Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1991)

12. Naked Lunch

When I was a teenager, I rented “Naked Lunch” as someone who was a long-time fan of David Cronenberg. I saw the film more-or-less completely unaware of who William S. Burroughs was or what his landmark novel was about. After watching the film, I was very confused. However, the movie obviously got under my skin, as I couldn't stop thinking about it. I decided to retrieve a copy of Burroughs' book from my local library, in hopes that it would help me understand the film better. Once again, I was not prepared for what I was getting into. However, the experience did give me an appreciation for Burroughs, launching me into that pretentious teenage period where I got really into “dangerous” authors. Returning to “Naked Lunch,” now that I'm much more familiar with Burroughs, the film plays quite differently.

William Lee is many things: an on-again/off-again drug addict, a secret homosexual, a would-be writer. In 1953, he's working in New York City as an exterminator. After seeing his bug powder is low, he discovers his wife, Joan, is shooting up the substance as a drug. Bill begins to experiment with the bug powder too. He has vivid hallucinations. Giant beetles appear that tell him he's a spy and that enemy agents from Interzone are after him. That his wife is one such agent. In a spontaneous act, he accidentally shoots Joan in the head. Bill flees to Interzone, a surreal world in Northern Africa. He chases strange drugs, is followed by enemy agents, meets a woman that looks just like Joan, and somehow writes a book called “Naked Lunch.”

William S. Burroughs' “Naked Lunch” is a landmark book for many reasons. It's a watershed novel for the beat movement, helping birth a new style of writing. It's also one of the most controversial novels ever. Originally published by a company that specialized in pornography, the book is packed full of explicit sex, extreme violence, and any number of deprived acts. A straight film adaptation of Burroughs' work would be completely incoherent, prohibitively expensive, and would require a rating more severe than the NC-17. So, instead, Cronenberg mixes elements of Burroughs' life with reoccurring elements from his various books. The real life death of Burroughs' wife is used as a catalyst into his own fictional world. His affair with an Arabian boy named Kiki crops up. His friendships with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac is incorporated. This is put aside the addictive black meat, the villainous Dr. Benway, and the monstrous Mugwumps that appeared in Burroughs' books. The result is neither biopic nor adaptation but a hallucinogenic blending of both.

The film is not Burroughs' “Naked Lunch.” It is Cronenberg's “Naked Lunch.” The director attempts to fuse his aesthetic with Burroughs'. Cronenberg's obsession with the malleability of identity continues. The two separate women named Joan seem to blend together, much how the Mantle twins in “Dead Ringers” eventually become one. Luckily, both the director and author share an interest in insects and mutated monsters. However, Cronenberg's fascinations are ultimately very different from Burroughs', creating a work that is distinct from the one it's adapting. As a compromise, Cronenberg includes several of Burroughs' trademark monologues, the talking asshole story and several others, presenting the bent prose completely untouched within the film. The two aesthetics stand apart from each other but ultimately prove complimenting.

As a biographic work, “Naked Lunch” focuses on what led Burroughs to becoming a writer. In an early scene, while the Ginsberg and Kerouac stand-ins talk about their methods, Bill Lee does not refer to himself as a writer. He begins writing as “reports” to his invisible spy masters. These drug-induced ramblings soon form the backbone of Burroughs' novel. Burroughs once said the accidental murder of his wife drove him to become a writer. Thus, in “Naked Lunch,” Joan's death is the one haunting event that drives his work. The joys of writing literally become orgasmic, as Bill's talking typewriters ejaculates or moan when the writing is good. These joys, like a drug high, are short-lived. Bill Lee exercises his real life horrors in fantastical writing. The process of writing is one of struggle and pain. So “Naked Lunch” is one of the most accurate films about writing ever made.

Burroughs' “Naked Lunch” had no real plot to speak of. The episodes of sex and violence, and rambling anecdotes were kind of linked by a loose spy/detective narrative. Cronenberg's film operates in a similar way. “Naked Lunch” is a spy movie set entirely in the head of a drug addict. So the espionage plot makes no sense. Bill shifts back and form between working for Interzone and against it. His evil spymasters, represented by giant beetles that talk through their anuses, program him to perform tasks he doesn't understand (Though they speak to his secret desires). While “Videodrome” also featured rival conspiracies and programmed assassins, in “Naked Lunch,” there's no attempt to make this coherent. The film instead operates as a druggy satire of the spy genre, where back-stabbing and secrets are more symbiotically important than plot relevant.

In “Naked Lunch” and many of his other books, William S. Burroughs wrote frankly about drug addiction. He talked openly about control and needs while graphically describing the methods and lifestyle of the drug addict. Cronenberg's “Naked Lunch” approaches Burroughs' addiction with a metaphoric distant. The real drugs of Burroughs' writing – junk, morphine, grass, pills –  are replaced with fantastical drugs: Bug powder, the black meat of a giant aquatic centipede, Mugwump jism. Though primarily set in Bill Lee's fantasy world, the film occasionally pulls back, showing the needles, bottles, and other debris of Burroughs' addiction. However, the specifics of the drugs are ultimately unimportant to Cronenberg's “Naked Lunch.” The way they influenced Bill Lee's mindset is what matters.

William S. Burroughs frequently wrote about his homosexuality. The only previous depiction of homosexuality in Cronenberg's films was the cartoonish, deprived gay couple in “Shivers.” The film strikes an odd compromise. Both Burroughs and Bill Lee seem somewhat disgusted by their own desire. When his talking typewriter brings up his gay desires, Bill leaves the room. He repeatedly rejects various come-ons. When Bill walks in on a gay rape, he sees it as a giant centipede monster attacking and killing the prone boy. Bill's feelings for his wife are complicated, romantic but seemingly non-sexual. (The film toys with the idea that Joan's first death was inspired by seeing her with another man.) And he successfully seduces the other Joan. The cinematic “Naked Lunch” treats Bill Lee's sexuality as distant and alien, malleability, which is an odd way to depict Burroughs' homosexuality.

Burroughs' often used genre conventions as a clothesline to hang his surreal episodes. So creatures and monsters, out of science fiction or horror pulp novels, frequently appeared. Cronenberg brings some of Burroughs' strange creations to life. The talking typewriters are the primary creature. Depicted as massive beetles, they talk through fleshy, hairy, pulsating anuses, as in one of Burroughs' most famous monologues. The beetles crawl, leap into bug powder, and tear apart other beetles. Equally prominent are the mugwumps. Their designs bring reptiles, insects, and sea creatures to mind. They also casually drink or smoke, contrasting oddly with their alien appearances. At one point, a normal type writer turns into a pink crawling creature with both a penis and pert butt cheeks. By having bizarre monsters traipse in and out of the plot, Cronenberg continues to make “Naked Lunch” a psychotropic trip into Bill Lee's mind.

William S. Burroughs' appearance, usually wearing a brown suit, fedora, and round-frame glasses, and droning voice are as iconic as his writing. Peter Weller, the former RoboCop himself, assumes both attributes to play Bill Lee. He perfects Burroughs' particular cadence, particularly the way he slips “dig” into casual conversation. However, Weller's performance is not just imitative. Like any of the creatures in the film, Weller uses a dead-eyed stare except during the brief moments of drug-induced bliss. Weller gets as Bill Lee's inner vulnerability, hidden behind a very specifically crafted artificial appearance. He also does a great job of conveying Burroughs' odd sense of humor. All in all, it's a fine performance and Weller really made the right decision to star in this instead of “RoboCop 3.”

The film also has a varied supporting cast. Notoriously, Judy Davis made both this film and “Barton Fink” the same year. In both, she plays the muse to a troubled writer. In “Naked Lunch,” Davis has to play two separate characters as well. Both Joan Lee and Joan Frost are slightly frosty and off-putting, though Lee is harsher. Davis creates continuity through both women, who are different versions of the same women, after all, while also making them distinct. Ian Holm appears as Joan Frost's husband, playing up his sweatier sides as a desperate, rat-like man. Julian Sands is perfectly cast as Yves Cloquet, a predatory dandy that allows Sands to ham it up as much as he wants. Lastly, Roy Scheider has a brief role as Dr. Benway, Burroughs' supervillain that represents both his helplessness against his addiction and his discomfort with his own sexuality.

“Naked Lunch” was Cronenberg's second collaboration with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and the two continue to do beautiful work together. Since “Naked Lunch” is riffing on pulp spy stories in a very bizarre way, Suschitzky shoots the movie like a vintage spy story. There are heavy shadows in scenes devoted to tough guys in fedoras sitting in dark rooms. Suschitzky filters the entire film through earthy colors. This recalls both the desert setting of Interzone and also the brown textures of the beetles and centipedes that take up so much time in the story. Also fitting the material is Howard Shore's score, which is heavy on the wild, chaotic jazz saxophone sounds we associate with the beat era. (Even if this results in a largely unlistenable, cacophonous score.)

The first time I saw “Naked Lunch,” I didn't understand it and I wasn't sure I liked it. The more I've seen the film, the more my opinion has shifted. I still don't entirely understand the film, even after reading a lot about Burroughs' life and his writing, but I'm definitely sure I like it. In fact, I think it's a brilliant film. By turning the struggle of writing into a monster-filled nightmare of paranoia and addiction, Cronenber does a good job of portraying the conflict of the creative process. While not the perfect encapsulation of William S. Burroughs' obsessions and fetishes, it's an interesting filtering of these ideas through Cronenberg's own interests. Pretty good for a film that is probably best known today for a pretty good joke on an old episode of “The Simpsons.” [Grade: A]

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