Friendly Films Limited and The Doomed Film Project of Naked Lunch
Making Visible — Listening To Ghosts
“George Cohen’s son John read the first thirty pages of the screenplay and thought his father was mad to sink his money into such incomprehensible nonsense.” — Tony Balch to Brion Gysin, early 1970s
Tony Balch, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin collaborated from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s on a proposed film of Naked Lunch. They formed a film production company, Friendly Films Limited, in 1970, and Gysin worked on a number of treatments and screenplays, receiving advice and creative input from both Balch and Burroughs. Inevitably, there were censorship problems to overcome — how to include the pornographic sections in a film intended to transcend underground, art film status? How to develop a plot or narrative which would bring cinematic coherence to the individual, bravura sections of Burroughs’ book and combine and synthesise a startling variety of genres filmed in a number of widely dispersed cities? Oh yes, and how to raise $600,000, just for starters. The difficulties in getting financial backing, as well as illness, the demands of other creative work, and the geographic separation of the participants all played their part in continually derailing this adventure which was so close to the hearts of all three men. They dreamed of a scandalous commercial success, and the money would come rolling in, but it was also a labour of love and a vision to which they were committed.
One page from a four-page treatment of Naked Lunch by Tony Balch. Courtesy Terry Wilson. Reading vertically downwards we find “William Hall” — the pseudonym of Burroughs’ later alter ego.
Burroughs’ hands and film cannisters containing negatives of old TV commercials. Burroughs is performing a magical ritual to keep the footage locked away forever. (Tony Balch).
Pages from a Hauser and O’Brien film script. Courtesy Terry Wilson.
This key noir section of Naked Lunch was also a vital element in all the versions of the proposed film. These pages are from a specially bound version to be used for promotional purposes.
The film dream and the dream film tantalised, and then like so many movie projects, it was over, definitively — a puff of glitter dust, then gone. “All those years!” In 1991 Burroughs would reflect that “the novel does not obviously lend itself to adaptation for the screen: it has dozens of characters, few of whom are developed from their initial appearance; the action is set in cities all over the world; it is composed of many small, fragmentary, kaleidoscopic scenes; and there is no traditional story line. It is a novel with a great deal of talk, and the rule of film is that movies move, with minimal talk.” The material which has survived — screenplays and storyboards and shooting schedules, and letters directly concerned with the project — reveals how the three artists attempted to overcome these difficulties and it tells us much about Naked Lunch itself, as the boundaries of different media and genres, the limit points of experimental and narrative structures, avant-garde practice and mainstream aesthetics are tested, the potentiality of the original text explored and re-made through the recombination and permutation of images and the switchback detours of plot lines. Devices like Gysin’s “Transvestite Airlines” — transporting the characters through space and time — or vertiginous jump cuts like a flaming fortress transformed into a burning ashtray in a gay bar, are extensions of Burroughs’ own method in Naked Lunch while key sections of the book are reordered and rerouted in parallel with Burroughs’ instructions regarding “intersection points” in the Atrophied Preface, and the characters and their routines mutate through alternative scenarios, in accord with Burroughs’ own post-Naked Lunch writing. Gysin was writing out of a great admiration for Burroughs’ masterpiece and also from a shared past, which allowed him to merge and mix fictional and real-life characters, as he noted on a page of an early draft of a screenplay: “Interzone, of course, was Burroughs’ very personal Vision of the Tangier scene in the 1950’s, here reinterpreted by me to include the cast of characters whom we both knew there at that time.”
Based upon documents from the archive of writer Terry Wilson, a friend of Burroughs, Balch and Gysin, my research in this area leads to an inescapable paradox: the desire to view a film which does not exist. To see a film which was never made. To try and imagine what might have been, and to make visible a collective dream . . . One of the reasons why critics and fans for years referred to Naked Lunch as “unfilmable” was because, quite simply, the film had not been made and therefore, apparently, it could not be made. But the point is that Balch, Burroughs and Gysin did not consider this to be the case. The linguistic experimentation and apparent incoherence of the book did not seem to them insurmountable problems at that time — indeed, delirium was central to the plot, as in the “secret hideous technique” which A.J. and Benway are concocting in their African fortress hideaway. It’s clear that the hallucinatory narcotic and cinematic realms would have been the twinned zones of illusion in the film.
Burroughs may have distanced himself at the time of Cronenberg’s film from his own earlier efforts — “the late Brion Gysin and Antony Balch, set out to adapt it for film” — while dismissing Gysin’s “screenplay” (sic) as being “long on burlesque . . . a series of music-hall comedy songs that he composed,” but there is another story to be told, hidden behind this un-faint non-praise, and Burroughs’ involvement in the project is indisputable. Believing that directors Donald Cammell and Kenneth Anger had “smoothly cut us out” from signing Mick Jagger for the role of Lee, Burroughs wrote to Gysin on May 6th, 1971: “You see Lee in a sense is an idealized image of the writer able to do all sorts of things the writer can’t do well so maybe start would be possible writer I mean actor who could do a predistiginal you dig. You want somebody to shoot find somebody knows how to shoot just like we find somebody who knows how to hang for the hanging scenes. Just a thought. CAN WE MAKE OUR OWN LEE FROM THE C SCRIPT? It seems to me that the first essential for Lee is PHYSICAL PRESENCE BEING THERE. Love, William.” And Burroughs’ contribution was not limited merely to notes in regard to casting.
(Note: “predistiginal” appears to refer to, and to play upon, someone who is experienced and gifted in a particular way — someone who “predigests” or who is “predestined” — but it is also connected to the professional magical system known as “The Prestige” and to the art of the conman and actor-as-fraudster who miraculously, and systematically rigs the future: the “predestiaginator,” the “prestigitator,” the “prestigitor,” and variants of the parlance.)
Gysin said wistfully of his Morocco Two film script, “It came about because of movie commitments and hopes . . .” Likewise, it is impossible not to mourn those shared, lost dreams of Groucho Marx appearing on screen as the fast-talking, wise-cracking, motormouth Dr. Benway (or “Dr. Dentway” as Gysin sometimes dubs him, in tribute to Dr. John Yerbury Dent), and Dennis Hopper mean and lean, sulky and then hyper, in a deranged cowboy take on Lee . . . Or Mick Jagger as the post-Performance revenant Lee on the lam, playing it supercilious and androgynous . . . If only. But we can still imagine and try and trace the trajectory of that filmic dream, its parabolic rise and fall. I hope my study will give an idea of what Balch, Burroughs and Gysin wished to achieve and to explain why it was so important to them to realise a collective vision of Naked Lunch in sound and vision. One thing is certain — it would have borne no resemblance to Cronenberg’s version of the book, made twenty years later, skewed and fixed as that film is within the aesthetic confines and tropes and fixations of the director’s own oeuvre and sexuality.
Examining Balch’s extraordinary film background and his work as producer, editor and director, as well as his previous film projects with Burroughs and Gysin, I also look at the work of Kenneth Anger and Donald Cammell, including the relation of flash cuts to the cut-up technique. Burroughs’ own use of film script formats and the significance of cinematic processes and imagery in his writing is also an important area, inextricably bound up with the project of filming Naked Lunch. Crucially, the film sources of Naked Lunch itself are analysed in regard to Balch’s filmmaking, both experimental and mainstream, Gysin’s screenwriting, and Burroughs’ other works, showing the symbiosis of the collaborators’ cinematic enthusiasms and concerns. The following excerpt from a synopsis of the proposed film (one of a number of versions of the plot line) gives some idea of the kind of reconstruction and development employed in the intended transposition. It is only one part of the picture puzzle — beyond this, there is enough evidence to permit a kind of condensation and reconstruction of all the flawed, fragmentary and contradictory material, developing a hypothetical working print, a film without a negative, to be viewed on the interior screen. Think of it as a spooky piece of necromancy redolent of the early days of the cinematic apparatus, the experience of viewing images in motion as pure conjuration . . . So let’s take a little trip back in time to the cinemonkey and project the memory footage and the dream fragments, and see what appears — dim, jerky, flickering, and full of cuts . . . Cinema as séance, the repository of vanished time and the witnessing of ghosts . . . The lights slowly fade then suddenly go down . . .
Some say that A.J. is the real controller of the world. A.J. kept Dentway alive to use his genius, hidden in his secret fortress in the heart of Africa in Interzone. Lee travels on a very strange airline to Interzone, determined to find Dentway and get his secret. However, on arrival in this strange land he finds that no one has ever heard of A.J. or his fortress . . . no one that is, except for a small boy. The Shoe Shine boy tells Lee he knows the hideout and will take him there. On arrival at the fortress they are met by Salvador O’Leary Chapultapec, A.J.’s right hand man who was expecting them. Inside the fortress, Salvador shows Lee the hospital wing where the captured Dr. Benway, who has gone mad, is perfecting his newest and even more hideous technique for A.J. A secret meeting for heads of state and visitors from space will be held to demonstrate Dentway’s latest horror. The show is so frightening that Lee, helped by the Shoe Shine boy, sets fire to the fortress and escapes. Nick’s hand extinguishes the fire which is in the ashtray on the Everhard bar and hands Lee his junk. Lee leaves the bath at dawn and buys an old typewriter . . .
That Shoe Shine boy — now where did he come from? He stepped right out of the classic 1936 recording of the same name by the great Lester Young, who was in Paris in the spring of 1959 and who returned to the States to die just a few weeks before Naked Lunch was published . . . The critical dismissal of “Gysin’s screenplay” — a singularity which ignores the very different versions and treatments — and the ridicule of the musical numbers which Gysin included — when in fact he was being entirely faithful to the book’s non-stop cabaret songbook — should be addressed. Gysin understood the nostalgic, vaudevillian score textually grooved into Naked Lunch and the riffs and routines, the scats and the raps which he created for the screen version are true to the spirit and material of Burroughs’ original musical divertissement — and this at a time when most critics and fans were entirely deaf to that old swing and croon and rag. In his screen treatments Gysin didn’t just imagine how Naked Lunch might look, he heard the music rising up from the pages of the book, and he improvised on those subverted show tunes, satirised folk songs, and evocative big band themes. Listen carefully and we can hear that ghostly music coming through, from the other side — melancholic and uproarious, a lamentation in a fun house, every reflection a shimmering undulation or cracked distortion, and entirely felicitous to Burroughs’ musical antipathies and sentimental attachments. For once that rock music cliché, “a soundtrack for an unmade film”, is both accurate and seductive. “He who hears may see.” And vice versa. Let’s see that unmade film. And let’s hear it.
More to come…
(Text: Ian MacFadyen, February 2009)