William S Burroughs – Cut-Ups

William S Burroughs from Towers Open Fire (1963)

Just because February, the birthday month, is over, it doesn’t mean our William Burroughs celebrations, here on the Allen Ginsberg Project are over, far from it!  Here for the weekend, a little more from and about El Hombre Invisible. Looking back on his legendary “cut-up” work (with particular reference to his film collaboration(s) with Antony Balch).

Antony Balch.jpg

Antony Balch (1937-1980)

(A new monograph, Guerilla Conditions – Le Cinema d’Antony Balch by French scholar, Adrien Clerc, named after a planned-but-never-completed Balch-Burroughs collaboration, is scheduled to appear shortly). Meanwhile…

Burroughs:  “Now these experiments started not on tape-recorders but on paper. In 1959 Brion Gysin said that writing is fifty years behind painting and applied the montage technique to words on a page and this technique had already been used at that time in painting for fifty years, it was, in fact, kind of old hat in painting. Brion copied out phrases from newspapers and magazines, then took his scissors and cut these selections into pieces and rearranged the fragments at random and these cut-up experiments appeared in Minutes To Go in 1959. When you experiment with cut-ups over a period of time, you  find that some of the cut-ups and rearranged texts seem to refer to future events. I cut up an article on.. written by John Paul Getty and got “it’s a bad thing to sue your own father”, (this was a rearrangement and wasn’t in the original text), and a year later one of his sons did sue him. We had no explanation for this at the time, (perhaps, suggesting that when you cut into the present the future leaks out), but we simply accepted it and continued the experiments…

William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Gregory Corso, and Sinclair Beiles, Minutes to Go, Paris, Two Cities, 1960

Here’s a key statement by Burroughs  on the Cut-Up Method, from 1963, (from The Moderns – An Anthology of New Writing in America
1963 – same year as the first and most realized of the Burroughs-Balch collaborations, Towers Open Fire

Towers Open Fire and Other Films

“Kid – what are you doing over there with the niggers and the apes? Why don’t you straighten out an act like a white man? After all, they’re only human cattle you know that yourself. I hate to see a bright young man fuck up and get off on the wrong track – sure it happens to all of us one time or another. Why the man who went on to invent shitola was sitting right where you’re sitting now twenty-five years ago when I was saying the same thing to him – well, he straightened out same as you’re going to straighten out. You can’t deny your blood kid – you’re white, white, white, and you can’t walk out on life times change there’s just no place to go.
Gentlemen – this was to be expected after all he’d been a medium all his life
Lock them out and bar the door
Lock them out for ever more
Nook and cranny window door
Seal them out for ever more
Curse go back
Curse go back
Back with double pain and lack
Curse go back
Curse go back
Back with double fear and flak
Silver arrow through the night
Silver arrow take they flight
Silver arrow seeks and finds
Cursing heart and cursing mind
Sell at ten-minutte intervals – rac, tel and con-Burroughs B & M – Transvestite Airlines – Molec Caper-United Narcotics-Uranium Limited-Allied Drugs-Lazarus Pharmaceuticals-sell 50,000 units at arbitrary intervals
Dramatic relief from anxiety
Dimethyltriptamine alarming and disagreeable symptoms
Anything that can be done chemically can be done in other ways
The use of opium and/or derivatives
Breaking bounds by flicker-flicker administered under large dosage and repeated later could well lead to overflow of the brain area seeing sounds and even odours that is a categorical characteristic of the consciousness expanding Grey Walter produced many of the phenomenon –
I wrote your fading movie-feed in all the words you think developed, pouring in the resistance message, handcutting dirty films here, hand takes-from vulnerable honesty to org in a leaky lifeboat takes action against time – This is the Mayan caper – Hand takes inexorable feeding board books ripping film flakes – shatter the theatre – the ovens – your two-bit narrative line to Wallgreens – the theme explodes strictly from moochville – poisoned techniques drop – you can take that to the sky, that rebought branch of Italian air – This is your last ‘are you serious?’ loud and clear. – You Mr D. – you can’t smudge two speeds – moving out cutting layout flying flags coloured with contriol thoughts, feelings. cocolaco, junk, and cancer control shit – and you Mr D, who under the name of Hassan i Sabbah feed into the machine on subliminal level unimaginable disaster of Nova we feed in dismantle your miserable shit bodies – TOWERS OPEN FIRE!”

“Towers Under Fire”, was, as Rob Bridgett has written, in his definitive essay, in Bright Lights Film Journal “The Films of William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Antony Balch”,”a collage of the main themes and situations or “routines” that appear in Burroughs’ cut-up novels of the period (notably, Nova ExpressThe Ticket That Exploded and The Soft Machine). The soundtrack accompaniment is a mixture of recordings made by Burroughs on a cheap Grundig tape-recorder and resembles many of the cut-up tape experiments achieved [around that time] in collaboration with (his friend) Ian Sommerville. The rest was done in a studio, with some Arab music used. The film depicts society as crumbling in the form of a stock exchange crash, shots of which were purchased from Pathe news. Members of a “board” (look out for the cameo by Alex Trocchi) are dematerialized, and Burroughs plays an omnipresent role in the film (not least as the victim of an “orgasm attack” in which he leaps through a window and shoots family photos with a ping-pong gun!). There are also important scenes using facial projections in which a face has a light mask projected onto it. Also appearing in the film are early Flicker experiments courtesy of (Brion) Gysin’s “dream machine”...There is also a scene in which Burroughs’ friend, Mikey Portman dances around in a music-hall fashion, and looks up to the sky to see a dancing series of pink and blue dots. These were hand-painted by Balch onto clear leader for each print of the film. An important section…is the actual cut-up sequence. Filmed on a quayside in Paris. this sequence is the first filmic example of the cut-ups and it lasts about thirty seconds…”

The Nova Trilogy by William Burroughs


The eponymous “Cut Ups”, though filmed at essentially the same time, appeared three years later. Bridgett again: “The Cut-Ups” was conventionally edited and then cut into four approximately equal lengths. It was then assembled into its final state by taking one-foot lengths from each of the four sections that were cut together with mathematical precision – 1,2,3,4,1,2.3.4, etc. Variations to this structure occur randomly when a shot change occurs within one of the already edited one-foot lengths….The length of the shots, with the exception of the last, is always the same (apart from the shot changes within the one-foot sections)…The soundtrack was made by Sommerville, Burroughs and Gysin. They asked Balch how long the film was, and they produced permutated phrases to the exact length of twenty minutes and four seconds, including the final “Good, thank you”. These permutated phrases are repeated and phased, like a (minimalist) composition. There are four in all – “Yes Hello?” “Look at that picture”, “Does it seem to be persisting?” and “Good, thank you”.”
The sheer reductive repetition and monotony proved to be too much for the film’s original London audience. “It ran for a fortnight and eventually had to be shortened from twenty to twelve minutes because staff and manager couldn’t stand running it five times a day”. As Bridgett has perceptively observed, in Here To Go, Gysin  remarks that “Burroughs pushed Cut-ups so far with variations of his own that he produced texts that were sickeningly painful to read”. “The Cut-Ups”, Bridgett notes,” recreates this in cinema”. It too “is almost “sickeningly painful” to watch and try to make sense of”. It is an intentional mind-game, a Rimbaldian “dereglement de.. les sens”.

Here’s another early Burroughs-Balch collaboration, shot in Morocco (or perhaps, as Brion Gysin has suggested, Gibraltar) – “William Buys A Parrot”

and the identity-exchange from 1972, “Bill and Tony”

Jed Birmingham’s informative note on the Burroughs- Balch correspondence may be seen here 

Taking it right up to the present (and back in the past) – and into the future, Joe AmbroseA.D.Hitchin’s  “Cut Up”  anthology will be out any day now


Brion Gysin tomorrow.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *