Flicker (2008) dir. Nik Sheehan
In the mid 60’s Canadian-born artist Brion Gysin invented what he purported to be a new entertainment medium – the ‘Dream Machine’ – a device which would tap into the human mind for a natural high. The device sounds highly scientific. A cylindrical column with cut out holes spins around a light bulb. When spun at a certain speed, the frequency and flicker of light induces an ‘alpha wave’ activity in the brain, the same activity as which causes dreaming and spurs creativity.
The height of the Dream Machine’s popularity was the 60’s when some saw the potential as a non-chemical based psychedelic high. Whether it works or not, it attracted some famous people. Brian Jones, Marianne Faithful, Iggy Pop all used it. Even Kurt Cobain had one in his house the day he died.
Canadian filmmaker Nik Sheehan uses this device to tell the story of its inventor Gyson, a beatnik era renaissance man and his uniquely idiosyncratic life and accomplishments. It's intriguing and little known story of counterculture and psychedelic spiritualism.
Like many other documentarians Sheehan puts himself into his film as he travels the world interviewing advocates of the Dream Machine. His subjects are off the wall, and so we’re never sure if the device is just hoax, a novelty or something which can truly change people’s perception. There’s Marianne Faithful, the former swinging 60’s icon who speaks in droll, unenthusiastic tones, Iggy Pop seems spry and has fond memories of the device like remembering an old girlfriend he hasn’t seen in a while; a transgendered artist Genesis P-Orridge is still wildly mad for the device.
The most fascinating moments are when Sheehan delves into the history of Gysin and his oddball life in the military, secret service agent, author, artist, entrepreneur and his coterie of beatnik friends including William Burroughs, Paul Bowles and a number of boundary-pushing artistic endeavours including madhatter schemes like putting spells on astronauts who travel to the spacestation.
Whether you believe in the power of the device or whether you think it’s as hokum as a palm reader, shouldn’t influence the enjoyment of the film. Flicker works best as a character film. It’s a story Errol Morris would have knocked out of the park. “Gates of Heaven” wasn’t really about the pet cemetery, same goes with “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control”. Morris could draw the audience into the quirky lives of his subjects so much so that we cared about their passions as much as them.
At times Sheehan gets close to achieving the same attachment to the Dream Machine as Morris did with his pet cemetery. Unfortunately Sheehan is let down by his technique. A handheld camera is used throughout, even during the scenes of talking head interviews. And so along with Sheehan’s unimpressive voiceover “FLicKeR” feels like television, like a ‘special assignment’ piece of journalism we’d see on CBC, or Dateline NBC. That immeasurable big screen cinematic quality is the missing ingredient to elevate it into Errol Morris level of filmmaking.
The film's popularity at film festivals has unearthed a cult audience for this subject matter. “FLicKeR” plays a limited theatrical run locally in Toronto. Though it’s not everyone’s cup of tea Beatnik or psychedelic nostalgia fans may be entranced like the Flicker. Can’t make it to Toronto for the screening? You can always try out the Flicker sensation at the film’s website: www.flickerflicker.com. Happy dreaming.