“Smash the control images. Smash the control machine.”
William S. Burroughs was a lot more than just being a lawless writer and Beat Generation icon. An extremely influential figure, his literary work, and artwork in the form of ‘Gunshot paintings’, have been celebrated for its counterculture uniqueness. Born on February 5, 1914, to a relatively affluent family, Burroughs always enjoyed the safety of a protected childhood, but an alleged encounter with the occult at an early age made him a staunch believer of magic and occult. Burroughs had been sent to a boarding school for the wealthy where he kept a journal entry documenting the eroticism he harboured for a particular boy in the school. After Naked Lunch was published, he was well-known as the homosexual author, bucking the trend and prejudices of social boundaries of the time. Burroughs led a pretty reckless life and soon was brave enough to forgo employment as he received an allowance of nearly two hundred dollars from his parents. This freedom allowed him to explore his creative side and live life according to his own whims and fancies.
Despite his success, Burroughs struggled with his mental health and was severely depressed, a factor which enabled him to be discharged from military duty. Around the same time, he followed his friends to New York City, a movement which eventually led to the beginning of the Beats. Around 1944, Burroughs and Jack Kerouac had their first run-in with the law which inspired their 1945 collaboration named, And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks, the manuscript of which did not get published until 2008. It was during this period of his life that Burroughs also started taking morphine, getting haplessly addicted to it.
Later, Burroughs and his family moved to Mexico where they led a dysfunctional life. It was here that he shot his wife and changed his narrative various times. This is still a controversial topic with various friends of Burroughs, including Allen Ginsberg who sided with him. According to Ginsberg, Vollmer’s suicidal nature probably compelled her to take part in a risky ‘William Tell’ reenactment with Burroughs.
Burroughs has often made controversial claims about his wife’s death, acting as a catalyst and muse for his literary career. Following the success of Junkie and Queer, which were more or less conventional in the genre of homosexuality, Naked Lunch, the author’s most celebrated work, saw him tread perilous, non-conventional waters. While it was censored for its obscenity, it became the heartbeat of the counterculture generation of the 1960s. It was known for its notoriety and controversial tone and was largely celebrated.
Burroughs, who lived a significantly precarious and quirky life, was well-known for his preoccupation with the occult. He passed away at the age of 83 after decades of drug addiction. Shunned by many for his legal atrocities as well as different outlook, Burroughs had still managed to live a somewhat fulfilled life. His legacy has been celebrated far and wide, from him appearing on the covers of The Beatles’ eighth studio album to him starring in small yet noteworthy cameos of individual films.
Spotting a cameo can be an uphill task. It is difficult yet rewarding as many a time, these cameos harbour secret meanings. While Alfred Hitchcock and Stan Lee can be considered the king of cameos due to their sudden pop-ups on-screen, William S. Burroughs had made quite a few significant appearances in films. While some documentaries had him lending his voice, his presence has altered the course of certain films as well.
On this icon’s 107th birth anniversary, let us take a look at the five best cameo appearances he made in films which are iconic and noteworthy.
“Perhaps all pleasure is only relief.”
The 5 best William S. Burroughs movie cameos:
5. Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (Gus Van Sant, 1993)
This film is a prime example of how an ensemble cast cannot uphold a film if the script is boring and outlandish. Burroughs makes a short yet iconic cameo as a man crossing the street and uttering the word “ominous” as the city erupts into noise. Even this noteworthy cameo could not save the film. An extremely weak script coupled with a bizarre plot, this film was listed by many critics among the top ten worst films of 1993. Inspired by Tom Robbins’ book, it was an utter pain and unendurable task to watch such a pitiful adaptation.
Sissy Hankshaw has enormous thumbs which allow her to hitchhike quite easily. She is sent by her agent to his ranch situated in California where she has to shoot a commercial with mating cranes as a backdrop. She gets embroiled in a lesbian relationship and weirdness gradually unfolds.
4. Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989)
A group of nomadic drug addicts rob drugstores to sustain their rookie lifestyle. Peaceful and appropriately paced, the film does not glamourise or villainise drugs. The film portrays a man’s transition from a drug-fuelled to a drug-free lifestyle due to his experiences as a junkie.
Amidst an incredible cast, Matt Dillon stands out as Bob and adds a hint of realism to his character which adds to the overall beauty of the film splendid cinematography and soundtrack makes it a film worth remembrance. Van Sant’s film has a contemplative atmosphere which makes it a refreshing drug-withdrawal film. Burroughs appears in the film as an elderly junkie priest. This small but noteworthy came made by an icon of the Beat Generation echoes Van Sant’s intent.
3. Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees (David Blair, 1991)
As an anti-war film critiquing the Gulf War as well as the current-day drone warfare, the film features Burroughs in an additional cameo as a beekeeper. It was the first film to have been streamed across the Internet which was a historical feat. Odd and lyrically beautiful, it reeks of hypnosis and hallucination. The film accentuates the various aspects of life in an attempt to critique it, especially technology and warfare.
Abound in idiosyncrasies, the film sees a man recollecting an incident of how a bee television was implanted in him by the bees which made him lose his self-awareness regarding time, space as well as his self while located in the dreary western deserts of America.
2. Decoder (Klaus Maeck, 1984)
Inspired by William S. Burroughs’ story, this film is blessed with a cameo appearance by the legend. Anti-consumerist and avant-garde in its approach, the film acts as an expose for the bureaucratic surveillance imposed by the government which resorts to using music as a weapon for mind control. The excellent cinematography is complemented by the use of various colours in a neon palette to suit the mood of the film. Incredibly poetic, this film is extremely under-watched in the cyberpunk genre of German uniqueness.
FM Einheit is a burger shop employee who makes an astounding discovery. The government is using music as a form of mind control and to assert unchallenged power. Einheit discovers that by replacing the peaceful and serene music with industrial noise, he can alter people’s perception and stir revolution and rebellion in their hearts against the government.
1. Chappaqua (Conrad Rooks, 1967)
Conrad Rook’s Beatnik cult favourite is somewhat semi-autobiographical. It follows the spiritual journey of a man who is struggling with drug addiction. He goes to France to cope with drug-withdrawal and documents his journey of anguish and paranoia towards good health and well-being. He encounters various counterculture figures on his way towards betterment.
William S. Burroughs appears as Opium Jones alongside several other well-known Beatniks such as Allen Ginsberg, Moondog, Ornette Coleman and Jean-Louis Barrault. It is indeed a brave film where Rooks exposes his drug-fuelled lifestyle in a film that is invigorated by the transcendental soundtrack. While one wishes the film were slightly longer, the overall psychedelic appeal of the film coupled with the subtle symbolism and exceptional script makes it a ’60s classic.