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.
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.