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Distributed by Alive Mind Education, 56 West 45th St., Suite 805, New York, NY 10036; 212-398-3112
Produced by Maureen Judge, Anita Lee
Directed by Nik Sheehan
DVD, color, 75 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Art, Literature, Poetry, Popular Culture, Writing

Reviewed by Dan DiLandro, E.H. Butler Library, State University of New York College at Buffalo

Date Entered: 11/21/2008

FLicKeR tells the story of Brion Gysin (the “only man” William S. Burroughs “ever respected”) and his unique contributions to the Arts. Well, indeed, the film cannot completely tell the story, relying more generally on interviews with authors, philosophers, neuroscientists, artists, and other prominent individual from various fields. As a Parisian curator said of Gysin’s most arguably famous work, “It’s a very peculiar piece to classify”; and so is the film itself, following Gysin’s life and work around the loose construct of his “Dreamachine”—a “provoked accident” that related to his own poetry and painting, but also touches upon instances of neurobiology and the anarchic principles of the 1960’s anti-control movements.

In short, FLicKeR is a biography of a person told not about the individual himself, really, but by the recollections of others on the influences of his works -- a sort of verbal, artistic Gedenkschrift, in a way.

Beginning with the filmmaker’s attempt to recreate the Dreamachine, the audience is shown that, during a 1950’s train ride, Gysin experienced, basically, a sort of drug trip, caused by sunlight’s interaction with the moving vehicle. The resulting strobe effect was not “grace,” Gysin found, but a physio-neurological effect that stimulated alpha waves in the brain, evincing dreams, hallucinations, and—filmed researchers tell us—epileptic seizures in one out of every 4000 people. The archival images and sound as well as interviews with famous artists (such as Marianne Faithfull, Leila Luce, D.J. Spooky, Kenneth Anger, Iggy Pop) and authors produce a description of Gysin via a description of the machine, and proof of the evolution of the machine out of Gysin’s worldview and artistic standpoint.

There is much talk, as expected, of the similarities of the effects of the Dreamachine to drug use; and the various interviewees express different, though certainly generally uniformly “psychedelic,” visions they experience.

But more than a recitation of subjective emotions is the rich foundation that this machine, and individuals’ thoughts on it, develop for biographical information and, essentially, Gysin’s place within the art world and his true impact upon it.

For instance, we are told that Gysin was obsessed with “unraveling control”—as evidenced by a recording of his spoken poetry repeating “control” over and over again. Via the interviews it becomes clear to the audience how Gysin and his work sought to accomplish this. The artist’s physical art—the graphic, grid-based anagrams; the calligraphic images; the innovative use of “Cut Ups” were, we are told, a manner for the artist to express himself. But the Dreamachine was the “end of art.” The machine provided individual and individualized images to each viewer. No longer was art imposed on audiences by the medium of paint or text; the Dreamachine gave everyone a sort of self-generated, unconscious art show of their own.

It is only toward the end of the film that anything like a more “traditional” biography is presented, but Gysin’s time in Morocco, his belief that he was the reincarnation of the 10th century leader of the Assassins, and other potentially fascinating biographical facts are, as elsewhere, glossed over in deference to more subjective and “artistic” interpretations of the subject himself.

Naturally, given the principle player in the film and the times and ethos from which most of Gysin’s work sprung, there are often reference to drugs and the machine’s (and Gysin’s other art) similarity therein, thereby restricting the film’s audience. So too, the experimental, hyper-visual and –audio “weird” quality of the film itself will necessarily restrict some viewers.

All of the above is fairly heavy intellectual “stuff,” but the film benefits from its high-profile and energetic speakers as well as the real art of the filmmaker. While the visual track can be utterly confusing, the repetitious spoken poetry can be somewhat irritating, the constant flickering scenes of the Dreamachine can be annoying, the insights of the speakers can be truly fascinating and the bridge expressed between kinetics and art is surely educational.

Naturally, the speakers themselves are often quite plain in their admiration or explanation of Gysin, which makes the narrative much more accessible to viewers. Too, the discussions of the utterly failed marketing campaign of the Dreamachine provide levity—but also interesting food for thought as to the commercialization and accessibility of all types of art.

Of course, audiences that are not terribly interested in or adept at Beat and drug cultures, Futurist and post-Dada-type movements (with their textual and individual deconstruction as well as the integration of humans into machines), and anarchic punk movements will almost certainly be divorced from any sense that the film is trying to convey.

Gysin is called “a conjuror swallowed up by his own spell,” and this statement is certainly telling in that the artist is little remembered today; but FLicKeR installs him neatly in his own times while proving that his constructions formed a bedrock for much of the avant-garde and anti-control elements that followed. Our culture has been shaped by his and similar artists’ spell, but this particular magician is, perhaps, less and less in his own creation, hidden by myth, reinterpretation, and the general ignorance of his seminal work.

Of course, for viewers interested in Gysin, Burroughs, these eras and movements as well as the ramifications of poetic movements and the influence of past artistic schools upon today’s “progressive” art movements, FLicKeR is a fine and useful film. It is surely recommended for collections that specialize in specific areas of art, literature, poetry, pop culture, and writing.


  • Special Jury Prize for Best Canadian Feature Documentary, 2008