The Discipline of D.E.: Gus Van Sant Adapts a Story by William S. Burroughs (1978)

Every­one who’s read Jack Ker­ouac knows what it means to go vis­it the sage Old Bill Lee. And even many who haven’t read Ker­ouac know who Old Bill Lee real­ly was: inno­v­a­tive writer, Beat Gen­er­a­tion elder states­man, and sub­stance enthu­si­ast William S. Bur­roughs. Gus Van Sant, who had imbibed from the coun­ter­cul­ture ear­ly on, paid his own vis­it to Old Bill Lee a few years after grad­u­at­ing from the Rhode Island School of Design. On a recent episode of WTF, Van Sant tells Marc Maron how, hav­ing read a Bur­roughs essay called “The Dis­ci­pline of DE” back in Prov­i­dence, he looked Bur­roughs up in the New York City phone book, called him, and paid him a vis­it — not just because Ker­ouac’s char­ac­ters did it, but because he want­ed the rights to turn the sto­ry into a film.

The result­ing nine-minute short puts images to Bur­roughs’ words. “DE is a way of doing,” says its nar­ra­tor Ken Shapiro, who had direct­ed the tele­vi­sion-satriz­ing cult film The Groove Tube a few years ear­li­er. “DE sim­ply means doing what­ev­er you do in the eas­i­est most relaxed way you can man­age, which is also the quick­est and most effi­cient way, as you will find as you advance in DE.”

We then see var­i­ous cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly illus­trat­ed exam­ples of DE in action, includ­ing  “the art of ‘cast­ing’ sheets and blan­kets so they fall just so,” pick­ing up an object by drop­ping “cool pos­ses­sive fin­gers onto it like a gen­tle old cop mak­ing a soft arrest,” and even gun fight­ing in the old west as prac­ticed by Wyatt Earp, the only gun fight­er who “ever real­ly grasped the con­cept of DE.”

Van Sant com­plet­ed The Dis­ci­pline of DE, his sixth short film, in 1978. Just over a decade lat­er he would cast Bur­roughs in a high­ly Old Bill Lee-like role in his sec­ond fea­ture Drug­store Cow­boy, bring­ing him back a few years lat­er for Even Cow­girls Get the Blues. Van Sant adapt­ed both of those films from nov­els, as he’s done in much of his fil­mog­ra­phy. Trav­el­ing Europe with a film club after col­lege, he told Maron, he got the chance to vis­it famed auteurs like Fed­eri­co Felli­ni, Lina Wert­müller, and Pier Pao­lo Pasoli­ni. It was Pasoli­ni to whom he explained his own ambi­tion in film­mak­ing: “to trans­late lit­er­a­ture into film.” Paolin­i’s less-than-encour­ag­ing response: “Why would you do that? Why would you both­er?” Yet Van San­t’s dri­ve to make cin­e­ma “more mal­leable, like the nov­el,” has served him well ever since, as — if he adheres to it — has the dis­ci­pline of DE.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Mak­ing of Drug­store Cow­boy, Gus Van Sant’s First Major Film (1989)

William S. Bur­roughs’ “The Thanks­giv­ing Prayer,” Shot by Gus Van Sant

William S. Burrough’s Avant-Garde Movie ‘The Cut Ups’ (1966)

William S. Bur­roughs’ Home Movies, Fea­tur­ing Pat­ti Smith, Allen Gins­berg, Steve Busce­mi & Cats

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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