Tuesday, 28 February 2012

William S. Burroughs: Thee Films 1950s - 1960s

This Cherry Red DVD from 2007 is a collection of five Antony Balch and William Burroughs short films made in the period of 1963-1971. The set contains, Towers Open Fire, The Cut-Ups, Bill and Tony, William Buys A Parrot and Ghosts at No. 9 (Paris). Only two of the films, Towers Open Fire and The Cut-Ups were exhibited theatrically, the remaining films were discovered when Psychic TV's Genesis P-Orridge rescued a number of film cans stored at Antony Balch's office. After Balch had passed away in 1980 from stomach cancer, his office in Soho was about being cleaned out for a new tenant, and a number of Balch's personal effects including several rusting cans of film were destined for a skip. Brion Gysin was informed of this and made a phone call to P-Orridge in London who became the unwitting caretaker of Balch's archive of undeveloped film footage.

The collection begins with the 1 minute 30 second, 16mm color short William Buys A Parrot, perhaps the most mysterious film in the set. In the film, Burroughs is seen calling to a house and speaking to a man at the door. The action then switches to a veranda and Burroughs is seen looking at the titular bird bobbing up and down in it's cage before sitting down and having a drink with his host... Very little is known about this fragment, when and where it was shot and the idea behind the film. Possibly the film was made in Tangier, from the same period as filming for Towers Open Fire, and might well have been an early experiment in shooting on color stock. Incidentally, the footage was shot without sound so P-Orridge added some Psychic TV music over it (a minimal loop of Burroughs' voice). Also the footage was originally untitled and was named William Buys A Parrot by P-Orridge, although the bird is quite clearly a cockatoo.

The most well known and widely seen of the Balch/Burroughs films, Towers Open Fire was made around 1962-1963, shot in b/w and runs around 9 and a half minutes. The soundtrack is a dense mix of narration, dialogue, sound effects and Moroccan music. Burroughs' writing at that time was exploring the non-linear Cut-Up method, used in novels like The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded, but Towers Open Fire does have a narrative of sorts. In the film, society is plunged into chaos when the stock market collapses. Conventional sex has been replaced by masturbation (Balch, filmed from the waist up, which escaped the notice of the BBFC although they had some bad language removed), while hands are seen waving over canisters of film, and Burroughs' voice is heard conjuring a magic spell - "Lock them out and bar the door, lock them out for ever more, windows, nook, cranny, door... lock them out for ever more" (interestingly this dialogue turns up in the Burroughs-narrated Witchcraft Through the Ages, Balch's 1967 recut of the classic silent Haxen). The film then momentarily breaks down then recommences with Burroughs showing a demonstration of making a cut-up by folding strips of newspaper - this section of the film experiments with a hyper-speed cut-up montage of sequences showing Burroughs walking along the Seine, followed by footage of a Dreamachine exhibition in Paris, and a scene where Burroughs shoots up.

"You're white, white, white..." William Burroughs in Towers Open Fire
Burroughs is next seen dressed in full combat regalia, playing a guerrilla terrorist bursting into a boardroom and shooting a ping-pong gun at a display of family photographs. People are vaporized in the streets leaving piles of clothes behind. Burroughs in then seen armed with a tape recorder and a microphone giving orders over a public-address system which results in the Board members (including Scottish Beat writer Alexander Trocchi sitting to Burroughs' right) literally dissolving into static silhouettes. The strange cabalistic drawings from the boardroom are scattered along a country road. Finally, a man outside a cinema cheerfully dances to himself and then looks to the skies which are full of sinister colored blotches, perhaps the arrival of the apocalypse... For an experimental film Towers Open Fire received decent exposure when in the summer of 1963, the film was included as the supporting short on a double bill of Godard's Vivre Sa Vie and the classic Horror Freaks. Balch was a huge admirer of Todd Browning's masterpiece, and made a print of the film to exhibit theatrically after the BBFC had lifted their long running ban on the film.

Balch and Burroughs' next collaboration was The Cut-Ups, completed in 1967, which incorporated footage from an earlier abandoned film called Guerrilla Conditions. Running approximately 18mins, The Cut-ups is a radical experiment in montage, applying the rules of the Cut-Up to film. Balch cut foot-long strips on various footage he had shot around Paris, London and New York and edited it together in completely random order. The results are quite mind-bending. The individual shots itself pass by the eye so rapidly that the film is very much like the equivalent of viewing a Dreamachine with the dancing patterns of light shapes experienced by the viewer. Among the footage is Brion Gysin walking through the streets of Paris' Latin Quarter to the Beat Hotel, Burroughs playing a leering doctor examining a sickly youth, shots of a cityscape through the cut-outs of a Dreamachine cylinder, Burroughs boarding a subway train, Gysin at work on a huge floor-sized roller painting, Burroughs entering the Burroughs Corporation building, and Burroughs as an agent meeting a contact and receiving instructions.

Brion Gysin at work in The Cut-Ups. Here is seen making one of his writing paintings consisting of cut up words, including the phrase "Guerrilla Conditions"
Later sections of the film include images layered on top of one another to the point of abstraction - building fronts mesh together to form abstract grid patterns, while figures fade in and out of images like spectral visitors. The soundtrack for the film consists of words and sentences spoken by Burroughs and Gysin - Yes/Hello/Look at that picture/Does it seem to be persisting?/Good/Where are we now?/Thank-you/How does it seem to you now?, so randomly cut-up and repeated ad infinitum, that they gradually become meaningless, and the music of the speech emerges very much like Steve Reich's 1964 tape experiment masterwork It's Gonna Rain. The Cut-Ups, like Towers Open Fire played commercially in London, and according to Gysin had strange effects on the audience. Seen today, it remains an extraordinary, mesmerizing piece of Cinema.

William Burroughs and Antony Balch
Made towards the end of the '60's, Bill and Tony is a 5min film featuring Burroughs and Balch, who swap identities (and voices). After formal introductions ("Who are You ? I'm Tony, who are you ? I'm Bill, where are you Tony ?"), Burroughs is seen as a disembodied head speaking a bizarre Scientology text. Balch then speaks his monologue, consisting of some dialogue from Freaks ("And now folks if you'll just care to step this way, You are about to witness the most amazing, the most astounding living monstrosity of all time"). The exercise is then repeated but Burroughs now speaks with Balch's voice, and vica-versa... Shot on 35mm color stock, Bill and Tony was purely an experiment, based on an idea of Brion Gysin's and seen previously in Towers Open Fire - where a face was to be projected onto the face of a performer. Bill and Tony doesn't seem terribly important but in some respects it pre-figured Samuel Beckett's 1973 play That Time, in which the sole actor appears on stage completely blackened out except for his face and three disembodied voices are heard throughout the short play.

Rub out the image - an eerie shot of Burroughs from Ghosts at No.9 (Paris)
The final film in the set emerged from the cans of film P-Orridge had salvaged from Balch's office. P-Orridge set about the Herculean task of cataloging the footage which was eventually reshaped into a 48min film entitled Ghosts at No.9 (Paris), a reference to The Beat Hotel located at 9, Rue Git le Coeur. Much of the material used in the film was based on footage shot for The Cut-Ups plus some experimental color tinted footage of Burroughs' face undergoing strange and disturbing mutations by way of double exposure effects. In a sense Ghosts at No.9 (Paris) is a remix of The Cut-Ups but the film remains a valuable work in itself, giving the viewer a chance to savour the footage used for The Cut-Ups without the rapid-fire montage style of that earlier film. Ghosts at No.9 (Paris) also contains footage of what Jack Sargeant refers to in his excellent book Naked Lens - Beat Cinema as rehearsal footage for a proposed film version of Naked Lunch to be directed by Balch. In the film, Burroughs very much in agent-mode is seen hurriedly packing in his room - a scene which could have come out of the late section of the novel when agent William Lee shoots the two cops Hauser and O'Brien and has to make a hasty exit. The soundtrack for Ghosts at No.9 (Paris) is a cut-up of various Burroughs tape recorded experiments and readings, (plus an unexpected snippet of Dylan's Desolation Row) and is a sort of alternative companion to Burroughs' album Nothing Here Now But the Recordings which P-Orridge, Peter Christopherson and James Grauerholz put together in 1980.

Over the years the Balch and Burroughs films have been released on home video in various incarnations. In 1984, Towers Open Fire and Ghosts at No. 9 were released on the 2nd tape of double-VHS release of the Burroughs-themed The Final Academy Documents, while all 5 films were made available in 1988 on the UK Jettisoundz/Visionary label as Thee Films 1950s - 1960s (which the Cherry Red DVD is a re-issue of), while in the US, Mystic Fire Video released the films (minus Ghosts at No. 9 (Paris)) on a tape simply entitled Towers Open Fire. In 2005, both Towers Open Fire and The Cut-Ups were included as extras on Synapses' DVD edition of Balch's Secrets of Sex (or Bizarre as it's known Stateside), also included on UK label Odean's 2010 DVD. Italian label issued a 2-disc collection of Burroughs films under the title W.S. Burroughs: The Cut-Up Films, which included the 5 films plus two additional films, Stan Brakhage's 1978 film Thot Fal’N (which Burroughs appears in) and Commissioner of Sewers, a shot on video souvenier of Burroughs' trip to Germany in 1986. The Raro DVD would seem an obvious choice but apparently the picture quality is quite poor. The region-free Cherry Red DVD is by far the best way to see these films, the image quality looks very good (in as much as it could be), although the Cherry Red DVD provides no information on the films, and lazily replicates the Jettisoundz/Visionary edition's misleading title (none of the films were made in the 1950's) and it's lack of credit for Antony Balch, the co-creative force behind these important films. Aside from some promos for other Cherry Red releases (including their poor release of The Final Academy), the disc has no extras.


  1. A fascinating series of posts, Wes. I have only heard of Towers Open Fire but the rest is new to me. I didn't know it played with Freaks, either. Balch was an interesting figure, wasn't he? Have you seen Horror Hospital?

  2. Thanks for the comment Jon, I was thinking this post was gonna go down like a lead balloon. Maybe a little too esoteric (and too long) for most tastes...

    I do have the old Elite Horror Hospital DVD and I must dust it off for another viewing. I must admit I thought the film was no great shakes really, but I'm gonna pick up Secrets of Sex in the next few days - the Odean disc is pretty cheap, and I like 70's sexploitation so it's worth a chance.

    Yeah, Balch is very interesting, and I like him very much, not so much for his film making, but that he was a very progressive film distributor in the 60's and 70's, putting out a lot of exploitation titles and art films - sometimes on the same double-bill. Balch never felt the need to seperate the two and that's a notion which has shaped my own film collection. Why not have a sci-fi double bill of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Solaris ? They're both great...

  3. Absolutely! A great Midnight Movie double bill.

  4. William Buys a Parrot was shot at 282 Monte Viejo (the Old Mountain) in Tangier on 24 August 1964 by Antony Balch. They were visiting the American writer John Hopkins who had rented the place from the painter Marguerite McBey. Hopkins' large cockatoo was called Coco. The footage was intended for Guerilla Conditions but finished up, fleetingly, and in black and white, in Cut-Ups.
    Barry Miles (biographer)

  5. Much appreciated for plugging some gaps in the story. John Hopkins appears in John Geiger's fine Brion Gysin biog Nothing Is True Everything Is Permitted, (which I'm currently reading), but this anecdote is not in the book (or Ted Morgan's Burroughs biography).

    Barry Miles is one of the foremost experts on the Beat scene - be sure to check out his excellent biographies of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg. All three are highly recommended.

  6. This sounds like a fascinating collection of films. I'm, sadly, not familiar with Burroughs' film work, but I love his literature. I did happen to catch a short film on TV years back (at least I think it was a short film) called The Priest - it was a series of bizarre images and effects, Burroughs narrating some wonderfully evocative prose and Kurt Cobain playing a really distorted version of Silent Night on electric guitar. Very dark! Alas, the passage of time has blurred this memory somewhat.

  7. Many thanks James. Yes, The "Priest" They Called Him, is a fine piece and Cobain really contributes some ferocious guitar distortion. I can't think of another writer or artist who managed to stay so vital to successive generations. One of my favourite Burroughs appearances is in Drugstore Cowboy, playing an old junkie priest, with that unmistakable Burroughs-drawl "There is no demand in the priesthood for elderly drug addicts"...