Naked Lunch (1991) * Weird and Wacky *


Typeface? Now I get it.
Typeface? Now I get it.

Genre: Fantasy Mystery Horror Drama (Canada, UK, Japan)

Starring: Peter Weller (Robocop 2Leviathan), Judy Davis (My Brilliant CareerA Passage to India)

Directed By: David Cronenberg (eXistenZ The Fly)

Overview: A surreal tale of the written word, things absurd, reality blurred… and getting high on bug killer.

I’ve been a fan of Cronenberg for some time, being less into his more recent, mainstreamier A History of Violence / Eastern Promises-style stories and more into his older surreal body-Horror stuff, like the intelligent and mind-bending Videodrome, the tip-of-the-hat to Kafka The Fly, or the confusing, reality-shifting eXistenZ. I even enjoy him as an actor, finding his role in Nightbreed to be absolutely terrifying. I’m not so familiar with William S. Burroughs’ work, though conveniently I have read his poorly-spelled fever-dream novel Naked Lunch about who-knows-what and a talking anus. I also know enough about his life and that fateful tragic drunken game he played with his wife in Mexico that influenced his writing forever. Having seen Naked Lunch before, I vaguely recall how little this film had to do with the novel itself, not that the book made much sense… Either way, I expected Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch to be equally difficult. Perhaps it’s my penchant for the Avant-Garde, but I found to be rather simple to follow when compared to stranger oddities like Lynch’s work or the right out-there productions of The Brothers Quay.

Naked Lunch’s mood is Bohemian slow-jazz Forties, writers living in poison-veined dirt, drifting in and out of reality. An exterminator in a fedora, Bill Lee (Peter Weller), runs out of insecticide while on the job. It turns out that his wife, Joan (Judy Davis) has been shooting up that bug powder. She convinces Bill to try it, saying “it's a literary high… a Kafka high. You feel like a bug.” And bugs there are aplenty. Between discussions about the writer’s craft and living the artist/junkie lifestyle, Bill begins hallucinating. Large grotesque beetles speak to him super-spy-surreptitiously about becoming an agent, going to Interzone and writing reports on his activities. In a drug-induced haze, Bill kills his wife in a Burroughs-autobiographical William Tell accident. He flees to Interzone, a Middle-Eastern city full of insect typewriters, covert machinations and homosexual debauchery. There Bill works, investigating the locals and writing reports that may or may not be more than centipede-juice-infused hallucinations.

Not so handy with a pistol...
Not so handy with a pistol...

Naked Lunch is, today, THE most vilified of the 112 films reviewed by the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die club, with a horrendous score of 4.8 out of 10. Members’ reasons range from “baffling… largely unsatisfying” to causing “confusion and anger… an agonizing two hours.” Sometimes films need a champion, but I’m not enamoured enough by Naked Lunch that I will hold up its standard. But neither shall I throw stones. Though there are some… interesting holes… in Naked Lunch, there’s stuff going for it as well. Movies about movies, books about writing, and songs about singing might be an old cliché, but here we’re immersed into these writers’ lifestyles so completely that it pushes out of the same old rehashed material. Although the theme of the writer’s life is pushed to an extreme, it’s original, even philosophical. My favourite exchange is early in the film, when three writer friends discuss their craft:

HANK: "You can't rewrite, 'cause to rewrite is to deceive and lie, and you betray your own thoughts. To rethink the flow and the rhythm and the tumbling out of the words is a betrayal. And it's a sin, Martin. It's a sin."

MARTIN: I don't accept your, uh, Catholic interpretation of my compulsive, uh, necessity to rewrite every single word... Guilt is the key, not sin. Guilt re: not writing the best that I can. Guilt re: not, uh, considering everything from every possible angle. Balancing everything.

HANK: Well, how about guilt re: censoring your best thoughts? Your most honest, primitive, real thoughts? Because that's what your laborious rewriting amounts to, Martin.

MARTIN: Is rewriting really censorship, Bill? Because I'm completely fucked if it is.

BILL: Exterminate all rational thought. That is the conclusion I have come to…          

HANK: Maybe you ought to try your hand at writing pornography?...

BILL: I gave up writing when I was 10, too dangerous.

HANK: Only if someone reads what you write.

 Cronenberg, using a toned-down version of the old-school body-Horror that he’s known for, manages to create exquisite bugs and alien forms both vile and beautiful. They’re so well made that they’re easily on par with Jim Henson’s creations, though far more adult. Typewriter-bugs moan with pleasure, often puckering perversely while being typed upon. A humanoid thing dribbles questionable sticky white ooze from his head-tubes that people droolingly drink to get high – it’s all very sexual. In fact, the theme of sexual depravity and homosexuality is so complete that that it might just be all too much – perhaps even more than the heavily-laden theme of writing. Yet the two are so intertwined that they’re inseparable. While jazzy sax plays, the written word become as addictive as the junk Bill puts in his veins. Typewriters are subversive symbols of both espionage and heroin, things dark and erotic. The eroticism dips into the realm of the perverse and beyond, to a scene that was unfortunately entirely laughably ridiculous, where a typewriter turns into a creature that is but a back with a bum, flopping its poorly-crafted latex around the ground on top of a fornicating couple. Luckily these scenes are few and far between, but as we progress, the madness goes ever more off the rails, and perhaps that’s the point.

Alternately, I could easily say that the audience’s goodwill is spent by the time the real strangeness begins, and that this is why so many fellow 1001 clubbers detest this film. The more we follow along this homoerotic plotline, the more it becomes silly and directionless, the more the mystery takes too long to be solved, and when things begin to be repeated, Naked Lunch becomes less compelling. As for me, in the context of the 1001 list, I disagree that it deserves to be anywhere near the worst. Though sometimes base, I found Naked Lunch to be overall entertaining and at other times quite beautiful.

That's the tube head guy I mentioned.
That's the tube head guy I mentioned.

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 8 Script: 7 Plot: 6 Mood: 7

Overall Rating: 70% (I Went, But With Reservations)

It’s obvious why those who hate it hate it so completely, but on the flip side, I don’t think Naked Lunch could achieve cult status. I don’t feel it’s a “Love It Or Hate It” film - at best it’s a “Like it So-So Or Grossly Despise it”. If you’re curious, the film was rated an even worse 4.5 out of 10 before I added my two cents, but I couldn’t elevate it out of ‘Worst Ever’ club film – it was already too far down that perverse rabbit-hole.

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"I can think of at least two things wrong with that title." Nelson Munce from The Simpsons discussing 'Naked Lunch' immediately after seeing it.

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