Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Naked Lunch Review: Take a Walk on the Weird Side

By Ben Macdonald

Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider
Earliest Year of Release: 1991

“In the City Market is the Meet CafĂ©. Followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, pushers of souped-up harmine, junk reduced to pure habit offering precarious vegetable serenity, liquids to induce Latah, Tithonian longevity serums, black marketeers of World War III, excusers of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, bureaucrats of spectral departments, officials of unconstituted police states, a Lesbian dwarf who has perfected operation Bang-utot, the lung erection that strangles a sleeping enemy, sellers of orgone tanks and relaxing machines, brokers of exquisite dreams and memories tested on the sensitized cells of junk sickness and bartered for raw materials of the will, doctors skilled in the treatment of diseases dormant in the black dust of ruined cities, gathering virulence in the white blood of eyeless worms feeling slowly to the surface and the human host, maladies of the ocean floor and the stratosphere, maladies of the laboratory and atomic war... A place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum... Larval entities waiting for a Live One...”
-William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

I recently went to see a one-man play inspired by William Burroughs called ‘Underbelly’ and it turned out to be the best piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. The play was compiled from a variety of Burroughs’ writings and presented an incredibly distinctive, hilarious, insane and brilliant perspective of the world. This prompted me to revisit David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Burroughs’ most famous novel, Naked Lunch.
The film is much more linear than the novel, which was comprised of a series of tangentially related vignettes, but it’s plotting remains appropriately illogical and as hard to follow as a good film-noir. Stone-faced Peter Weller delivers his best performance as Bill Lee, a hallucinating exterminator-turned-secret-agent. Fictional equivalents of Burroughs’ friends Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac make an appearance as witnesses to Lee’s loosening grip on reality. But the reality of the film in general is so far out that it all seems drug-induced. From the exterminator hangout to the bazaar in Tangier, the film is full of odd set design and matter-of-fact weirdness. Music is also a big part of Naked Lunch’s distinctive character. The score by ‘free jazz’ innovator Ornette Coleman, and Howard Shore, who has scored all but one of Cronenberg’s films, perfectly suits the Beat poet characters and the film’s unpredictability and almost improvisatory feel. This being a Cronenberg film, the movie features a number of gross and disturbing practical effect creations and Burroughs’ sexuality and drug-use is filtered through the director’s own preoccupations, such as the blurring of the line between flesh and machine.
However, the film is more a black comedy about writing and creativity. For instance, typewriters turn into giant talking bugs and the Ginsberg and Kerouac characters debate the merits of stream of consciousness versus obsessive rewriting. Burroughs’ stand-in character Bill Lee makes his position clear: “Exterminate all rational thought.”