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Lots of people will hate this film, and some will love it.
The bottom line is, if you enjoy, respect, or feel that you understand the work of William S. Burroughs, you should see this film. If you don't know what I am talking about, you should probably not see this film.
The following pedantic and potentially inflammatory review, like this film, pulls no punches and makes no apologies for itself. Read on if you dare.
If any three of the following conditions apply see Naked Lunch:
1. ...know what the term "visual metaphor" means.
2. ...are a Burroughs, Kerouac or Ginsburg fan.
2a. ...are not a fan, but know and respect Burroughs, Kerouac or Ginsburg
3. ...can't see how the book Naked Lunch could make a good film.
4. ... believe that Peter Weller is an underrated actor.
5. ...thought any of the following films were 'lightweight': Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, The Last Wave, Heavenly Creatures, Dead Ringers.
6. ...have lived in the New York area for 15 or more years.
7. ...know the relationship between improvisational jazz, poetry, and modern art.
8. ...think you understand what Andy Warhol was trying to do.
9. ... are curious about what the process of writing a novel is like.
10. ...spend a lot of time arguing with inanimate objects.
11. ...without knowing the content of this film, can see a potential relationship between sexual ambivalence, guilt, paranoia, addiction, typewriters and over-sized talking insects.
You should NOT see this film if any of the following apply:
1. ...consider homosexual love to be evil, wrong, and something you can not sympathize with or understand.
2. ...use the phrase "he's on drugs" to explain behavior and ideas that do not make sense to you.
3. ...do not like or respect Burroughs, Kerouac or Ginsburg, and you know who they are.
4. have a concept of challenging literature as the latest John Irving novel (no offense to Mr Irving intended - he's easily as great as Burroughs, just sort of mainstream and pop).
5. ..like films which you can walk away from easily.
6. ...don't want to see any film which requires a second viewing to feel as if you've really got any of it.
7. ...view films strictly as a form of entertainment.
8. ...without knowing the content of this film, you can not imagine a potential relationship between sexual ambivalence, guilt, paranoia, addiction, typewriters and over-sized talking insects.
9. ...don't care to understand most of the following review.
10. ...consider ambiguity and loose ends in a film to be "plot holes" and consider any film which has them to be 'flawed'.
William S. Burroughs is widely regarded as one of America's greatest writers of fiction. A friend and mentor to Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg, Burroughs helped to create the genres of 'beat' - American literary high modernism, and/or post-modernism. He provides highly tactile ironic, seductively repulsive descriptions of the everyday which are at once accurate, fragmented and surreal - in other words - Burroughs recreates the feeling and mood of his time and his experience with hermeneutic precision.
Cronenberg's Naked Lunch is an amalgamation of Cronenberg's interpretation and experience of reading Burroughs, Burroughs own life, and Burrough's legendary novel, Naked Lunch. There are six or more plots operating in six or more interacting layers throughout the film, and the action centers exclusively on Burrough's alter-ego, Bill Lee, as he attempts to discover the relationships between all of these plots. The plots I identify (and an interested viewer will generally be able to identify many more that this) are Burrough's relationship with Joan, Lee's relationship with Joan, Lee's drug addiction, Burrough's drug addiction, Lee's investigations into the secret society of drug trafficking at the edge of the world in Interzone, Burrough's struggle to create/discover himself. However, the theme of the film is more an issue of the Lee/Burroughs character trying and, in the end, failing, to make sense of the connections between these plots.
It is a very self-conscious, personal, brilliantly developed and visually intense film. Yet, despite its self-exposure and openness, the film maintains a certain distance from its audience, as if it has taken on the life given it by Cronenberg and Burroughs and established its own unique personality, which will keep its audience at a certain distance. To really appreciate this, you must watch the film at least a few times.
It is especially significant that Burroughs gave his approval for this project. Burroughs' writing is intensely personal and artistic, and his willingness to allow Cronenberg to position himself and his experience of Burrough's work within the film, and to decenter Naked Lunch is as powerful a testimony to Burrough's own integrity as an artist as it is to Cronenberg's vision.
Most of the people who acted in this film really wanted to be involved in it and it shows. Ian Holm and Roy Scheider are always great. Peter Weller, a big Burroughs fan and a severely underrated actor gives what may be the performance of his lifetime, Judy Davis and Julian Sands are both perfectly cast and powerful in their roles.
This films imagery is necessarily disturbing, disorienting, and, at times, quite comic. Very much in keeping with the feel of Burrough's work.
See it. You don't have to like it to respect it.
Naked Lunch seems to be just totally incomprehensible upon first viewing. However, after watching it again, you start to understand more and more. Upon multiple viewings, you really get a feel for what's transpiring before your eyes. The ultimate message is that it is really just a metaphor for heroin addiction, even though it's so much more deeper than that. It's an intricate study of a man, William S. Burroughs, who was a heroin addict, and among other things one of the most significant Beat authors ever. The film delves deeply into the psyche of Burroughs and takes you on a trip in his mind and your own. There are touches of reality and many flashes of paranoia, and it is all done with style and grace. Seriously one of the best films about an author, Naked Lunch will certainly stand the test of time against other films which may seem at first entertaining, but lose their luster upon multiple viewings. Whereas, Naked Lunch, in my opinion, never will. 10 out of 10.
Movies in the last years have become more uniform, more streamlined, particularly in the US. As a result, the film market is full of sleek, entertaining movies that the whole world goes to see, but these movies have nothing but harmless baby teeth. Fortunately, people like Lynch or Cronenberg still do movies that may be considered defective by most people, but that bite into the flesh with pointy canines. The Naked Lunch has very sharp teeth indeed. It's supposed to be an adaptation from a William Burrough's book, which doesn't make sense anyway. It starts as the story of a failed writer whose wife becomes addicted to an insecticide powder... It goes downhill after this relatively sane and normal beginning. It's a ride, a drug-induced nightmare full of horribly funny visions (the sort of visions that artists used centuries ago to represent hell). Anuses talk. Aliens sip alcohol in bars. People get impaled. Typewriters turn into bugs. Liquids ooze. You may say it's flawed, or disgusting, or ridiculous, or boring. I saw it with someone who absolutely hated it. But the fact that this person still keeps talking about it 8 years after seeing it says a lot about the Naked Lunch, at a time when we tend to forget blockbusters a few hours after watching them. The Naked Lunch is here - in your mind - to stay.
"Exterminate all rational thought. This is the conclusion I have come
So says Bill Lee, the central character of David Cronenberg's adaptation of William Burroughs' bizarre novel "Naked Lunch". The film takes the novel, replaces the characters with Burroughs, his family, and his friends, and then gives them all the names of characters from the book anyway. Once you sort that conundrum out and stop thinking rationally you can begin to understand the film. But only begin. I don't think there is any way to fully understand "Naked Lunch".
Bill Lee is an exterminator who, along with his wife, has become addicted to bug repellent powder. One night, while on a bit of a bender, Bill accidentally shoots his wife, Joan, in the head during a game of William Tell. Following this, he uses the powder to go on a seemingly endless trip, ripe with sinister cabals, talking bugs, and journalistic endeavors.
What the film theorizes is that this is actually the tale of how Burroughs wrote the book "Naked Lunch". Indeed, Burroughs did shoot his wife the way Bill does in the movie, but one wonders if Burroughs actually went on the trip we see in the film. "Naked Lunch" is akin to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" in it's over-the-top depiction of drug use as literary inspiration. "Naked Lunch" is actually a bit weirder to me than "Fear and Loathing", but I guess that's the same as saying one Queer Eye Guy is gayer than another. How can you be sure and, in the end, what's the difference? I'll skip over trying to compare Burroughs' trip to Dr. Thompson's. I think my brain would explode if I tried.
David Cronenberg, cinematic master of the macabre, struck gold with "Naked Lunch". Here we have one of Cronenberg's most fully realized fantasies. It's sick, disturbing, and confusing and, in these ways, it almost reaches the level of "VideoDrome", Cronenberg's true masterpiece and the most outright disturbing film I've ever seen. The creatures that Cronenberg dreamed up (based, of course, on Burroughs' warped ideas) are incredible. The seven-foot-tall Mugwumps (modeled after the physical appearance of Burroughs) creeped me out, and the half-beetle/half-typewriter creatures with talking sphincters are some of the grossest creatures I've ever seen on screen. These are things that Cronenberg delights in.
Peter Weller finally escaped from the shadow of "RoboCop" with this film. Ironically, the characters are similar. Both Robo and Bill Lee are monotone speaking, emotionless people. The difference being that Robo is made from forklift parts held together with duct tape and glue and Bill is human. Or at least I think he is. Nothing is certain in "Naked Lunch". Weller captures William Burroughs expertly. Judy Davis shows her range in the dual role of Joan Lee, Bill's wife, and Joan Frost, Bill's imagined lover. Joan Lee is drug-addled and loose; Joan Frost is uptight and needs to be taught how to be free. Davis makes the two women so different that it's almost impossible to tell it's the same actress in both parts.
If you like Burroughs, see this film. If you like Croneberg, see this film. If you want a simple, pleasant film...stay far away. :Naked Lunch" is a pornographically perverted look at the complexities of drug abuse and the difficulties of the writing process. I don't use the word pornographically lightly. This is as extreme a movie as I've ever seen, especially coming from the Hollywood system. It's icky, it's gross, it's disturbing. It's also a masterpiece.
Films about writers and the creative process are not generally
action-packed, but this unusual piece has plenty of incident. The action
takes place largely inside the mind of "William Lee" (William S.
whose first book "Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict" dealt
with his struggle against heroin addiction. "The Naked Lunch", set in the
early 1950s, could be described as telling how that book came to be
Lee does it tough. After "drying out" he has a job as a pest exterminator,
killing cockroaches with powder from a cannister. He discovers that his
Joan, still an addict, is shooting up with the bug powder and having sex
openly with two of his literary friends, Hank and Martin. He then manages
kill her accidentally with his pistol ("I guess it's about time for our
William Tell routine"). He flees the country and washes up in "Interzone"
(Tangier - then an "international" city).
He tries to write but suffers from frequent hallucinations. He imagines his typewriter is a giant speaking bug whose mission is to act as his "Interzone" spyforce controller. He becomes involved with another expatriate literary couple, Tom and Joan Frost, and imagines that Tom is trying to kill his wife. Naturally he seduces the wife. Then he discovers he has a taste for gay sex, very easily indulged in locally, where there is a gorgeous willing boy such as Kiki ready to slide off the nearest bar stool. There is competition though from various other slimy types, including a rich gay predatory Swiss expatriate, Yves.
Somehow, the book gets written, and Hank and Martin show up just as Lee bottoms out in psychotic despair. They help him piece it together and head off back to New York, leaving Lee to "Interzone" and his hallucinations.
It takes a bit of discipline to watch this film - never has the creative process looked quite so destructive of the writer. Yet the whole thing has a lightness of touch about it. Lee never quite goes right over the edge and is able to observe himself with a certain amount of ironic detachment. At the same time, it is clear that the death of his wife has affected him deeply, both in terms of loss and guilt. The typewriter bugs are a cute touch. Burroughs was the grandson of the founder of the Burroughs office machinery empire, the man who patented the first practical adding machine - the mechanical bug runs in the family it seems. Abusive psychiatry also gets a send up.
As Lee, Peter Weller has a face as impassive as a homicide cop almost regardless of the turmoil within (after all, he made the role of Robocop his own). But he is a "tough guy" on the point of melt-down. Judy Davis, looking just right, plays with plenty of conviction both Joans (who in Lee's fevered brain are the same person). Ian Holm is good as Tom, the nasty older writer who is quite happy to lend his wife for sexual purposes but woe betide the man who damages his precious Arabic typewriter. Julian Peters as Yves radiated menace but overall was a bit of a cardboard-cutout, not helped by his dress and appearance, which seemed to have come straight from "Brideshead Revisited" (Sebastian in Morocco).
David Cronenberg as a director has certainly got a reputation for weird films ("The Fly", "Crash") but this offering is relatively restrained It was something of a pity that "Interzone" was a studio set somewhere (Canada?) but this is low-budget stuff after all. Unlike the bugs in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", these ones have a story to tell, though it's a painful one. Like Hunter Thompson, Burroughs was a great prose writer and the film has plenty of good lines. No-one could view heroin addiction with equanimity after seeing this film, but there is no moralising. As bug agent Clark Nova put it in the film:
"Just remember this. All agents defect, and all resisters sell out. That's the sad truth, Bill. And a writer? A writer lives the sad truth like anyone else. The only difference is, he files a report on it."
This film of 'Naked Lunch' is the first of Cronenberg's Trilogy
of filming three of the most challenging literary works of the
20th Century, and arguably the most difficult... as anyone who's
read Burroughs' 1959 novel can attest, in conventional terms it
is a book without a cohesive plot or even structure, largely
assembled from the paranoid rambling letters of the world's most
notorious drug addict. Cronenberg's approach to the material is
ingenious in that he attempts to fictionalize the circumstances
under which the book was written rather than trying to weave a
storyline from the mass of twisted plot threads which comprise
the text. The cast is impeccable, particularly Peter Weller and Judy Davis
as the leads, Ian holm as a psuedo-Paul Bowles, and Cronenberg
regulars Robert A. Silverman as Hans and Nicholas Campbell as
Kerouac-ish Hank. Julian Sands and Roy Scheider don't quite
infuse their roles with the ridiculousness of their counterparts
from the novel, but their cameos are brief and don't detract
from the overall effect. The overall effect being a hypnotic, schizophrenic blend of
biography and folklore, equal parts Cronenberg and Burroughs, a
self-tortured portrait of the creative process. To the
director's credit, he relies on the script (his own) and the
performances over visual trickery or stock travelogue scenery to
set the mood and propel the action. The astonishing soundtrack,
by the superb Howard Shore, underscores the drug-filled malaise
of this Tangerine dream perfectly... it lacks any musical sense
of time and therefore hangs over the proceedings like a
mysterious haze. Haunting, powerful cinema... but most
definitely not for everyone. Wise up the marks before laying
this on them.
I'm always dubious when books I love are made into movies. They never QUITE
translate and something is always lost. The idea of filming 'Naked Lunch' is
even more difficult than usual, because it isn't really a novel with a
coherent, chronological narrative, more a sequence of surreal, absurdly dark
and funny "skits". As such it would be impossible to make a successful movie
out of the raw material Burroughs created. Luckily Cronenberg (and who
would have been better equipped to make this?) has cannily blended scenes
from the book with incidents inspired by William Burroughs real life, and
made it work. Very well.
Fans of Burroughs are sure to be more satisfied with this than the more literal and less imaginative 'Beat'. Non-fans will hopefully be inspired to read Burroughs' work after watching this. Peter Weller is perfectly cast as Bill Lee, and the supporting cast are also fine. I like most of Cronenberg's output, and I would rate 'Naked Lunch' as one of his most successful movies, and the best depiction so far of the Beat sensibility.
New York 1953. Bill Lee is a bug exterminator who follows his wife down
road of using the bug powder as a hallucinatory drug. When he is picked
by the police for suspected drug use he is left in the cell with a large
that tells him that he is on a mission and must watch his wife. When he
accidentally kills his wife he flees to Interzone to prepare his report,
increasingly losing his grip on what is real and what is
I have seen this movie several times and am always taken in by it. In terms of narrative it is not the strongest film you'll ever see. In all honesty the plot is pretty thin and the film is best seen as a journey into destruction with Lee's drug addled writer slowly but surely losing grip on reality with every passing moment. The journey is reasonably interesting, even if it doesn't have enough pace to really be fascinating. What does hold the attention is the imagination of the film and it's ability to put onscreen a decent representation of Lee's hallucinations.
The effects are very good but it is their use that is better. While it does have a certain amount of gore, the creatures and hallucinations are actual characters (creepy characters at that) that are used well within the story, rather than just being effects or gore. The cast can't all say that and some of them are distinctly average at times. Weller is as good as ever in a dead eyed performance that gives way to madness and fear at times. Davis is every bit as good, delivering two roles and be riveting in both. Holm is OK and it's not his fault that I couldn't get Bilbo out of my mind! Sands and Schneider don't have enough to do but are interesting faces.
Cronenberg is the perfect choice for director, but it is good that he holds back from the full on gore or body horror, call it what you will. He uses a measured camera to film the hallucinations rather than using swinging `crazy' angles to portray mental state - that is a lazy technique. Here Cronenberg (and Weller's blank face) calmly and methodically fall into despair and it is good to watch.
Overall, this is not a perfect film - it is slow and the narrative doesn't totally grip, however it manages to make a good fist out of filming a descent into a hallucinatory nightmare. Worth seeing it once, but I can't imagine that the word `enjoyable' would really ever apply to this film.
Mmmmm.... mugwump jizz
Themes: Substance addiction and how physically self-conscious it makes our protagonist feel, the creativity forced by imprisonment (a direct reference to real-life events between Burroughs, his wife, his subsequent incarceration and his heroin/acid issues), the sense of betrayal as more surprise than malice and of course the inevitable interface between Dave and Bill at the pelvic level.
The effects work is pre render-mation latex and sufficiently restrained to allow your imagination to back-fill the appropriate horror/fascination/titillation for the moment. Don't try to figure out which you =should= feel or to mentally sort it out, that'd rob you of the fun; it's the psychic and emotional disarray that makes it so compelling.
Peter Weller is suitably deadpan, allowing only a sparkle of the playful poet to shine through from time to time (the story about the Duke du Vantra's Espano-Suiza made me howl); he must have spent a few =fun= hours with Burroughs himself to get the role down.
If you liked Cronenburg's smarter stuff, such as Dead Ringers, you'll love this. If you've read Kerouac, Ginsberg or Burroughs in particular, I promise you'll love it. If you're not into exploratory literature, have issues with distasteful realities of poverty or have a personal affection for the quality works of Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger - you'll hate it.
It made a very strong impression on me; the day after I saw the opening night of Naked Lunch (long before the "internet"), I established and sysoped a BBS that was the primary alternative discussion forum for onliners in Edmonton, Alberta for several years. It's name? The Interzone.
The movie is fascinating, odd, reveals more on second viewing, and is faithful neither to Cronenburg nor Burroughs but an excellent mix of elements of both.
It has a great beat, easy to dance to... I give it an 89, Dick.
Either way, you won't look at a typewriter the same way ever again.
I find it difficult to comment this movie, honestly. Without revealing
anything, that is. This applies to comments only,as the evaluation
would mostobviously be 10/10. You see, having read in one of the other
comments here, that the movie contained an implication on heroin
addiction, I expected to find something similar to "Requiem to a Dream"
- a movie that leaves one single message and a bouquet of associated
feelings in a viewer, with the message being DRUGS ARE BAD, in big
friendly letters. I was wrong.
I guess those who enjoy psychedelic music will understand what I want to say better - this movie has a high. Not literally of course, but it does leave you in a different world, with lots of ideas, without any definite beginning or end. It is very, very weird, in the most positive, awesome meaning of the word. Definitely not another conformist movie with a moralistic message behind it. Which is a good thing, really, because we don't get a lot of that nowadays, and 1991 isn't that far away....
The only thing about it is that you either love it or hate it. Nothing in between.
I find it quite impossible to add anything without revealing the plot. Therefore the only thing I'm going to say is: watch it! Not the best movie in the world, but most certainly the strangest one, at least from my point of view.
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