William S. Burrough’s Avant-Garde Movie ‘The Cut Ups’ (1966)

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 (heard him read it here) 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. You can watch it for free above. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

And if you’re in the mood for some more avant-garde cinematic goodness then you can check out Burroughs and Balch’s first collaboration Towers Open Fire below. It’s NSFW. More avant-garde films can be found in our collection, 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

Related Content:

William S. Burroughs Explains What Artists & Creative Thinkers Do for Humanity: From Galileo to Cézanne and James Joyce

William S. Burroughs on the Art of Cut-up Writing

William S. Burroughs Reads His Controversial 1959 Novel Naked Lunch

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.


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  1. Samuel Hell Jackson says . . . | June 4, 2014 / 9:16 am

    Is that from a Scientology course?

  2. Johnnie Jones says . . . | August 22, 2014 / 3:56 pm

    They made stupid shit back then, and they’re still making stupid shit now.

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