Towers Open Fire: The Cut-Up Films Of William Burroughs And Antony Balch

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The unlikely collaborations between the king of the Beat Generation and the master of British exploitation cinema.

In 1962, movie obsessive Antony Balch headed to Paris, where he found work as both a location scout and a subtitler of French movies for UK release. Balch was a film fan ahead of his time, having a love for both the lowest of exploitation movies and the most experimental of art film. He was also a good looking gay man, and it was probably this latter fact that first brought him into the orbit of Beat Generation writer William Burroughs.

The two met at the Beat Hotel, and soon became close friends. By 1963, Balch had been given a thank you in the Burroughs novel The Ticket That Exploded, and was making his filmmaking break with Towers Open Fire, an experimental work that attempted – with some success – to use the celebrated Burroughs cut-up technique. The pair would collaborate on further short films, some of which would not be released in Balch’s lifetime, into the early 1970s, including The Cut-Ups, which features Burroughs performing parts of The Naked Lunch. Balch had a dream of filming The Naked Lunch from 1963, which was quite an ambition when the novel was still being hauled through courts in the USA and UK under obscenity charges – even when David Cronenberg eventually filmed his movie inspired by the novel, the argument was that any faithful version of the novel would be unfilmable and unreleasable. The project lumbered on until the early 1970s, with the story adapted to include musical numbers and Mick Jagger lined up as the leading man – a disagreement between Jagger and Balch finally did for the project.

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Balch’s eventual feature film career was, in truth, no less interesting – his debut film Secrets of Sex (aka Bizarre) is a thoroughly weird softcore-horror-arthouse collision that is pretty much unlike anything else ever made; Horror Hospital is a gleefully lurid affair that both celebrates and mocks the horror film. His directorial career is painfully brief – you really wish that he’d done more, though perhaps it’s actually better that he didn’t – there’s no dilution of his vision at play.

When not directing, Balch ran The Jacey cinema and worked as a film distributor. His open-minded approach saw him release everything from arthouse movies from Kenneth Anger and European sex films, retitled with a sense of fun (Heterosexual, pitched as a new kinky sex act; Sexier Than Sex) and vintage classics like Freaks, Haxan (the version with the Burroughs commentary) and Daughter of Horror. At a time when exploitation cinema was still sneered at, Balch embraced everything.

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Secrets of Sex

In 1980, Blach died of cancer. His work with Burroughs was issued on VHS by Factory Records video arm Ikon as part of a box set that included Burroughs’ appearance at the Hacienda in 1982. The films – though easier to see now than at any time before – have strangely lapsed into relative obscurity, barely mentioned even in Burroughs documentaries, and Balch is often dismissed as someone punching above his weight in their creative (and personal) relationship – an outrageous and misguided claim. The films deserve to be better known, as does Balch, one of the most interesting individuals that the ungrateful British film industry has ever unearthed.

You can enjoy the films here:

TOWERS OPEN FIRE

WILLIAM BUYS A PARROT

BILL AND TONY

GHOSTS AT Nº9 (PARIS)

THE CUT-UPS

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