William S. Burroughs – The Cut Ups

Avant-Garde Movie ‘The Cut Ups’ (1966) by Jonathan Crow

In 1920, Dadaist extraordinaire Tristian Tzara described in his manifesto how to write a poem, Dada-style. It involved cutting up the words from a text, dumping them into a bag and then pulling out the words randomly. “And there you are,” he wrote. “An infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.” Who would have thought that Tzara’s avant-garde methods would be adapted into a successful line of refrigerator magnets?

In 1959, William S. Burroughs had just published his notorious non-linear masterpiece Naked Lunch when he came across the “cut-up” methods of British artist Brion Gysin, which were influenced by Tzara. Soon the author started using cut-up techniques explicitly in his own work, particularly in his The Nova Trilogy. Unlike Tzara, who believed that cut-ups would reveal the utter absurdity of the world, Burroughs argued that language was a means of control that locked us into traditional ways of thinking. The cut-up was one way of blunting that control with new, unexpected juxtapositions. Excited by the possibilities of the cut-up, he experimented with it in a number of different media.

The 1966 short The Cut-Ups is probably Burrough’s best-known foray into experimental film, which he made with filmmaker and renowned smut/horror distributor Antony Balch. The film features random, repetitive shots of Burroughs in New York, London and Tangiers spliced together in precise lengths but with little regard for the content of the image. The audio is a cut-up conversation with the words “Yes” and “Hello,” getting looped over and over and over again.

The film is a trippy, mesmerizing experience. The mind struggles to make sense of the chaos. It feels like you’re watching a dream that has somehow short-circuited. When the film first premiered, film audiences were reportedly freaked out. Some declared that the movie made them feel ill while others demanded their money back.