Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.12: David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the rote plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 92 (A)

Naked Lunch is one of the most polarizing items in the career of an already polarizing director. Thoughts on it among Cronenberg fans range from “hopeless muddle” to “ambitious but impenetrable” to “one of his best”. I gravitate towards the last bit. The film is, to put it lightly, a very loose adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ famous beat novel (a close adaptation really would be impenetrable). But Cronenberg’s film kicks of a refreshingly experimental period in his career, one that saw him taking on highly idiosyncratic works, representing the author’s personality, and filtering it through his own obsessions. Naked Lunch remains the best of this period.

Bill Lee (Peter “Robocop” Weller) works as a bug exterminator in New York while his wife Joan (Judy Davis) uses his bug powder as a drug. Bill begins to have strange hallucinations from the stuff: a giant bug starts talking to him, and Bill comes to believe that he is a secret agent while his wife is an enemy. When Bill accidentally kills Joan while performing a William Tell routine, he runs away to the Interzone (modeled after the international zone of Tangier, Morocco), where he takes secret assignments and writes up “reports” that will be published in his first novel. While there, he meets a handful of strange and sexually ambiguous characters, including Joan, a doppelganger of his dead wife.

Naked Lunch, like many Cronenberg films, blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, but it’s not a film that necessarily needs to be fully understood so much as it needs to be experienced. Cronenberg blends a number of styles together for the hallucinatory aspects of the film- noir formalism for the paranoid spy thriller elements, traditional Cronenbergian body horror for the bug/sex hallucinations, and, perhaps best of all, deadpan comedy (“sexual ambulance?”) as a reaction to everything that’s happening. Naked Lunch is Cronenberg’s funniest film- it’d be hard for a film that features people writing on half-living bug typewriters that ooze semen and bugs that talk through anuses to be taken completely seriously. It’s an unpredictable and often repulsive looking film of clashing styles (perfectly mirrored by a score that mixes Howard Shore’s traditional music with free jazz saxophone work), but to an open mind and a strong stomach, Naked Lunch can be flat-out hilarious.

The film is filled with a handful of memorable Fellini-esque characters, from Roy Scheider’s sinister drug-pusher Dr. Benway to Julian Sands as a predatory gay Swiss dandy to Ian Holm as a rival writer to Bill. As memorable as many of these turns are, however, they pale next to career-best work from Weller and near-best work from Judy Davis. Weller’s deadpan delivery suggests a mix of William S. Burroughs (“Bill Lee” was a pseudonym of his) and Steven Wright, but he also nails the character’s inward nature and confusion after a traumatizing point in his life. Davis, meanwhile, is great in a tricky double role, first as a fucked-up wife and then as the haunted specter of things past.

The film is ultimately less an adaptation of Naked Lunch and more a mixture of Burroughs’ strange style and an unconventional Burroughs biopic. The bit about Lee accidentally killing his wife? That really happened to Burroughs. The sexual fluidity? Burroughs experimented with both men and women (though he mostly identified as homosexual). The escape to the Interzone? Burroughs spent a large period of his life after his wife’s death in the international zone of Tangier, Morocco, among other places.

The hallucinatory elements of the film all represent bits of Lee/Burroughs’ state o of mind. The spy-thriller elements represent paranoia over his pursuit by authorities. The Cronenbergian body-horror elements of the film mostly represent Bill’s discomfort with his own homosexuality. He spends time with sexually ambiguous creatures called mugwumps and writes on bug-typewriters with pulsating anuses and phallic appendages. Bill denies that he’s a homosexual (the spy thriller routine throws out the idea that his homosexuality is a “cover”), but it’s clear he’s more tempted by men than by women. After all, the only woman he’s attracted to in the film is the specter of his dead wife.

His visions start to argue that he didn’t kill his wife out of free will- he was programmed to do it, and she was an enemy agent anyway- but we know the truth. Burroughs has said that the death of his wife was what pushed him to be a writer, and accepting that guilt is key to Bill becoming a writer.  Tragedy warps the psyche, pushes the mind to places it might not go otherwise. Cronenberg knows that himself, albeit from a less tragic place, from his own experience of divorce that inspired The Brood. The film adaptation of Naked Lunch is an astonishing and abstract look at the creative process- what goes into it, what comes out of it, and how it all gets done.

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  2. Couldn't agree more with your review, but how could you leave out one of the most compelling elements of the film: its fantastically beautiful soundtrack? Ornette Coleman improvising over a Howard Shore orchestration. Sensational.

    1. I'm with you, it's one of Shore's best. I remember writing a note about how the score (strong Shore symphony juxtaposed with odd free jazz improv) mirrors the film (strong noir/spy thriller structure with bizarre body horror elements), but it somehow got lost in the actual writing.