Jun 23 2010

Naked Lunch

A bit disjointed now and then, but absolutely fascinating and well done. 3/4

“Writing,” William Lee (Peter Weller) says, “is a dangerous thing.”  I imagine he says this because writing is an act of introspection, and if you’re anything like Lee, what lies beneath is a surrealistic, Beat nightmare that is as fascinating as it is insatiably weird.

Naked Lunch isn’t so much a literal adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ novel as it is an interpretation of how he wrote it.  Often said to be an unfilmable novel, writer/director David Cronenberg decided that the best approach for filming a collection of disjointed, surreal vignettes was to focus on the man behind them, blending real events from Burroughs’ life with the nightmarish dreamscape depicted in many of his works.

Working as an exterminator in post-WWII New York, William Lee, the alter ego-of-sorts of Burroughs, spends most of his time getting high off of bug repellant with his wife (Judy Davis), and his friends Hank and Martin (Nicholas Campbell and Michael Zelniker), both of which are cleverly modeled after Jack Keruoac and Allen Ginsberg.

When a William Tell re-enactment results in Lee shooting his wife in the head, Lee begins to experience bizarre hallucinations of talking beetles who tell him to go to the Interzone (which resembles Tanjeer) to investigate the distribution of drugs harvested from various insects.  His reports while abroad, which turn out to be the novel, have little to do with his mission, which is an appropriate concept concerning Burroughs’ novel and Cronenberg’s film; both narratives have nothing and everything to do with whatever’s going on.

For this reason, Naked Lunch does and doesn’t work.  On the one hand, it can be difficult to get an idea of what’s going on, and the film’s surreal storyline tends to steer the plot into a few dead ends.  There are several instances where the narrative abruptly changes in an attempt to represent Lee’s descent into madness.  Although Naked Lunch is disjointed in nature, some of the transitions between reality and fantasy are so jarring that the audience may spend more time figuring out what they missed, and less time on the film at hand.

On the other hand, Cronenberg’s vision of the inner workings of Burroughs’ mind is fascinating.  Achieving success as the master of body horror, Cronenberg manages to experiment a bit with Naked Lunch by weaving his old tricks involving grotesque manifestations of the sub-concsious into a near-autobiographical account of an important part of the Beat movement.  Amidst creatures resembling sex organs, talking roach/typewriter hybrids and horrifying human transformations, there is also a prominent Fifties aesthetic, a great bebop score by Howard Shore, and subtle Beat sesnsibilities that compliment the film’s surrealism.              

The film also offers a number of strong performances, particularly from Peter Weller, who remains stone faced and aloof amidst the raging madness off his own powder-infested mind.  His descent into madness is a subtle one, yet quite noticeable; his performances of two passages from Burroughs’ novel are perfectly delivered in a haunting monotone.  This dichotomy between Lee’s stoic personality and his twisted sub-conciousness grounds the film, and Weller holds his own as the ego to Cronenberg’s id.

Several character actors revolve around Weller’s sleeping awake protagonist, embodying a few creepy quirks that give Cronenberg’s setting a little more depth.  Ian Holm and Julian Sands, in particular, play two residents of the Interzone and both exhibit a civilized exterior with an eerie aura that becomes more and more realized as the film progresses.  Roy Scheider makes one hell of an impression (despite only showing up at the beginning and end of the film) as the good Doctor Benway, who uses his practice as a front for peddling the ultra dangerous “black meat” powder.  Scheider’s appearance at the end of the film is appropriately out there and fantastic, and his natural charm brings a maniacal bonhomie to the character.

Naked Lunch is not for everyone; as the Kerouac-inspired character says of Lee, “He has a grip on a unique reality principle.”  The same can be said, for better or worse, about the film.  Some may find the film to disorienting to make any sense out of, and Beat purists may take offense to Cronenberg’s creative liberties.  Yet, that same affinity to chaos over order is what defines Burroughs, if not the whole of the Beat movement.  If anything, Naked Lunch may not be so much an adaptation of Burroughs’ novel as it is his mind.

Leave a Reply