Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Naked Lunch (Cronenberg. 1991)

"William S. Burroughs is one of the most pathetic figures in modern literature..."


What the hell is going on right now? I probably asked that question more times during David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch than I have otherwise in my entire life. Seriously, I was so confused throughout this film that I could not help but be amazed by every single incoherent plot device. Some selections from the 1077 Films to See Before You Die will leave you wondering what redeeming qualities could possibly be found. Naked Lunch is one of those films. But after a while you will start to recognize the strong suit of a picture like this one. Entertaining? Not really. Visually impressive? No way. Interesting and thought provoking? Without a doubt. This is one of the most original and daring films I have seen in my life. So much so that it suffers.

This film is very loosely based on the "classic" William S. Burroughs novel of the same name. The novel itself is famously unintelligible, but the film adaptation may actually be more difficult to decipher than its source material. Naked Lunch tells the story of an exterminator who is doing his best to stay clean from drugs. The main character, played by the stone-robotic Peter Weller, is an obvious homage to Burroughs.

In writing the screenplay, Cronenberg decided to scrap most of the novel's plot and replaced it with a more biographical account of Burroughs' mental demise. He was even brave enough to include and stress the accidental murder of Burroughs' wife during a William Tell routine. This event kick-started the downfall of William Lee (Weller) and served as a catalyst for the ensuing nonsense.

Before I go any further with the plot, I want to point out the genius that is Peter Weller. Most famous for his title role in RoboCop (1987), Weller really comes to life in Naked Lunch...but not in a conventional way. His performance is text book dead-pan. He says all of his lines with a steady monotone that at times is appropriately comical. His eyes never show emotion and his forehead never wrinkles. He seems to be in firm control of the craziness around him- though we know he is not. Even his wardrobe is too conventional for his ethos. He is only seen in well pressed suits of brown or gray. Weller turns Lee into one of the most boring characters in film, but that is what makes him so interesting.

Okay, back to the story. This non-secular narrative is actually really difficult to follow. You are presented with surreal dreams, hallucinations, writings coming to life, homosexual erotisism and several other outlandish inclusions. And did I mention the whole damn film is about bugs?!

That's right, Naked Lunch boasts some of the strangest on-screen figures I have ever seen. After falling back into his drug habits, Lee escapes to a mysterious place called the Interzone. Here he finds talking bugs that disguise themselves as typewriters and giant alien looking, bug-like, animals that make homosexual advances towards him. I warned you that the film makes no sense.

But under all of the unusualness that surrounds it, Naked Lunch is an amazingly original film. It is made great by its inability to compromise with the audience. Cronenberg does not care if his film makes sense, yet Weller's performance makes the whole story fit into place. This is one of the most modern examples of drug-induced surrealism done at an exceptionally high level.

Armed with limitless imagination and a flair for the unusual, Naked Lunch will bop you in your cinematic brain and turn your gag-reflex inside out. But there is something special about the dry and incomprehensible humor of the whole project that makes it all work. Cronenberg managed to take nonsense and make it thoughtful, or (at the very least) deep with pretense. I doubt I will ever watch this film again, but it still has made a considerable impact on how I view film making. I warned you about this one....

Naked Lunch: C+

My Next Film....M (Lang. 1931)

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