Most people know William S. Burroughs as a writer first and foremost, probably more than anything else. His non-linear book Naked Lunch came out in 1959 and is among one of the most important milestones of the Beat Generation.
However, even with this incredible feat of literature in such a specific subculture, Burroughs actually branched out more than once, most notably into the realm of short film when he made the wildly avant-garde movie, The Cut Ups, in 1966. The film is around 20 minutes long, and features a series of seemingly randomised black and white images set to repeating and overlapping vocals that echo the same words and phrases over and over again.
It almost has the same air as a drug trip or a severe fever dream. Even the most esoteric of film students would have trouble arguing that this does, indeed, have a plot. So, how did this come to be, and why did he choose this methodology to make this film. Well, he definitely wasn’t the one to reinvent the wheel here.
In 1920, Dadaist Tristian Tzara wrote in his manifesto a methodology for writing poetry in the Dada style, which involved cutting up the words from a text, dumping them into a bag and then pulling out random words. Thus began the style of the film.
British artist Brion Gysin took influence from Tzara and the Dada style in creating the cut-up method of film. These all went into Burroughs’ inspiration with The Cut Ups, which came long after Naked Lunch, and was made alongside the famous smut/horror distributor Antony Balch. Although there aren’t necessarily very many smut/horror notes in the film, making observations of the collaboration between Blach and Burroughs is nonetheless interesting.
This isn’t the only film that Burroughs ever made, but it’s definitely the most available and accessible. Admittedly, you have to be in the right mood to watch it, considering its very Dada-esque surrealist leanings. Especially considering the avant-garde nature of his overall body of work, it tracks that he would take inspiration from the surrealists before him. However, the film admittedly falls into the background of the tapestry of avant-garde filmmaking of the time. He made the film after Naked Lunch, which is his magnum opus by most accounts.
If you want to check out the avant-garde film William S. Burroughs made inspired by the Dada surrealists, you can actually find it readily available on YouTube. What do you think of the film? It might not make sense, but really, that’s kind of the point.