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William Burroughs in Towers Open Fire by Anthony Balch

The Films of William S. Burroughs

by Robert Stalker

The movies!—The movies!—We want the Movies!
--William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine 

This past July marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (or, The Naked Lunch, as it was originally titled). Published in Paris by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, an English language publishing house specializing in underground and erotic books, the novel was begun shortly after Burroughs arrived in Tangier in 1953. Comprised largely of the “routines”—short, satiric, pornographic, and hallucinatory fragments—that Burroughs had been mailing to his friend Allen Ginsberg, Naked Lunch (called “Interzone” in its earlier, embryonic stages) reflects what Burroughs later called the “end-of-the world feeling” of the international zone of Tangier, “with its glut of nylon shirts, Swiss watches, Scotch and sex and opiates sold across the counter.” An outrageous mishmash of quasi-autobiography, drug-world exposé, Sadean erotic fantasy, futuristic, dystopian thriller, and piercing social satire, Naked Lunch would not find an American publisher until Grove brought it out in 1962. Following an important censorship trial in 1966, the novel went on to become a “classic” (if that’s the right word) of radical fiction, the themes and techniques of which Burroughs would refine and expand in his subsequent influential “Nova Trilogy.”

While Burroughs’s fiction has by now become almost as well-known as the Burroughs persona (his instantly recognizable fedora and overcoat; his years of addiction; his accidental shooting of his wife, Joan Vollmer—all integral components of what has become the Burroughs myth), his experiments with film from this same creative period remain virtually unknown. Even as Burroughs has become increasingly recognized as not only a writer but also a pioneering multi-media artist who impressed his imagination onto spoken word performance, painting, audiotape manipulations, and photography, his daring forays into film remain neglected by most standard histories of American avant-garde film. The several films he made in the early sixties, however, present a particularly fascinating extension of the project he pursued in the novels, offering a number of provocative “intersections” (to use one of Burroughs’s favorite words) between his novels and his films.

The approach to composition that Burroughs adopted for Naked Lunch involved an aesthetic breakthrough that would form the matrix for much of Burroughs’s subsequent artistic output, including his film work. Burroughs composed the “routines” that comprise Naked Lunch himself, but Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Brion Gysin, a Canadian-born painter Burroughs had met while in Tangier, all gathered in the Paris hotel where Burroughs resided to help him collate the texts into the form the novel would eventually take. Gysin, who would become a close friend and key collaborator, later recalled that “the raw material of Naked Lunch overwhelmed us . . . Burroughs was more intent on Scotch-taping his photos together into one great continuum on the wall where scenes faded and slipped into one another, than occupied with editing the manuscript.” Gysin’s description here of the organization of Naked Lunch offers several important insights into Burroughs’s creative process. First, the assistance of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Gysin in the collation of the manuscript confirms Graham Caveny’s claim that “collaboration was the key to Burroughs’s creative flow.” Collaboration would mark Burroughs’s creative output for much of his life. Second, Gysin’s description of Burroughs’s preoccupation with photo-montage intimates Burroughs’s fascination with recording technology—cameras and especially tape recorders attracted him—and anticipates his interest in exploring in his writing chance arrangements and juxtapositions, especially through the Cage-like procedure of randomly combining texts that he and Gysin, the technique’s originator, called “cut-ups.” Burroughs believed “the cut-up technique,” a strategy for arbitrarily rearranging and merging disparate texts (one’s own as well as, for example, political speeches and articles from newspapers and medical journals), had the power to reveal hidden relationships between seemingly unconnected materials and systems. As Burroughs later described his technique for reordering images and texts: “I use a tape recorder, camera, typewriter, scissors, scrapbooks . . . I get intersections between all sorts of things . . . They all tie up, there are connections, intersections.” This idea of the unexpected intersections spontaneously formed by the more-or-less random jumbling of images and texts informs Burroughs approach to art for the rest of his life, reaching its fullest expression in his influential “Nova Trilogy”—The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964). With the help of Gysin, Anthony Balch, and Ian Sommerville, Burroughs would carry the famed cut-up technique into the world of cinema.

In the early sixties, Gysin had introduced Burroughs to Anthony Balch, an English director of grade-B films and distributor of soft-core porn. In early 1962, Burroughs, Gysin, and Balch began their first cinematic collaboration, Towers, Open Fire. Shot in black and white and running approximately 9’30” the film features as its cast Burroughs, Gysin, Michael Portman (a sometime friend of Burroughs and kind of hanger-on), and Ian Somerville, a young mathematician from Cambridge who advised the artists on technical matters and became Burroughs’s long time lover. The film’s “plot,” insofar as it has one, is loosely based on the episode of the same name in Nova Express, but, in typical Burroughs fashion, incorporates and recycles other material as well. The film opens, for example, with a head-shot of Burroughs as he reads in voice-over from the “Where you belong” section from The Soft Machine. This passage finds Burroughs at his most acerbic, donning the persona of “The District Supervisor,” to ask, “Why don’t you straighten out and act like a white man?” and ending with, “You can’t deny your blood kid—you’re white white white.” After this send-up of prevailing notions of racial identity, the film quickly cuts to Burroughs delivering a kind of incantation as we see shots of Egyptian-style masks, a head shot of Balch in masturbatory ecstasy, and scrambled t.v. signals under a soundtrack comprised of Jajouka trance music, radio static, and other sounds. Shots of newspaper headlines announcing the stock market crash are then interposed with Burroughs reading from what sounds like medical texts about addiction and opium. The film concludes with Burroughs in headphones sitting before a reel-to-reel tape recorder commanding “Towers, Open Fire,” as the film terminates with a kind of science-fiction-inspired apocalypse.

Premiering at the London Paris Pullman in a double bill with Tod Browning’s cult film Freaks (1932) in 1964,Towers, Open Fire contains a number of noteworthy experimental features. The heavy cutting of the film’s rapid-fire imagery seems somewhat akin to the early French New Wave, but the abruptness and randomness of the editing make for a much more disorienting experience than these contemporary experiments with cinematic fragmentation. Hand-painted segments of pink and blue dots, intentionally slap-dash special effects, and kooky sci-fi elements, such as Burroughs in fatigues and gas mask brandishing a ping pong ball rifle that “vaporizes” other characters through amateurish camera trickery announce a clunky, off-beat anti-aesthetic while the Moroccan Jajouka music of the soundtrack anticipates the minimalist drones of New York composers in the later 1960s, such as La Monte Young, John Cale, and Charlemagne Palestine. Also important are several sequences including shots of Gysin and others staring with eyes closed into a “Dream Machine”—Gysin and Somerville’s invention comprised of a spinning cylinder with a light bulb inside it and holes to emit light. When rotated at just the right speed, the dream machine mimics the alpha waves of the brain, inducing in some viewers an intense experience of color. (During these sequences we here Burroughs in voice-over announcing, “anything that can be done chemically can be done in other ways.”) The footage of the Dream Machine’s flashing, shimmering lights anticipates Tony Conrad’s landmark film The Flicker (1966). Burroughs and Balch would push these radical elements even further in their next film.

Also shot in black and white and running approximately 20’4”, The Cut Ups (1966) developed out of an uncompleted documentary about Burroughs and Gysin entitled Guerilla Conditions that Balch had been working on. (The documentary would remain unfinished.) Balch shot about a quarter of what would become The Cut Ups at the famed Beat Hotel and its neighborhood, and the film contains the only known footage of those now-demolished legendary digs at 9 rue Git-le-Couer, Paris, where Burroughs, Ginsberg, Gysin, and Gregory Corso lived and produced some of their most exciting work (Barry Miles’s The Beat Hotel provides an informative and entertaining account of the Beats’ years there). With a screenplay by Burroughs, The Cut Ups, almost unbelievably, has even less of a plot than Towers. (“I am a recording instrument . . . I do not presume to impose ‘story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity,’” Burroughs has said.)

The soundtrack of The Cut Ups relies heavily on the kind of permutations of language that Gysin had been experimenting with in spoken pieces such “I Am” (1960) and his “Permutation” poems (1960), wherein a set of words such as “I am that I am” is exhaustively recombined. The soundtrack of The Cut Ups cycles through Burroughs and Gysin repeating lines such as “Yes . . . Hello” and “Look at that picture . . . does it seem to be persisting . . . Thank you,” precisely calculated by Somerville to end the film with “Very good. Thank you.” The almost unbearable, mind-numbing repetition of these banal phrases anticipates in important ways the early concrete poetry of Conceptual artists such as Vito Acconci and Carl Andre as well as these same artists’ later interest in art as system. The images that cross the screen as the words are spoken include footage of Gysin painting a canvas with roller; shots of his écritures, calligraphic white writing paintings in which Burroughs discovered, he said, “the psychic landscape of my own work”; superimposed images, some incorporated as negatives from the Balch/Burroughs short color film entitled William Buys a Parrot (1963); and, again, brief sequences of the Dream Machine.

For The Cut Ups, Burroughs and Balch carried the radical cut-up technique of composition into the editing process itself, handing over to a lab technician four reels of film, cut up into twelve inch lengths, without providing any instructions at all as to how the film should be pieced together. (Nicolas Roeg reportedly adapted this technique directly from Balch for certain sections of his breakthrough 1970 film Performance.) This emphasis on chance and obliteration of traditional narrative, combined with the anesthetizing repetitions of the film’s soundtrack, proved to be quite disorienting. As Barry Miles notes in his biography of Burroughs, during the films two-week run at Oxford Street’s Cinephone in London, 1966, audiences left behind in the theater an inordinate number of items after each screening.

Burroughs has said that the objective of the cut-up technique was to “destroy old false constructs and models of reality.” His films, by adapting and extending the techniques of his fiction, are important not only because they are, as Robert Sobieszek has written, “near thesauruses of contemporary video forms,” but because they retain much of their power to defamiliarize, disorient, and confound, dragging us into that haunted corner of the world that Burroughs’s Naked Lunch first trespassed fifty years ago.

Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer.

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