Flicker – review

In 1959, painter and poet Brion Gysin and scientist Ian Sommerville invented what they called the dreamachine — a rotating cylinder with slits on the sides and a light bulb in the middle. It looks like a novelty decoration, like a disco ball or lava lamp, but to its creators, it is something far more significant. The revolving slits make a pattern of light that flickers at the same frequency as the brain waves that control dreams — when you close your eyes and stare into the light, you hallucinate. A drugless high. They hoped it would catch on with the general public, replace television and expand the world’s consciousness. It didn’t.

The dreamachine should be an ideal subject for a documentary, and director Nik Sheehan does get started on the right foot in FLicKeR. He recruits an array of cult figures to comment on the device, from Marianne Faithful to Iggy Pop to filmmaker and occultist Kenneth Anger. He brings in scientists and art critics to talk about its value, and the importance of Gysin’s work in general. An accomplished (though never particularly popular) visual artist, Gysin is also the man behind cut-up poetry, a technique often falsely credited to William S. Burroughs (through no fault of Burroughs, who called Gysin “the only man I ever respected”). Unfortunately, the film can’t do its subjects justice.

The cult figures are a large part of the problem. While it’s fun to see counterculture figures like Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo try the machine out, the responses can be boiled down to “ooh, neat.” Watching these artists and musicians is like listening to someone talk about a dream they had — kind of interesting, but not particularly captivating.

FLicKeR does better when it focuses more on Gysin than his invention (Sommerville isn’t given much time in the documentary). Scenes in which his friends and acquaintances reminisce about Burroughs’s infamous Beat Hotel or describe a journey to Morocco to visit the Master Musicians of Jajouka provide glimpses at an extraordinary time for the counterculture. They’re just that, though — glimpses. At barely an hour and a quarter, the film simply doesn’t have enough time to fully explore any of its subjects. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if it inspires a few folks to build dreamachines of their own, and that alone could be worth the price of admission.

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