Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Why Haven't I Seen That?: NAKED LUNCH (1991)

Welcome to a new installment of WHY HAVEN'T I SEEN THAT?, where we talk about a must-see or iconic movie that we have never seen ... until now. This week we tackle director David Cronenberg's 1991 adaptation of author William S. Burroughs' experimental novel, NAKED LUNCH.

I am so, so glad that Naked Lunch wasn't my first encounter with David Cronenberg's work. If it was, I think I can safely say that I would have hesitated not at all in swearing off his work forever, such a challenging and inaccessible project this film is. Even with the scars of exposure to five other Cronenberg works etched in my soul, stripes left by a cross-section of his filmography which includes Naked Lunch's spiritual companion, 1983's Videodrome, I still came away from this picture feeling confused and mildly violated.

Cronenberg himself has admitted that a direct film adaptation of Burroughs' novel is impossible, the latter being written in a disconnected style that rejects the conventions of linear narrative. Instead, Naked Lunch, the movie, is a heavily stylized account of Burroughs' experiences in the 1950s, living in Tangier and working on the body of writings from which Naked Lunch, the book, would eventually emerge. So, points for honesty up front: there is only an oblique, tangential connection between the two projects that share this brain worm of a title.

Holding on to the plot is like holding on to an ice cube on a hot day: it will get away from you. I tried to write a synopsis here, but had to give up after only a couple of sentences because I just couldn't keep things straight in my head. The best I can do is to say that this movie is about the departure from reality that comes with heavy drug use, as the main character, William Lee, goes from being an exterminator in New York City to a struggling writer living somewhere in a fictional part of North Africa, and so out of touch that he can't tell a bag full of pharmaceuticals from a bunch of smashed typewriter parts.

In Lee's fragmented reality, typewriters (or as the film sometimes quaintly calls them, "writing machines") can be giant beetles -- and agents of adversarial spy organizations, besides. People can communicate telepathically, and those people sometimes aren't people at all, but giant centipedes. Addiction is at the core of the story, as Lee graduates from using the pesticides from his job to get high, to a strange substance called "Black Meat", and finally to a viscous, milky fluid that looks very much the material I suspect it represents. Because homosexuality is also a theme of this tale, though I cannot grasp what sense its inclusion makes here. It obviously plays some part -- at one point one of the giant beetles assures Lee that his cover story of being a homosexual is so secure that if Lee seduces a woman it will be the perfect bait-and-switch -- but I just don't get it.

When we're not being confused by the plot or put off by the adolescent sexual imagery, we're left with Lee making his way through a world that his junk habit has rendered incomprehensible. Peter Weller, in the role for which he wisely walked away from the abortion that became 1993's Robocop 3, plays Lee in a deadpan way that doesn't always work out, as Weller sometimes speaks so softly that we can barely hear him. Other characters, probably by design given Lee's compromised state, come off as different shades of creepy, leering or purring their lines in ways that I found unsettling. The creatures -- the giant beetles and, later, the Mugwumps, man-shaped horrors that produce that suspicious-looking fluid I mentioned -- are some of the best parts. If a movie is about a character's tenuous grasp with reality, like Videodrome or Terry Gilliam's Brazil, then I start looking forward to the scenes when that grasp slips. Cronenberg is known for weirdness, and he delivers with Naked Lunch.

But that weirdness is what ultimately works to Naked Lunch's detriment. This movie want to be an unflinching look at addiction and sexuality, but to me it seems as though the movie gets lost in its own metaphors. Instead of trying to get its act together and make some kind of sense, just throws up its hands and enjoys the ride down the rabbit hole. For example, in one scene in which Lee is busy seducing one of the other characters, a nearby typewriter transforms into a thing that looks like a cross between one of Alien's face-huggers and a naked human torso and goes wiggling about the room. Why? What's the point of that? It's the only time a typewriter changes (and it's always a typewriter that changes; interpret that, film school gang, if you dare) and it doesn't have anything to do with the story.

If you like Cronenberg weird, Naked Lunch will satisfy. If you're a film snob looking for a discussion topic, Naked Lunch might satisfy, though I never claimed to speak for the film snobs of the world. For me, this is the kind of movie that I go to when I want to watch something that's going to make me work if want to understand, something that challenges me to come to its level, instead of coming to mine. This is one of those movies that gives me the sense that if I'm patient, and listen closely, then one day I might understand it. It's not something I'm completely used to, but it's different, and that's not a bad thing.

Naked Lunch is rated R for heavy drug content, bizarre eroticism, and language.

Robert's Score: 6 / 10

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