In our popular imagination—and especially in film— the request to "stare into the light" is often an invitation to let our waking life fall into submission. The words— often spoken by hypnotists, anesthesiologists, and mystics— also describe the act of watching movies, and speak to film’s implicit promise of taking us to some other scene accessed through the flickers on the screen.
The transportive and conscious altering qualities of light were not lost on William S. Burroughs and his compatriot and frequent collaborator Brian Gysin. "We must storm the citadels of enlightenment," Burroughs wrote to Gysin, "the means are at hand." The means at hand were Gysin’s revelation about the hallucinatory qualities of flickering light and the device he invented in 1957 to harness its potential: the dreamachine. Nik Sheenan’s hypnotic documentary FliCKer— which makes its U.S. premiere at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts-- looks into the dreamachine’s pulsating brilliance while also sketching a portrait of its troubled and brilliant creator.
Simple in design and resembling a rotating Ikea lamp, the cylindrical dream machine emits a stroboscopic light pattern that pulses at the same frequency as the brain’s alpha waves, allowing the user to enter into an intense state of near lucid dreaming when they "gaze" long enough through closed eyes. Gysin and Burroughs called the dreamachine "the drugless eye." Like his earlier visual experiments in cutting up written texts, Gysin envisioned his creation as an experiential means to circumvent the dominant channels of thought he and Burroughs termed "Control." And with every household practically glued to their television sets throughout the 1950s, such paranoia certainly seemed warranted.
Sheenan weaves in a fair amount of this historical background early on—with plenty of wonderful archival footage of Burroughs and Gysin— but the meat of his film consists of the testimonials of former associates of Gysin and newer dreamachine fans who sing the hallucinatory praises of the device, often in situ. The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s guitarist Nick Zinner describes tranquil fields, Marianne Faithful encounters friendly shadows, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Renaldo waxes about devolving, multicolored chessboards, Iggy Pop praises it as a meditative aid and Sheenan himself describes an early experience as characterized by a host of angels swarming towards him.
Although their testimonials might require a suspension of disbelief, the impressive parade of counter cultural talking heads put forth a cumulative defense of Gysin as a creative force in his own right, whose talents and insights extend far beyond Burroughs’ long shadow. (At one point, Faithful interestingly claims it was Burroughs’ intense neediness that made him and Gysin so close). Having been dismissed as a serious artist by the New York scene, and unable to fall back on the kind of privilege that largely funded Burroughs’ nomadic lifestyle, Gysin saw the dreamachine as the next Lava Lamp— a possible ticket out of his transitory, garret-hopping existence. Unsurprisingly, given the device’s esoteric intent, no toy manufacturers ever bit.
But as Throbbing Gristle member and Gysin friend Genesis P. Orridge dryly suggests, maybe the cosseted masses didn’t deserve access to the dreamachine—or rather, they wouldn’t know how to deal with what it can access. At the film’s close, we see a dreamachine wheeled on stage during a recent Stooges concert just as the band sinks into the opening chords of "Now I Wanna Be Your Dog." The stage lights go off and the machine whirs to life. Perhaps this is the dreamachine’s ideal audience. Prostrating himself before the flickering tower as if to act out his lyrics, Iggy smiles, his eyes closed, enjoining the crowd to follow him into the light.
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