Based on John Geiger’s book Chapel of Extreme Experience, Nik Sheehan’s FLicKeR is a fascinating voyage into the life of artist and mystic Brion Gysin and his legendary invention the dream machine, a device that projects stroboscopic light, provoking a “drugless high” and cinematic hallucinations. In this Hot Docs world premiere Sheehan captures the dynamic, supernatural world of Gysin, the queer cultural terrorist who fused science, magic and art to expand human consciousness and transcend material reality.
Gysin’s biography is difficult to condense, but he grew up in Edmonton before reinventing himself as a bohemian globetrotter who went on to become the unacknowledged genius behind some of the most interesting developments in the 20th-century avant-garde. He died in 1986. Sheehan casts him as a radical artist intent on harnessing “the visionary potential of light” (as Geiger puts it) to revolutionary ends. Gysin was not a man but, like the machine, a way of perceiving the world — pure energy. He even tried to make himself invisible.
“It’s incredible that nobody’s made this film before,” says Sheehan, whose previous credits include God’s Fool about writer Scott Symons and the groundbreaking AIDS documentary No Sad Songs. “I was surprised how anxious people were to open up and talk about Gysin because people have so many different views of him.” What is so compelling about FLicKeR is that Gysin remains mysterious and ephemeral throughout, no amount of talking could ever explain him.
Sheehan’s film is populated with a who’s who of pundits, countercultural figures and Gysin confidantes, reminding you that rock ‘n’ roll has always gone hand in hand with the most out-there shit: Marianne Faithfull, Iggy Pop, Kenneth Anger and Genesis P-Orridge all wax poetic on Gysin, magic and their most memorable trips, as do younger devotees like Lee Ranaldo and DJ Spooky. How did Sheehan land all these stellar interviewees? “That’s the magical question,” quips Sheehan. “It’s a very interesting group; they go back a long time. And because they’re cult figures they’ve obviously built up all these defences. So it was a very complicated and long and dedicated effort to bring everybody online.”
The film is also chock full of brilliant archival footage, particularly of Gysin, his art and his intensely fruitful and influential collaborations with William S Burroughs. We visit the “Beat Hotel” in Paris where these seditious kooks built a poor-man’s lab to transform the world through all manner of strange experiments in perception. “That’s one of the things about Gysin and Burroughs and these guys, it’s this combination of the silly and the sublime,” Sheehan says. “We have to remember how incredibly brave they were. They did not accept what society was offering — it was all lies. And they were very moral, good people in their way. With Nazi Germany they saw what could happen to a government [if] we get a little too trusting.
“That element of rebellion has something really serious.”
Sheehan feels Gysin’s gayness was fundamental. “A shaman to me is always a pansexual being,” says the gay Canadian filmmaker. “These guys all came out of that period where queer was really hardcore, it was part of their radical art — and of course it was illegal.”
Sheehan says his film “wasn’t so much a biography of Gysin or a story of the dream machine as a story of the dream machine as a biography of Gysin — the way the two fuse together. I think [the producers] were expecting it was just going to be this cute story about this spinning little machine, not these crazy queer mystics.
“The dream machine is [Gysin’s] ultimate work, this end-of-art thing that went beyond something you made to something you created individually in your own head.”
One challenge that Sheehan encountered was how to represent this internal, neurological phenomenon on screen, so there are many shots of people pressed up close to the device, eyes closed, narrating their experiences in ecstatic tones. It calls to mind Eric Emerson in Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls who just “groove[s] on myself” as coloured lights play over his body, a transcendence through narcissism. The dream machine isn’t much to look at — sort of like a twirling lampshade — so you have to take people’s word for it. But whether you can imagine what they are seeing or not, the ideas behind the machine are what matter.
“One of the things I really wanted to do is put things in the present tense, to give it some relevance,” says Sheehan. “The idea of trying to build a machine to change your world, we’re doing that all the time, aren’t we?
“The Beats came to fruition in the late ’50s in the Eisenhower years where the world was petrified by the bomb and conformity was everything. Well, where are we now? We live in this time when we have this rightwing American government, which has turned into a torture state. There are weird parallels. It was the old message: Don’t trust the man, he doesn’t always have your best interests at heart. And the dream machine is the perfect metaphor for this: Get rid of television, get rid of cinema, make your own inner movie, be your own person.”
In its enthusiasm for this long-gone cultural moment and its most beguiling catalyst, FLicKeR has great poignancy. At one point P-Orridge suggests that the control that Gysin and his comrades were fighting against is now diffuse and all-pervasive, and that rather than deserving to be liberated by the ultimate mind trip, the inert public now “deserve to have their bottoms smacked.”