Bright Lights Film Journal

An Appraisal of the Films of William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and Anthony Balch in terms of Recent Avant Garde Theory

Those crazy “cut-ups” Burroughs, Gysin, and Balch restored to their rightful place in avant-garde film history


This is the first serious critical study to contextualize the films of Burroughs, Balch, and Gysin within the analytical framework of the “structural film” as defined by P. A. Sitney and the other structural film movements occurring seemingly simultaneously around Europe and America. Barry Miles, in his study of the period The Beat Hotel, notes the presence of an important and influential figure from the Fluxus group within the “Domain Poetique” events, Emmett Williams. Miles also notes that George Maciunas attended a performance in Paris and categorized Gysin’s work as “expanded cinema.” The fact that these disparate groups would have met and exchanged ideas is an important and often undervalued detail.

The presence of these notable figures clearly lays the foundations for such a critical study as this.

While there are other excellent studies of these films, most notably Genesis P-Orridge’s fascinating account of how he saved the films from destruction in a rubbish skip (in Jack Sergeant’s book Beat Cinema), they remain descriptive of the content. It is to the memory of William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and Anthony Balch that I humbly dedicate this study.


In this article I will examine the collaborative film work of William Burroughs and Anthony Balch, which brings to cinema an extension of Burroughs’ literary cut-up technique. This will be explored in terms of the various critical and experimental approaches regarding “structural” theory, which reached an Arcadia throughout the 1950s and ’60s in experimental cinema, literature, music, and art.

I will inaugurate this study with a broad introduction to avant-garde film practice. Secondly,1 will be elaborating on trends and critiques made in 1960s America, Europe, and England regarding the structural approach to avant-garde cinema and art. The following section will describe the techniques of Burroughs’ cut-up model, and introduce the films made with Anthony Balch, providing a section of illustrative analysis from the film The Cut Ups. In the final section I intend to use comparative critical frameworks offered by the theorists of the late 1960s to demonstrate the cut-up’s heritage of structural shot relations and Dadaist confrontation.

The Avant-Garde Film Practice

Any discussion of the debates concerning “avant-garde” cinema must also revolve around those of a broad context of “mainstream film.” These differences are many, and involve factors of industrial base, private-sector capitalism, and ideas of mainstream cinema as an “entertainment” and “narrative” medium. By a general gesture, the mainstream cinema is mainly dominant due to its reproduction of dominant ideologies within a social and economic framework. Cinema also works on the level of formal apparatus, and the hegemony of industrial and economic superiority in the mainstream is matched by a domination of formal and aesthetic “pleasures” in which the spectator is posited.

This form of aesthetic domination in the mainstream cinema relies heavily upon a “representation” of reality. This was achieved and solidified in the editing and filming practices of an Institutional Mode of Representation as described by Noel Burch2 that was born out of a period of intense formal experimentation in the early period of cinema history. There is emergent here a primary concern with the articulation of “narrative” and the representation of a spatially and temporally coherent film world in which psychologically motivated characters operate (Bordwell).3

The cinema of the avant-garde represents a number of different approaches to the mainstream and is informed by a contrasting set of ideological models. In terms of production, the avant-garde has a history of private sponsorship and state subsidy, as its relationship with the audience is usually one of artisanal self-expression rather than commodity-based economic exploitation. These forms of self-expression run from individualism (as championed by Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage) to collectivism (Surrealism to the various filmmakers’ co-ops the world over).

Yet both avant-garde and mainstream cinematic expression represent a whole array of different aesthetic and ideological imperatives. A useful analogy would be that “while mainstream cinema by and large perpetuates the realist imperatives of the nineteenth-century literary, dramatic, and visual traditions to which it is heir, the cinema of the avant-garde draws its inspiration from developments and tendencies within its newer context – modernism in the arts.”4

Many of the experimental imperatives of avant-garde cinema are initiated or continued in other artforms, such as painting, photography, music, and literature. These often slowly gain “acceptance” and bleed into the various mainstreams of expression in each of these categories. The avant-garde is also often reactionary to the notion of a mainstream and very often represents an attack on the ideologies that this ostensibly middle-class mode of expression represents.

The first “avant-garde” in cinema, located in Paris in the 1910s, is known as the “Impressionist movement.” This was concerned with cinema as an artisanal operative, instigated by Louis Delluc and Marcel L’Herbier via the publication Le Film. The films of this period were concerned with individual “artistic” imperatives over the emerging capitalist entertainment of cinema.

More intense and overt challenges to the concept of an artistic mainstream were founded by gestures throughout art, poetry, writing, and film in the form of Dada and Surrealism. Dada was born in Zurich in the 1910s and was essentially a polemical assault on the accepted notions of a mediocre bourgeois society. Irrationality and provocation were the main thrusts of this attack, which later mutated into Surrealism. The Dadaists’ approach to cinema and literature focused on perverting the logical and coherent concepts of narrative, which can clearly be seen in the films of the period, from Man Ray’s purely graphic Retour a la Raison (right) to spatial and temporal corruption in Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou. As Man Ray said, the aim (of Dada and Surrealist cinema) is “deliberately to try the patience of the audience.”

Rather than completely destroying narrative, the avant-garde has had a variety of different approaches, from Godard’s gestures of “counter cinema”5 through the feminist perspectives of Constance Penley6 to the various forms of Dada hostility. It is into this reconsideration of narrative that the recent “structural-materialist” films of the ’50s and ’60s fit. They operate in an arena of the “independent” and harbor a concern with the connection of an avant-garde cinema with similar gestures in other areas of the arts. In the case of William Burroughs, the cut-up technique is an extension of a literary concept, and in the case of the New York-based Fluxus group, cinema represents extensions of “concept art.” Throughout this history of alternative cinema there is evident this spirit of extension and collaboration, from Surrealism and Dada, which also began as literary endeavors, through to the Fluxus group and the French Situationists who work throughout various mediums in the spirit of “expanded arts.”

I will concentrate on the areas of structural materialist cinema and its connections with other experiments in the expanded arts. I maintain this approach as the cut-up techniques championed by Burroughs are presaged and peered by various similar experiments in this arena.

Introduction to the Structural Film

This section is intended to delineate a general background to the underground film developments of the 1960s that maintain a concern with structure and consequently the materiality of the medium.

P. A Sitney, an American film critic for Film Culture, first identified the area of avant-garde filmmaking known as “structural film” in 1969.7 His basic definitions are a useful introduction to these concepts . Before this in America there only existed the catchall category of “underground film,” which defined all independent cinema outside of the mainstream.

Prior to the emergence of the structural trend, the underground was dominated by a strain of filmmaking known loosely as “mythopoetic film,” exemplified mainly by Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon, right), and Stan Brakhage. Sitney argued that the emergent structural trend, whereby the whole shape of the film is simplified and predetermined, was dependent on a governing mathematical/thematical structure that dictated the form and content of the film.

Sitney went on to actually attempt to define salient features of the structural film (a point of contention with many later English film critics)/ These were “a fixed camera position, the flicker effect, loop printing. and re-photography of the screen.”8 Many of these categories are perfunctory, as processes such as “re-photography of the screen” appear in many nonstructural films as a purely aesthetic device.

Using a heuristic (rule-of-thumb) definition, the structural film has no narrative agents or poetic/symbolist content (if these exist, they are subservient to the domination of structure), and formal devices such as the cut or zoom are used as theme for the film.

“These works are basically exploring the whole reproduction process that underpins the medium, including the film material, and the optical, chemical, and perceptual processes.”9

The medium is thus conceptualized as an exploration of a visual system analyzing the reproduction process itself. Mainstream film analysis overtly foregrounds the rendering of “reality,” whereas “structural” film treats this approach as one of a plethora of possibilities. This allows for a broader definition, which Birgit Hein10 breaks down into three rough areas:

The film strip (This incorporates photographic processes and direct work on the film strip)

Projection using intervening light (perceived motion and animation)

The perceived image (the perceptual process based on the separate frames of a film)

Many early antecedents to these definitions are evident, such as work directly onto the film strip. This can be seen in Man Ray’s film Retour a la raison (1923), an extension of one of his “Rayogram” techniques in photography. (The film caused an uproar at a riotous Dada event – the coeur a barbe evening – by confronting the bourgeois audience with an abstract sequence rather than the expected feature film.)

Another early antecedent of a structural approach can be seen in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929, right). Sitney’s and Hein’s “structural” elements can clearly be seen. The reproduction process becomes a conscious theme; Vertov shows a film strip as “material” using photographic and editing techniques as manipulatory processes, such as inverting images, looping sections of the film, and animating (giving purely cinematic movement to) objects such as a movie camera on a tripod.

The development of a theory of structural film cannot be dealt with in terms purely related to cinematic developments; rather it is necessary to examine structural film in terms of contemporary problems (and their contexts) within other arts, in the same way that Man Ray’s film approaches can be paralleled with his techniques in photography.

American Structural Film

The structural film of America in the late 1960s was born out of, as previously mentioned, the mythopoetic underground cinema of the ’40s and ’50s (Deren, Anger, Markopoulos, et al.). These filmmakers were in turn inspired by the Surrealist/Dadaist cinema of Europe in the 1920s such as Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou and Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un poet. These were screened for the first time in America during this period by Cinema 16, a film screening group dedicated to presenting “alternative” cinema. A major connecting point between these two “movements” was the radical and formal rejection of the established film industry, and along with this, the idea that filmmaking could be an autonomous artistic activity.

Stan Brakhage emerged from this psychological/surrealist tradition in ’50s America, and created abstract “flicker” films such as Mothlight (1963, right) in which dead leaves and various found material were glued to the film strip. The film strip became as much the work as the projected film; however it was a gesture to represent what a moth may perceive, rather than a purely materialist gesture. This represents a shift important to the American structural/materialist film. Also, in much of his earlier work, Brakhage scratched onto the film surface, although again this was a symbolic gesture in that the abstractions in his work were incorporated to represent the phenomenon of closed-eye vision. Bruce Conner is also an important forerunner to the emergence of the American “structural film.” He utilized “found footage” from feature films, newsreels, and advertisements and edited them together under a unified film score soundtrack. In A Movie (1958), these features are clearly seen, constructing the film from footage which he did not shoot. Again, however, there remains the problem of the symbolic gesture in Conner’s film as it attempts to show an apocalyptic end to the world.

Robert Breer perhaps represents a closer affiliation to “structural film,” his work from 1954 onwards consisting of frame-by-frame collage and other techniques. His films do not belong to the poetic narratives of Conner and Brakhage and formally exclude literary content. His move into film was facilitated by his background as an abstract painter, and his interest as a filmmaker lay in investigating the threshold between cinematic and normal perception. He also makes a conceptual leap of regarding his films as “objects” and shows them often as loop installations.

Highly influential and important to the development of structural film were the works of the Fluxus group – headed by John Cage as a teacher of conceptual art practices, himself coming from an avant-garde music/composition background from Europe. George Maciunas has emphasized the importance of their work, expounding a theory against representationalism in art, semiotics, illusionism, and abstraction. In Maciunas’ essay “Neo Dada in the USA” (1962), he asserts that Fluxus embraced concretism and art-nihilism, which champion the unity of form and content: “A plastic artist who is a concretist sees a rotten tomato for what it is and represents it as such, without transformation, i.e., it is a rotten tomato and not a pictorial or symbolic representation which is confused and illusionist.” Films by the group include Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film, in which clear film is intended to gather dust and scratches; also, George Maciunas’ Ten Feet of Film with No Camera, which is rather self-explanatory. These precursors reflect structural film’s concentration upon the elements of light projection and film material. Although the film activity was marginal to Fluxus’ output, the films are still highly important in their conceptual position of using the film itself as theme.

Warhol’s static frame films are identified by Sitney as an influence on the structural aesthetic (in that they appear minimal, and deconstruct narrative) and ideology. His films echo some of Fluxus’ concerns in reducing film to single shots and emphasizing a purely mechanical reproduction process replacing the artist, as evidenced in Sleep (1964, right) and Empire (1967).

There is no dramatic action or narrative development, emphasizing again a conceptual break with the mythopoetic American underground. Various other filmmakers now became preoccupied with the materiality of film, exposed to the filmmakers previously mentioned through screenings in New York (via Cinema 16 and also Jonas Mekas’ screenings via the New York Film-Makers Co-op) and theoretical debates raised in such journals as Film Culture George Landow’s Film in which there appear sprocket holes, edge lettering and dirt particles etc. (1965) makes use of found film material, and a loop structure is used a la Breer.

Tony Conrad’s film The Flicker (1966) investigates perception through use of stroboscopic effects (alternating black and white frames) at various frequencies, portraying a sensual – materialist film experience. This work is also echoed in the films of Paul Sharits. In Piece Mandala (1966), colors are introduced into the stroboscopic high-frequency image, giving the impression of movement to the retina. These flicker experiments continue the experimental move of film into the realm of sensual human experience, reflected in the ’60s through use of drugs and technological developments such as Dolby and stereo equipment that heightened the sensual experience of arts such as music (although Dolby sound systems were not extended into the cinema until the early ’70s).

The new aesthetic of image as reality became more widespread, and by 1965 a “New Cinema Festival” held in New York and organized by the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque arranged “screenings” of dance and film material projections.

Austrian Developments

At this time, European developments in experimental “formal film” had been progressing along similar lines although independently of America. These developments were occurring foremost in Vienna, pioneered by Peter Kubelka’s Adebar (1957 right)), in which there is mathematically strict rhythmic variation of a single frame. Kurt Kren was also working on what were (retrospectively) to be recognized as structural films in Vienna at this time. Both Kren and Kubelka were influenced heavily by “structural” musical approaches in Vienna such as serialist Anton Webern and Schoenberg. Terms such as “expanded cinema,” “object film,” and “action film” are applied to these Austrian films.

Vienna’s revolutionary anarchic group comprising the Austrian Filmmaker’s Co-op had a unique approach to film making linked closely with the “institute for direct art’. The films produced contain highly sophisticated editing techniques and documenting the “materialaktions.” These were performance art pieces whereby the human body is treated as the material and action against the body becomes the material for the film. The filmed and edited action is then transformed into a filmic “action.” The group worked closely with art, performance, and filmmaking (filmmaking was a more immediate concern than with Maciunas’ Fluxus group, for example). Conceptually the films and performance events sought to please or horrify the audience and were primarily a confrontational device.

Otto Muehl’s materialaktion was the basis for Kren’s film Mama und Papa (1969), the re-edited footage employing some techniques identified by Sitney in terms of “structural film.” These are loop printing and flicker effects achieved through frenetic re-editing of the material. An earlier Kren film, Anaaktionbrus (1964), employs similar techniques, black-and-white frames inserted into the filmed footage of Gunter Brus’ self-mutilation and attaining the flicker/disorientation effect.

“Kren worked in the Osternechische National Bank until he was sacked for running a “shit in” at the University; he is a short, loveable, old-fashioned type of guy who loves his beer and his films. He wrote about one of his films, “Next week I’ll finish a new film. It is very dirty being about eat-drink-piss-shitting. Many friends will hate me after having seen that film. Sorry, it had to be done.”11

This demonstrates Kren and other Viennese aktionists as posited in the tradition of Dadaist confrontation with a bourgeois element. This was very much in the same way that Fluxus, and even before them, Deren and Anger found inspiration and kindred ideas in the works of Dada and Surrealism. I would argue that this desire to challenge is inherent in the structural film with its endurance-test-like, explicitly anti-coherent films that in many cases embody visual and auditory overload on the audience.

The European materialaktion is a basis for many Austrian films that form part of the Film Co-op; however, Peter Kubelka is not in this group, his similarities existing only in terms of his approach to editing. The Austrian Co-op’s destruction themes arguably are a response to the conservativism of Austrian society.

In the 1960s, destruction (Viennese aktionists towards themselves and the audience, at the actions, and through frenetic editing practices) and deconstruction themes are applicable to the films in terms of narrative polemics and foregrounding the films’ techniques and the narratives’ visceral content.

English Structural Film

Another major influence on the evolution of the structural cinema came from the London Filmmaker’s Co-op in England. This was set up in October 1966, and began primarily from an interest in film rather than a need to expose indigenous filmmaker’s work. This Co-operative movement was part of the many liberating facets of “swinging London” in the mid-’60s. Such venues as the UFO club in Tottenham Court Road were host to 24-hour events of live music, film, and light shows. The Co-operative really began out of the Better Books store, owned by concrete poet Bob Cobbing (who would undoubtedly have been familiar with Gysin’s work within sound poetry). This was the venue for poetry readings and dedicated underground film screenings. The Co-op’s film library was mainly composed of films from the new American Cinema (already mentioned in the previous section), but among the British filmmakers who supported the Co-op were Steve Dwoskin, Jeff Keen, Simon Hartog, Peter Gidal, Malcolm Le Grice, and Fred Drummond. The majority of people involved in the project were not from a primarily film background, rather from a literary tradition of poetry, writing, and criticism.

The outstanding climate in the Co-op was therefore one of criticism, achieved through the Co-op’s own publication, cinim, and other independent journals such as Afterimage and Cinema Rising.

The critics Gidal (Flare Out, above right), Le Grice, et al. developed their theories and subsequently (as a result of their theories) their films. Gidal and Le Grice were particularly concerned with the structural film and dedicated much of the Co-op’s criticism, screening, and filmmaking activities in this direction. Many of these criticisms developed in a political sense: “Activities were aimed against the capitalist, ‘bourgeois’ film industry itself, which was alleged to put forward a false reality in order to uphold its own consumer ideologies, and to work as a closed capitalist system for making money.”12

Ascetic structuralism was a major line of enquiry in the London-based structural movement. Films by Gidal such as Condition of Illusion (1975) and Room Film (1973) serve as suitable examples. These works vacate the content of the film and seek to eliminate the “illusionistic” nature of the image.

Another element of the English structural approach lay in “light play films,” which examined the nature of the projector, projection beam, and projection surface. This is essentially a three-dimensional cinema acknowledging sculpture and performance art. An example of this would be Tony Hill’s Source Point (1974), in which he holds a high-intensity light bulb between himself and the screen and places objects over and around the light source, projecting on the screen, walls, and ceiling. A third area of specialization are the “landscape films,” in which the shape and content are determined by factors occurring in the landscape. In Chris Welby’s Park Film, for example, the shutter is only released when a person walking through the park passes in front of the lens, structuring the editing around “natural” occurrences in that particular landscape. These areas of film asceticism are clearly anticipated in much of the work described by the Fluxus group around ten years previously. However, the critical faculties of the London Co-op are more highly focused in an ontological sense, criticizing and defining their own pure “structural” aesthetic as Sitney had previously done.

An Introduction to Burroughs’ and Gysin’s Cut-up Theory and Practice

I will concentrate this study on two films made between 1961 and 1966 by the English filmmaker Anthony Balch, the painter Brion Gysin, and the American writer William S. Burroughs. Certain techniques in these films clearly predate many of those claimed by the American and English structural/materialist movements. Curiously, they are omitted from the standard histories and lists of precursors.

William Burroughs was born in St. Louis in 1914. He graduated from Harvard in 1936 and went on to study medicine in Vienna. He traveled extensively in his youth and at one point researched pre-Colombian civilizations in Mexico. In 1944 he became addicted to heroin. His writing career began in the early 1950s with encouragement from poet and friend Allen Ginsberg, and he gained the reputation of elder of the beat movement in New York. He subsequently lived in Paris, London, Tangier, and New York in the 1960s, which is the period on which I am currently focusing.

Brion Gysin, an American born in 1916 in England of a Swiss father and a Canadian mother, became a painter early in life and was in fact expelled from the Surrealist group in Paris by Andre Breton when he was only nineteen years old. He lived in Tangier as a restaurant owner for many years before relocating to Paris, where he met Burroughs in the late 1950s. (Gysin died in 1986.)

In Paris, September 1959, both Burroughs and Gysin (right) were in residence at 9 Rue Git le Coeur (the famous “Beat Hotel”). It was there that Brion Gysin, while mounting some drawings, accidentally sliced through a pile of old New York Herald Tribunes, which he was using to protect his table. He observed that where a strip of text had been cut away, the print on the next page linked up and could be read across, combining different stories from other pages. Later Gysin showed the discovery to Burroughs. Having himself recently completed the avant-garde novel The Naked Lunch, Burroughs pronounced the technique a project for “disastrous success.”

Burroughs stated, “I felt I had been working towards the same goal … any narrative passage or any passage of poetic images is subject to any number of variations, all of which may be interesting and valid in their own right … cut-ups establish new connections between images.”13)

Burroughs’ own literary work was in a naturally fragmented state; Naked Lunch appears very similar to the cut-up texts he and Gysin were to work on, even though it was written prior to their discovery. He felt that “anyone with a pair of scissors could become a poet,”14 echoing the sentiments of Lautremont, who said that “poetry should be made by all.”

Of course, this technique is not without its precedents. In 1897, Stephane Mallarme’s poem “Un coup de des jamais n’aborlira le hazard” (A throw of the dice can never abolish chance) distributed the individual words across 21 pages scattered and disjointed with the occasional blank page, giving “structure” an equal compositional value to content. Also, Guillaume Apollinaire in “Calligrammes” (1914) composed poems into typographical layout shapes. Dadaist Tristan Tzara’s random poetry from the 1920s bears a remarkable similarity to the cut-up technique in that he had cut-out phrases and words that he produced from a hat and read in random order. However if there were a patron saint of experimental poetry, it would be Quirinus Kuhlmann (1651-1689), who wrote the “variable poem” “The Kiss of Love.” Only the first and last words of any line are to be kept, along with any one of the thirteen in between, thus maintaining meter and giving millions of possible combinations (Kuhlmann was burned at the stake by the Lutheran patriarch of Moscow for his chiliastic beliefs).15

Despite the numerous experimental precursors to this literary technique, Gysin’s application of the montage technique to writing never received such a sustained and intense investigation as Burroughs and he were to achieve, first collaborating on a collection of cut-ups entitled “Minutes to Go” (1960) and later Burroughs producing three cut-up novels, The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964).

Describing the discovery of cut-ups, Brion Gysin stressed, “The cut-up method treats words as the painter treats his paints, raw materials with rules and reasons of its own.”16 Because of his experience as a painter, Gysin was able to see the fundamental elements of literature as pictorial materials to be used like any other forms, shapes, colors, or textures. Burroughs and Gysin’s individual and collaborative efforts in these areas have extended into a vast range of media aside from literature such as tape cut-ups and importantly the technique was transferred to cinema.

The Cut-ups in Film

In Paris in 1960, young filmmaker Anthony Balch met Brion Gysin and subsequently Burroughs through his friend Jean Claude de Feugas. Balch was born in England in 1938 and learned film craft in the advertising industry during the mid-1950s. He subsequently worked as an editor, distributor, exhibitor, and director. (He died in 1980.)

Balch was familiar with Burroughs’ writings and the new ideas concerning the cut-ups, and he wanted to collaborate with him in order to find a cinematic equivalent for Burroughs’ writing.

The first of these experimental films was Towers Open Fire, shot between 1961 and 1962 in Paris and Gibraltar. Not released until 1966, it runs eleven minutes. The film was premiered at the London Pullman Cinema along with Tod Browning’s 1932 feature Freaks. It was later screened at the Times Theatre on Baker Street and the Piccadilly Jacey, which Balch programmed in the late 1960s. Interestingly, it was also screened as part of the International Times launch party (the spontaneous festival of underground film at the Cochrane Theatre organized by I.T. and the two-week-old London Filmmakers’ Co-op) in September 1966.17

Towers Open Fire is a collage of the main themes and situations or “routines” that appear in Burroughs cut-up novels of the period. 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 in collaboration with Ian Somerville. 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 Pathé news. Members of “a board” 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.18

Also appearing in the film are early flicker experiments courtesy of Gysin’s “dream machine” (1962, right), a flicker machine that when viewed with eyelids closed reproduces alpha-rhythm flicker and reputedly causes 360-degree fractal hallucinations without the use of chemical stimulants. There is also a scene in which Burroughs’ friend Mickey Portman dances around in a comic, 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 of the film 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 around 30 seconds. Initially Burroughs is seen walking along the quayside, and the original linear footage has been rearranged into a mathematically precise cutting ratio at 12 frames (or two cuts per second). This reveals arbitrary cutting with regard to what is happening in the sequence in terms of content motivation, but a mathematical “structure” can be deduced by the cut every 12 frames. The sequence goes on to become more frenetic, culminating in a cyclical segment (or loop) in which each frame is different and imperceptible (reminding one of sections of Man with a Movie Camera).

Following this brief exposition of what was to come, in The Cut Ups, instead of rendering Burroughs’ writing, Balch reinterprets it as a pure cinematic technique. After Towers Open Fire, Balch was to film a 23-minute silent documentary of Gysin and Burroughs at the Beat Hotel in 1961, the Muniria Hotel in Tangier and the Hotel Chelsea in New York in 1963. The film was to be entitled Guerrilla Conditions. The subject matter can be compared to Towers Open Fire as parts of Burroughs’ novels and documents of his life at that period. It also contains several sequences that are rumored to be Balch’s attempt at filming The Naked Lunch, an ongoing project that was eventually shelved as appropriate financing could not be raised. Guerilla Conditions was in fact never realized, but the footage was shot and it became the basis for The Cut Ups.

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.

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.”19 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.”20

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). Balch experimented extensively with the speed at which the film was run. “I asked myself what was the shortest length that anyone could really take a scene in, shorter than a foot not everyone could see everything, longer than a foot and they’d have time to examine it.”21. The film can also be shown at variable speeds. “I’ve shown the film at 16 frames per second instead of 24, and it is also very interesting.”22

The soundtrack was made by Somerville, Burroughs, and Gysin. They asked Balch how long the film was, and they produced permutated phrases to the exact length of 20 minutes and 4 seconds, including the final “Good. Thank you.” These permutated phrases are repeated and phased like a Steve Reich23 composition. There are four in all: “Yes, Hello?”, “Look at that picture,” “Does it seem to be persisting?”, and “Good. Thank you.”24

The Cut Ups was completed in 196325 but played much later at the Cinephone Academy Moviehouse in Oxford Street in 1966. Audience members are reputed to have walked out complaining that the film was “disgusting” and then were referred by cinema staff to the “U” certificate it had been granted. It ran for a fortnight and eventually had to be shortened from 20 minutes to 12 minutes because staff and manager couldn’t stand running it five times a day. Roy Underhill, the assistant manager at the time, told Balch that 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.

Towers Open Fire and, more importantly, The Cut Ups were not run in exclusively avant-garde establishments, as the London Filmmakers’ Co-op had not yet set up dedicated screenings. This enabled Burroughs and Balch to catch audiences unaware of what they were going to see. They would not be expecting such an outright attack on narrative logic – much in the tradition of the direct attack on bourgeois sensibilities that had been achieved by Dada and Surrealist filmmakers in the 1920s.

The big problem with filmmakers’ co-ops is that audiences go along expecting to be challenged and even outraged, thus negating any real potency to do so. The Cut Ups did achieve this on its release, as English audiences had not yet been exposed to much, if any, provocative avant-garde film practice.

This “misunderstanding” is reflected in reviews such as the Monthly Film Bulletin’s “a cinematic reductio ad absurdum, a mechanical and quite pointless exercise.”26 And regarding the soundtrack, “simple phrases repeated ad nauseam.”27 Ignored were the nihilistic aspects of the film and its confrontational approach to audience and language/logic as a control system.

In his book Here to Go, Gysin said 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 recreates this in cinema; it too is almost “sickeningly painful” to watch and try to make sense of. This is a way of “deranging the senses” in the Rimbaud sense. In this context, Burroughs and Balch can be seen as modernists developing beyond Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and Robbe-Grillet and revealing the actual structure of writing and cinema, while also creating new juxtapositions and fresh and hidden meanings in the texts. This predates the “structural film’s” concepts and does not pursue the political, Marxist positions of Gidal et al. of losing content. Rather, the cut-up creates new, poetic, crippled syntax and reflects a basic concern with narrative juxtaposition.

Wider Theoretical Debates and Contexts

Sitney’s original critical approach in identifying the trend of structural film is important in that it is the first real critical work that aspires to a recognition and delineation of the phenomenon specific to film. However, due to his incomplete knowledge of certain precursors in film and other arts, he paints a short-sighted definition of structural cinema, positing it within his own clique of the New York Film-Makers’ Co-op.

In George Maciunas’ “Comments on Structural Film,28 he presents a wider range of influence in other arts and a reappraisal of Sitney’s formulation, making several important gestures. The very semantic nature of the term “structural” is criticized, as it refers not only to simple, minimal structures, but as a general term that can be divided into complex (polymorphic) and simple (monomorphic) structures.

In “Expanded arts diagram,”29 Maciunas proposed the category of “monomorphic structure,” which is applied to a single, simple form exhibiting essentially one structural pattern. He argues that this tends to border on concept art since it represents an “idea” and its material is concepts. The Cut Ups fits into this conceptual model as it exhibits the monomorphic structural pattern throughout. (Although I would argue that its currency and materials are not merely concepts, but the new juxtapositions and meanings that the shots acquire via the application of the structure.) Towers Open Fire represents a polymorphic structure; however the “cut-up” sequence of the film can easily be viewed as an independent monomorphic sequence.

A useful comparative film to use here is Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (right). Maciunas also raises the point that Arnulf Rainer is not monomorphic (as Sitney implies through his usage of the term “structural”) but polymorphic in structure. Arnulf Rainer concentrates explicitly upon the various juxtapositions available from limited cinematic “units” (black frame, white frame). The Cut Ups does not rely on two basic units but on four film strips to which the basic structural pattern is applied.

These elements in the strips never “recur,” as do the black and white frames in Arnulf Rainer. This therefore provides a progression, reflecting the films’ concern with “content.” With a set number of basic units there are only a finite number of variations available. The Cut Ups operates on three levels of juxtaposition. The mathematical cuts on a vertical level (1-4 in the diagram) represent the “structure” and bring four reels of film into arbitrary connection with one another. A second occurs on the horizontal or linear frame-to-frame level of the original pre-cut film (1-24 in the diagram), giving also a linear progression (but only at this level). The third juxtaposition occurs with the soundtrack’s relation to the image. This further fractures the film as the permutated phrases overlap and phase to produce complex rhythmic ideas originating from simple phrases. These do not condone the rhythm of the visual cuts on screen, thus further embellishing the auditory/visual complexity of the film.

In Arnulf Rainer, Kubelka’s binary cinematic raw material explores the two basic cinematic units, varying the mathematical structure (making it polymorphic) as it is impossible to vary the frames any further than black or white. Kubelka is therefore embraced by the “ascetic structuralists” (Le Grice and Gidal) for emptying his film of content. In The Cut Ups, however, concern is placed onto the arbitrary relationships that the monomorphic structure brings to the frames of the already extant footage. This is the raison d’être of the cut-up project. Kubelka does state, however, that “articulation in the film takes place between one frame and the next, between one sound and the next, and between sound and synchronous image,”30 a concern shared with The Cut Ups. This leads into further and subsequent criticism of Sitney’s perspectives that were afforded via the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, strongly influenced by Film Culture and the New American Cinema that it championed. Filmmaker critics such as Malcolm Le Grice, Peter Gidal, and Deke Dusinberre worked on taking the application of structure to film to self-destructive extremes in their films and theoretical writings. Ascetic structuralism, light-play, and structural “landscape films” offered intense development in structure above content of the films. The ascetic and light-play films seek to eradicate the film altogether, echoing moves already clearly anticipated in the Fluxus group, but instead taking a theoretical thrust that would bring them into collision with linguistic and ontological theory of Christian Metz et al.

Gidal’s and Le Grice’s theory works on the illusionistic nature of narrative and of “emptying from the cinematic signifier all semantic, associative, representational significance,”31 viewing content from political Marxist perspectives as a feature of dominant ideology used to manipulate and sedate the spectator. Gidal continues: “The structural/materialist film must minimize the content in its overpowering, imagistically seductive sense.”32 This denies content and thus “representationalism,” occurring on a binary level in Arnulf Rainer (right), and thus disallowing all but the most basic visual relationships to occur between the images. In Christian Metz’s “The Imaginary Signifier,” he states, “Basic to the constitution of the cinematic signifier is that it is absent: unlike the theatre in which real persons share the time and space of the spectator.”33 The projector and cinematic apparatus (even used in light-play films, which verge on performance art/theatre) project shadows and patterns of light – “representations” of a certain “reality.”

Burroughs and Balch are not involved in this line of enquiry, their approach being wholly different in that their concern is with content. They are not concerned with the imaginary status of the cinematic signifier, only with fresh propinquity of narrative elements. The results may often seem nonsensical, but they represent the new antirational meanings sought by the cut-up operative. This concern with relationships between units of meaning reflects Vertovian concepts of cinematic expression and Kubelka’s serialist musical heritage and its approach to film.

Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, amongst his other films, articulates a concern with constructivist theories and, primarily with relationships between shots (or “intervals”) and making up “phrases.” “It is the interval between two frames which is the important element of the articulation of meaning.”34

The Cut-Ups’ concern also clearly remains in this tradition, bringing disparate elements into collision spatially and temporally with the effect of focusing attention onto the importance of the new relationships. Kubelka’s approach to cinema is informed by antecedents in Viennese serialist and minimalist music, such as Gerhard Ruhm’s one-tone music (1952) and Joseph Mattihas Haeur’s rigorous approach to twelve-tone musical structure.35

The “formal” film relies heavily on musical metaphor as this is the most highly developed of the formal arts. However, it is not representational (on a visual level), as cinema clearly is. Kubelka seeks to empty his films of representation, in the same way that John Cage emphasized the importance of silence/vacancy in his compositions of the 1950s. However, Kubelka’s films emphasize relationships between frames as highly important to the articulation of meaning. “Just as Webern reduced music and the interval to the single tone, so Kubelka reduced film to the film frame and the interval between two frames.”36Arnulf Rainer is a film arranged into frame sequences (“phrases” in Vertov’s terminology) and achieves as many different relationships between the frames as possible by varying the structure. The Cut Ups can therefore be divided into two different approaches. The first approach is the concern with rigorously applying a monomorphic cutting structure to film footage and creating new arbitrary relationships between units, linking hitherto unrelated linear shots into a new spatio-temporal whole. The strongly rhythmic visual cuts play a particularly interesting role, especially when considered as anti-rhythmic elements in relationship to the soundtrack’s constantly shifting tempo. This can be related to minimalist music, hence the need for the full 20-minute duration, in its aim of “derangement of the senses” – relating to the meditative and thus to the repression of logic and coherence. This also ties in with a Dadaist tradition of confrontation and making the audience uncomfortable in order to transgress through entrenched barriers, which all avant-garde art practice attempts to achieve.

The techniques and ideas demonstrated in The Cut Ups and Towers Open Fire are highly important in portraying a more complete picture of a period of experimental filmmaking occurring during the 1960s. These films are unrecognized antecedents of a “structural” avant-garde cinema, yet also represent a unique ontological approach specific to the cut-up techniques of Gysin, Balch, and Burroughs.

  1. Burch, Noel. “How We Got into Pictures: Notes Accompanying Correction Please,” Afterimage #8/9, Winter 1980/81. []
  2. Burch, Noel. “How We Got into Pictures: Notes Accompanying Correction Please,” Afterimage #8/9, Winter 1980/81. []
  3. Bordwell, David. Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. []
  4. Drummond, Philip. “Notions of Avant-Garde Cinema” in Drummond, Philip, ed. Film as Film: Formal Experiment in Film 1910-1975. Arts Council of Great Britain. []
  5. Wollen, Peter. “Counter cinema: vent d’est,” Afterimage #4, 1972. []
  6. Penley, Constance. “The Avant-garde and Its Imaginary.” An expanded version of a paper presented during the avant-garde event at the Edinburgh Film Festival, August 1970, from Camera Obscura. []
  7. Sitney, P.A. “Structural Film,” Film Culture, #47, Summer 1969. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. Hein, Birgit, “The Structural Film,” from Drummond, Film as Film. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Dwoskin, Stephen. “Film Is: The International Free Cinema,” London: Overlook Press, 1975. []
  12. Dwoskin, Stephen. “Film Is: Britain.” Extract from Dwoskin, Stephen “Film Is …” Ibid. []
  13. Miles, Barry. “El Hombre Invisible” p.118, Virgin Books, 1993. (These sentiments echo those of Cubist painter George Braque: “I am not so much interested in things as with their relationships with each other.” []
  14. Ibid. []
  15. Green, Malcolm, ed. “Black Letters Unleashed!” London: Serpent’s Tail/Atlas Press, 1989. []
  16. Interview with Brion Gysin. Rolling Stone, May 1972. []
  17. Curtis, David. “Film: An Early Chronology,” Studio International Nov/Dec 1975. []
  18. A third collaborative film worthy of mention here is Bill and Tony (1972), in which Burroughs and Balch appear as talking heads, blacked out except for the faces. This film was designed specifically to be projected onto the human face, much like the sequences in Towers Open Fire. The film is based on a 1961 idea of Gysin’s in which he appeared “nude” on stage – in fact a photograph of his naked body was projected onto himself. []
  19. Interview with Anthony Balch. Cinema Rising #1, April 1972 p. 12. []
  20. Ibid. []
  21. Ibid. []
  22. Ibid. []
  23. Steve Reich, American “minimilist” composer of the late 1960s. His compositions consisted of very simple, single lines of music, played repeatedly and gradually “phased” against one another to create complex rhythmic ideas. Reich was inspired by La Monte Young, who wrote similar ascetic pieces in the 1950s, however Reich is a better comparative analogy to use with regard to The Cut Ups due to his use of “phasing” and repetition. []
  24. This breakdown of one-foot sections of The Cut Ups proceeds in the order C1,R1;C1,R2;C1,R3;C1,R4;C2,R1,;C2,R2; etc. []
  25. Cantrill’s Filmnotes #43/44, February 1984. p. 38. Interview with Brion Gysin. Gysin gives dates of the films contrary to the later dates supplied by the BFI (BFI Dates: Towers Open Fire1963, The Cut Ups 1967). []
  26. Monthly Film Bulletin. 1967. p. 62. Review of The Cut Ups. []
  27. Ibid. []
  28. Maciunas, George. “Some Comments on ‘Structural film’ by P. A. Sitney” in Sitney, ed., Film Culture Reader. New York: Praeger, 1970. []
  29. Maciunas, George. “Expanded Arts Diagram,” Film Culture #43, 1966. []
  30. Kubelka, Peter. Extracts from an interview with Mike Wallington, Tony Rayns, and John Du Crane. Cinema #9, 1970. []
  31. Gidal, Peter “Theory and definition of Structural/Materialist film,” from Gidal, Peter, ed., Structural Film Anthology. London: BFI, 1976. []
  32. Ibid. []
  33. Metz, Christian “Le Signifiant Imaginaire: Psychanalyse et cinema” 1977. []
  34. Vertov, Dziga “We Manifesto” Kinofot #1, 1972. From “Petric, Vlada, Constructivism in Film – Cinematic Analysis: The Man with the Movie Camera. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. The Soviet constructivist avant-garde saw the artist as an engineer who constructed useful objects for the postrevolutionary society. []
  35. Weibel, Peter “The Viennese Formal Film” from Drummond, Film as Film. []
  36. Ibid., p. 109. []