William Burroughs – 1975 – 2

We continue with our transcription from yesterday of William Burroughs’ June 12 1975 lecture at Naropa Institute

WSB: Any product or invention is standardized by mass-production and this standardization of the product discourages further experimentation. Since the motor industry can sell (or, rather, could,, until up to a few months ago) as many cars with internal combustion engines as they could produce, they didn’t want to know about jet turbine engines. Of course the turbine engine’s better, more efficient, but why bother with a better product if you can sell what’s already in production? And this consideration applies to the film industry. So long as they can sell Westerns, Gangsters, Spectaculars, Musicals, all the standard Hollywood products, why experiment? –  “What has made money will make money” is a Hollywood axiom. Anything new is a gamble that the big studios don’t want to take. In consequence, the surface has barely been scratched with regard to experimentation with the film medium. Now the flashback, of course, is an old device, but the flash-forward is quite recent (I remember Easy Rider,  Alice’s Restaurant – there probably are other, many other examples now- but how could anyone think of one without thinking of the other. I mean, anyone with the slightest degree of inventiveness, because it’s the same process, you’ve got your film section, you can move forward, you can move back. Inventiveness, to use (B.F.) Skinner’s phrase, has not been “re-enforced” by the Studios. Now, consider a film as a slice of time with which you can do anything you want, you can speed it up, slow it down, run it backwards, flash back, flash forward, scramble, overlay, under-expose, over-expose, and you can also feed in audience reaction. The standard product simply presents a sequential narrative, which is actually an arbitrary form with a middle, beginning and an end. It’s really as arbitrary as the form of the sonnet, but it is what the audience is accustomed to see.

Now Anthony Balch and myself did a film called The Cut-Ups, which, using these “cut-up” techniques and.. What exactly is a “cut-up”? – and how does it differ from the editing and rearranging that takes place in the cutting-room during the assembling of any film?
Well, at some point, the cut-up is arbitrary and random. I spoke, also, in the last class, on the use of cut-ups in military strategy, as expounded by Dr. (John von) Neumann in the theory of games and economic behavior. It is the theory of minimax, that is, you assume that your strategy is known to the enemy or the opponent, and then act in such a manner that knowledge of your strategy is of minimal use to your enemy or opponent, and this is accomplished by introducing  a random factor, a flip of a coin , a shuffle of cards. For example, if you have three alternative flight plans, just before take-off you throw dice or flip a coin to decide which of the plans will be used. Now you assume that the worst has happened, that the enemy knows of your pre-flight plans, but they have no way of knowing which one you’re going to use because you don’t know it yourself until you have thrown the dice or how… whatever method you use to determine.. So by introducing a random factor, you have made the choice itself unpredictable.

Now, I’ve also made a number cut-ups on tape-recorders, and they can be made, of course, by actually cutting and re-splicing tape. And this is laborious and time-consuming, and it really takes forever if you’re working with (the) standard tape but (if you’re working with movie tape, it’s much easier, because that’s much large, But a much-simpler method is simply to record for any length of time,and then spin the tape backwards and forwards on the recorder, and cut in new phrases at random, and where you cut in, of course, the old words are wped out and new words cut in seemingly at random. Now I’ve experimented with tape-recorder cut-ups over a period of years and I’ve frequently been surprised at how often the cut-ins fall in appropriate places and how much of the new recording makes perfect sequential sense. So just how random are these cut-ins? – Well, consciously, of course, I don’t know where in the message already recorded I am stopping the recorder to make a cut-in, but we know so much more than we know that we know, (so) that, on some level, I probably know exactly where in the original recording I am cutting in.The cut-ups put one in touch with what he knows and does not know that he knows. Later, working with Anthony Balch, we applied the cut-up technique to films – You take a section of film, cut it into segments and rearrange. Now, this differs from editing, since you cannot foresee the results and you will get new images and words and meanings (just, of course, as you do in cutting up words, but this is simply an extension of that). You can cut into sections of many, or you can cut into one frame sections and rearrange. Now working with single frames is quite a splicing job, but the results are interesting. We did this once and the film just disintegrated after being run through several times, but the results were interesting, and I would like to see, or to make further experiments in scrambling film in this way (that is, one frame). Working with film cut-ups, you can, of course, edit and choose the most effective sequences, just as you can with tape and text cut-ups. However in these film cut-ups, there was no editing of the material. We just had the material and cut it up and rearranged it.

When the film, The Cut-Ups was shown in London, the manager of the theater said that, in all his experience as a theater-manager, man and boy, forty years, he had never seen so many people who came to the box-office furiously angry, demanding a refund of their money, nor so many people who came to express congratulations and approval, nor had he ever seen so many articles left behind in the theater – handbags, overcoats, gloves, briefcases, hats – he said that it looked like a battle-field! – And after one week he asked Anthony to withdraw the film, and it hasn’t been publicly shown since (he has copies, but we haven’t shown them in a public theater since). So, undoubtedly, the film, The Cut-Ups, did produce strong reactions, and many viewers were disoriented by seeing it. And, of course, the same thing happened at first when non-representational paintings were first exhibited. In many cases the canvases were physically attacked by the enraged public, disoriented by seeing something that they were not accustomed to seeing, (and) which they could not recognize.  They didn’t… they didn’t even see.. when Cezanne was first shown, they didn’t realize that these were.. pears.. and food of one sort or another, they.. just couldn’t see them.

Now cut-ups make explicit a process that goes on all the time. Every time we walk down the street or look out the window, our stream-of-consciousness is cut by random factors, random events, random people and random objects. In fact, life is a cut-up.

That (“cut-ups”) was one experimental device – that is, cutting and scrambling, as applied to films – and this technique was used in the film, “Performance (that is Nicholas Roeg saw the film The Cut Ups, and Anthony (Balch explained the technique to him and he used it in that film). That’s only one experiment. There are many others that you can do with films, and some of them have been done but a lot of them haven’t (a surprising number have not been done).

Well, of course, you have time experiments. Now you’ve all seen films speeded up, slowed down and run backwards, but now you can consider speed up, slow down and run backwards as applied to comparatively immobile subjects. Now slowed down faces when they’re not moving give a curious expression of statuesque immobility (it could be used to advantage, I think, in science-fiction films) while speed-up, of course, produces strange seismic twitches. And running in a mobile face backward is quite disorienting. You know that something strange is happening but you don’t know exactly what it is.

A piece of inside information was passed along to me by a lifetime reporter to the effect that what might be called subliminal slow motion, that is thirty-five-frames-per-second instead of twenty-four, was used in the venereal disease film shown to the Armed Forces in World War II, so the diseased genitals were on screen longer than the audience realized. And perhaps it was this gimmick that resulted in so many soldiers fainting and vomiting.

Now, quite interesting are experiments with differential speed, that is you can be speeding up clouds, slowing down leaves in the wind, scenes where people move at different speeds. (I’ve seen some of these, they’re usually just presented as jokes, but they have considerable possibilities to be used in a sequential film). The devices to speed up, slow down, and running the film backwards have been available since the beginning of motion pictures and one cannot but marvel at the lack of imagination exhibited by conventional filmmakers, that were given the control of time and came up with slow-motion pratfalls sixty years later. You see, taking any simple experiment, we see how many variations and extensions can be derived.

This one – I suppose some of you must have done this – if you haven’t, it’s quite a lot of fun – you take a tv set, cut the sound-track and substitute a recorded sound-track (well, you can do it from a similar film). So you take one Western, cut (the) sound-track and put on (a) recorded soundtrack from another Western. Now I’ve seen people watch for five or ten minutes before they realize there’s anything amiss with the soundtrack. The soundtrack will determine what they’re seeing, that is, they will mentally alter the image track to fit the soundtrack (and you can do the same thing, of course, with your own image and soundtracks. (If) you take a picture of people running to catch a bus, put in machine-gun sound-effects, and the audience will assume that they’re running from the machine-guns, and if one stumbles and falls, they will assume that he’s been shot.

Here is another simple experiment that has been performed..I don’t recall the director’s name.. well, the director took a well-known actor and waited until he had an expression that was quite neutral in-between acts (so that he wasn’t acting, he wasn’t doing anything) . Then he inserted several scenes in front of this empty expression on the actor’s face – one was a baby in a cradle, then somebody in a coffin, and an accident-victim lying on the street, and he showed this sequence to the audience, or to an audience, and asked the audience what the actor’s expression meant. Well, they said he was loving the baby, he was sorry for the person dead in the coffin and horrified at the sight of the accident victim. You see, the viewer supplied the expression. The actor, of course, is not  reacting to the scene in front of him at all, since this scene had been artificially inserted. This is one very simple experiment in audience reaction that is susceptible to many variations and extensions, since you can, of course, arrange any context.
Hollywood has only been interested in audience reaction on a statistical that is, namely a box-office basis.

Now you can consider some precise experiments with selected experimental audiences and these experiments can easily be carried out with an eight-millimeter camera, a few subjects, and some test pictures. You can show your audience pictures (preferably pictures to which they will have strong and varied reactions – they can be still or moving pictures). You now photograph the audience.You show the audience-pictures to another audience and ask them to guess what these people are seeing . Or you take the audience’s reaction to a disorienting variation in the soundtrack. The audience is watching what they think is a..first..is a normal tv program and you’re using your own pre-recorded soundtrack, which can be arranged so that its progressively more inappropriate and outrageous (and, of course, if you have a video camera you can slip in sex scenes of a school-teacher, and a Western, lapse into four-letter words, and then capture the moment when your audience finally realizes there’s something a bit strange about this program.
Now, of course, audience reaction to films involves the whole complex mechanism of perception, and, as I pointed out, what the viewers see is conditioned by what he expects to see, which in turn is determined by the soundtrack and the context.

Now to refer back to the experiment of putting scenes in front of an actor where the audience supplies the appropriate expression – love, grief, horror – an expression that is not there. You can carry this experiment further. We put our actors in situations where there  a very definite expression. We photograph expressions of people making love, we photograph the expressions of people playing poker, committing a murder, or simply in a friendly, relaxed context. Now you shift the themes around so that the orgasm faces are the people at the poker table, the friendly, relaxed faces are murdering someone, and the poker faces are situated in what would normally be a friendly, relaxed context. Now how far will the audience go in altering expressions to suit the context? I thought that orgasm faces at the poker table might be stretching a point but after looking through some sex magazines
I decided that context would cover me with these..poker-faces. Certainly murderous faces and sexual faces are quite interchangeable.

Well those are some simple experiments in audience interpretation, reaction and perception. Of course they could be carried much further with psycho-galvanometers or any reaction-detector devices and further still with encephalographic equipment to record an exact correlation between sound and image on the screen and physiological/psychological reaction from the audience.

You can also photograph the reactions of subjects that do not know that they are being photographed and do not know that they are reacting. Now the simplest form of this experiment can be carried out on a tape-recorder without image track – You walk down a street with a recorder, recording street-sounds and conversations. Now make the same walk, playing back the tape you have just recorded, in the street. What is happening? The people who hear that tape (provided the sound-levels are adjusted to street-sounds, and you move quickly and unobtrusively, and adjust the volume), they will not detect the fact that they are listening to a pre-recorded tape, they will think they are hearing actual street-sound and scraps of conversation. You are throwing a whole unreal environment around the people you pass, and consciously, or unconsciously, they’re reacting to this environment. Now you can, of course, doctor your tape before playback, but simply playing the tape back will demonstrate the basic mechanism involved – you are tampering with the so-called reality of the people you pass. You are affecting them without their knowing that they’re being affected or by what? Now this, of course, could also be photographs, and photographed by arranging a hidden camera and tape-recorder to record and photograph the reaction which you get to playback. Or you could do a spectacular with whole trucks of hidden equipment, you could cover one street for hours, days, and months, collecting the most interesting material. But as soon as you start this playing back recordings in the street you will find many interesting things happen. I have made many such experiments over a period of years and seen a number of striking coincidences. Once I was playing back a tape doctored with fire-engine sound-effects and right on queue, there were the fire-engines. Well, you can try it and see. But don’t try it in Morocco, Mexico, or in any closely-knit community where people are directly in contact with their environment. They know what they should be hearing and if they hear something else they will quickly find out where that something else is coming from and they won’t like it. You can do it in London, New York, Paris, any fair-sized city, but not very small places that people know what’s going on at all times

Now, you can consider some experiments in deliberately upsetting and deranging the audience, which could ultimately break down pre-conceived expectations so that.. you know, to make way for new forms. This could take the form of the double-bind as set forth by Gregory Bateson and  R.D.Laing, which, of course, consists of contradictory statements and attitudes expressed by authority figures “pay close attention, this is not important, this is serious, I am joking”, and so forth. Now, the simple form of the double-bind would be friendly and unfriendly words and phrases alternating rapidly at intervals (say, if you alternate those at one frame intervals that would be quite upsetting to watch, I think) – “Yes. No. I love you. I hate you” – basically.. this is basically, of course, alternating current. You can carry it much further with friendly faces and unfriendly words, unfriendly faces and friendly words – a lynch mob uttering benedictions and singing lullabies and angelic kindly faces screaming threats and insults.

Of course the extreme form of the double-bind is the alternation of sex and violence – you soften them with porn and hit them with a nightstick – until they realize that there’s no sex scene there and no night-stick, just images.Anyone with a moving film camera can play God, he can slow time down, speed it up, run it backward. He can literally stop the sun in the sky. So he might as well use his prerogative as God to invent and create and experiment with the film medium.
Well we can pause here for questions, any questions on….

to be continued

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately twenty-four minutes in and concluding at approximately forty-six-and-a-half minutes in]

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