It caused nausea and vomiting when first shown at the Cinephone, Oxford Street, in London. Some of the audience demanded their money back, others hurled abuse and shouted “That’s sick,” and ““Its disgusting.” This was the idea, as writer William Burroughs and producer, Antony Balch wanted to achieve a complete “disorientation of the senses.”
Balch had a hard-on for the weird, unusual and sometimes depraved. It was a predilection born from his love of horror films - one compounded when as a child he met his idol, Bela Lugosi, the olde Austro-Hungarian junkie, who was touring Britain with the stage show that had made him famous, Dracula. Film was a love affair that lasted all of Balch’s life.
He also had a knack of making friends with the right people at the right time. In Paris he met and hung out with artist Brion Gysin and druggie, Glaswegian Beat writer, Alexander Trocchi, who was then writing porn and editing a literary mag called Merlin, along with the likes of poet Christopher Logue. Through them, Balch met the two men who changed his life, Burroughs and Kenneth Anger.
Anger helped Balch with his ambitions as a cinema distributor, getting him a copy of Todd Browning’s classic Freaks, which was banned the UK, at that time. Balch paid Anger back when he later released his apocalyptic Invocation of My Demon Brother as a support feature.
Burroughs offered Balch something different - the opportunity to collaborate and make their own films. This they did, first with Towers Open Fire, an accessible montage of Burroughs’ routines, recorded on a Grundig tape recorder, cut-up to Balch’s filmed and found images of a “crumbling society.” Put together stuff like this and the chattering classes will always take you seriously. But don’t doubt it, for it was good.
But it was their second collaboration, Cut Ups which for me is far more interesting and proved far more controversial. Cut Ups was originally intended as a documentary called Guerilla Conditions, and was filmed between 1961 and 1965 in Tangiers and Paris. It included some footage from Balch’s aborted attempt to film the unfilmable Naked Lunch. The finished material was collated and then conventionally edited - but the process didn’t stop there, no. For Balch divided the finshed film into four sections of equal length, and 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.
Balch faced very difficult grading problems. “Twenty minutes with one change every foot was just too much, what we did was to have a graded fine-grain print made of the edited sequences and then chop up the fine grain and make a dupe negative from it, so the film prints at one light.” The film was cut into exact lengths by none of the actual artists. “The actual chopping was done by a lady who was employed to take a foot from each roll and join them up. A purely mechanical thing, nobody was exercising any artistic judgement at all.”
The idea was to achieve an effect akin to Burroughs cut-up technique, and cause a complete disorientation of the senses. This was aided by an audio track created by Burroughs, Gysin and Ian Somerville, which consisted of mind-numbing permutations of just four phrases: “Yes, Hello?”, “Look at that picture,” “Does it seem to be persisting?”, and “Good. Thank you.”
When all put together, the film achieved its intended effect, as Roy Underhill, assistant manager at the Cinephone told Balch during the film’s initial run:
...during the performances an unusual number of strange articles such as bags, pants, shoes, and coats were left behind, lost property, probably out of complete disorientation.
Mission accomplished. Burroughs and Balch didn’t collaborate again until 1972 on the rarely seen 70mm Bill and Tony in 1972, which had the pair endlessly fuck around with each other’s dialog. Well, if you’re going to make a statement, make it on 70mm..