine is an incomprehensible mess, devoid of structure, focus, tangible information, and least of all art. Any message Aes-Nihil and Dr. Woodard may be trying to convey is lost in a sea of confusion.
Video & Audio Rating:
Yes, this is my first ever zero star rating. Every frame seems to be shot with a VHS camcorder, so any hopes of a blu-ray upgrade are dashed (sarcasm intended). Desaturated colors, blurred focus, careless composition…this just begins to scratch the surface of what’s wrong here. All of the traits of no skill cinematography are present. The term “home movies” comes to mind when viewing these cobbled segments.
Audio is even worse. Captured with the on-board omni-directional microphone, ambient noise is captured to greater effect than the subjects sitting directly in front of the camera. Many of the conversations are completely unintelligible and anyone viewing the footage will begin to wonder if any effort was put forth to develop this release. Even if you wanted to listen to their collective ramblings about drugs or government policies, you can’t because it is simply impossible to hear what anyone is saying.
- Photo Gallery (6:18): Slideshow accompanied by music.
- Dr. David Woodard, Dreamachine Installation (49:36): A painfully long segment chronicling David Woodard’s launch of a dreamachine exhibit in the Freud Museum of Dreams in St. Petersburg, Russia. The irony is that this footage is more intriguing and insightful than the main feature. Unfortunately, the footage is still poorly filmed, overlong, and tedious.
Is there an audience for William S. Burroughs In The Dreamachine? Yes. Some William S. Burroughs completist will indeed want this in his/her collection. So in that regard it still meets my criteria of being a film “worth watching.” The other reason to own this is to mock and laugh at Dr. Woodard, but that’s plain mean spirited.
On the other hand I take strong issue with calling William S. Burroughs In The Dreamachine a “movie”, “film”, or “documentary” in the strictest sense of the definition. I wouldn’t dare term it “Experimental” as even experimental cinema typically includes an aura of artfulness and skill. William S. Burroughs In The Dreamachine requires a different definition, more akin to “Home Movie”, by which my rules of “watching anything once” doesn’t apply. I would suggest a title change to “My Home Movies of William S. Burroughs In The Dreamachine (while Dr. Woodard Blathers About Nothing)” might clear up viewer misconceptions and expectations.
Such total and crashing disappointment! Skip it.