‘Nova Express’ never gets old

For his 1964 novel "Nova Express," William Burroughs (who died in 1997) employed the "cut-up" method devised by himself and writer-artist Brion Gysin, an anti-narrative method that involved randomly splicing together phrases from various sources and inserting them into his own text. For the film adaptation — screening at the Brattle with other Burroughs related films to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the book's publication and the centenary of the author's birth — Andre Perkowski attempts something similar. In this five-year (and counting) project, he synchronizes bits of found footage with recordings of Burroughs and others (including fellow Beat writer Alan Ginsberg) reading from the novel.

The book does offer a plot of sorts, and Perkowski illustrates it with sometimes uninspired literalness — i.e., Burroughs describes in voice-over a character going into a Chinese laundry, and Perkowski shows us a generic shot of a guy going into a Chinese laundry. The filmmaker also includes an inordinate number of images of detective types in cheap suits and fedoras sitting at desks, of doctors in white coats performing various operations, and sequences from no-budget '50s sci-fi movies of gimcracky flying saucers and astronauts in tacky spacesuits. And many shots of hypodermic needles plunging into veins.


But the repeated, retro images eventually coalesce into a tawdry, otherworldly miasma, suitable for Burroughs's gravelly monologue — a cross between Raymond Chandler and Rimbaud. The author relates the escapades of his persona, Inspector Lee, an agent of the Nova police, whose mission is to save the planet from the virus of words and images by which malignant entities control and parasitically consume the human race. He and his colleagues hunt down the viral humanoids who infest and enslave unwitting hosts.

So much for the story. The book and film serve best as prophecy, a mashup of William Blake, Lenny Bruce, and "Finnegan's Wake" that has proven to be uncannily prescient of our current crisis of culture and consciousness. Language and image have indeed become viral on the internet, corporations have created a nation of passive consumers while seizing control of the political process, and the abuses of the NSA and other surveillance systems have metastasized into a spy network that surpasses even Burroughs's wildest paranoid fantasies.


As the film reaches its climax, Perkowski's images become less literal and more visionary, intensifying into hallucinatory, stroboscopic collages. Its "Final Words" (in fact the first words of the book), written half a century ago, are apocalyptic and all too timely: "Listen all you boards syndicates and governments of the earth. And you powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours. To sell the ground from unborn feet forever … Show your cards all players … These words might be too late."

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.