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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Someday very soon, I will pick up William S. Burroughs's notoriously
cultish bug exterminator/junkie book of Naked Lunch, but for now I will
contend with David Cronenberg's adaptation/meditation/amalgamation of
the book and Burroughs's life. Make no mistake, boys and girls, this is
one f***ed up cookie of a movie, likely Cronenberg's strangest by far
as far as pure surrealism and allegory goes (and I thought nothing
could beat Spider in that department). It's also been said that it is a
'love it or hate it' film, though I don't think it is entirely
accurate. It depends, I think, on how much one is already associated
with Burroughs and his works and style, as well as Cronenberg's, not to
mention how much a person can take seeing cockroach typewriters give
out orders out of an anus, or simply in finding the ever-so-close
skimming of the line between what is real and fantastic nightmare
captivating. On a first viewing, I came away with it as a schmorgesbord
of insanely funny set pieces, an effectively low-key cast, and more
than a few questions by films end. It's got so much to be read into it,
but its true power lies with its starkly straightforward imagery.
As far as I could make out of a 'story', here's what it is: Bill Lee (Peter Weller, far from his RoboCop role) is addicted to the bug spray he uses as an exterminator, and one night while he and his wife (Judy Davis) are all doped on the stuff he plays 'William Tell', shooting his wife in the head instead of the bottle on top of her. This is after Bill has first been visited by the Cockroach figure, which at first he figures for pure hallucination but leads him on his way to get away to the "Interzone", some place that has the look and feel of Morocco, but with nefarious figures all abound, including a woman who looks and sounds just like his wife used to (the two Joans, or one). From there on in, the audience is put almost into the mind-set of Lee, as he gets his orders from his cockroach typewriter to take out other typewriters, oddly associated with a strange old man (Ian Holm), and is drawn into an even stranger subculture involving homosexuality. It may even be that Lee is a totally repressed homosexual, leading to one sequence that truly will leave even the most hardened fans of surrealism with mouths agape.
To say that Cronenberg, by proxy of the life and times and maverick style of Burroughs, is a twisted artist is besides the point. His work is no more or less different- to my understanding of what was and wasn't taken from the book or from Burroughs's life and fellow friends, including beat poets Ginsberg and Kerouac- than what one might have seen from the adaptation of Blade Runner from the PKD book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It's not so much straightforward adaptation as much as it is a synthesis that feels correct more than anything. Even when I didn't entirely understand what was going on story-wise, and this happens more often than not, I think, after Bill discovers that he's been writing Naked Lunch and has to finish it by returning to Interzone, leading up to a revelation involving Roy Scheider that maybe does make more sense than I could fully grasp. But at the same time, like with the best Lynch films, there's tremendous craftsmanship and a kind of intuition that it does actually make more sense than it seems, particularly about the relevance of homosexuality and how it relates to Bill, as well as the underlying psychological impact of killing his wife, and what leaving the Interzone really 'means' at the end of the day.
But in just taking how outrageous things can get, it is actually very, surprisingly, funny to see an actor like Weller, who is out of everyone else in the story the one that the audience is most likely to see as the one to lead them through the Interzone (more or less), interact with the cockroaches- who don't talk out of their ass***** and dictate crazy sentences for him to type all just for a goof, albeit a great goof when first seen- and Mugwumps, more fully formed creatures. Once the humor subsides, however, there are levels of sincerity that Cronenberg gets through even in the murkier narrative moments thanks to his actors. It's maybe Weller's best work aside from RoboCop, much more nuanced, and the restraint communicating much more than might be expected. Davis and Holm are also fantastic in their roles, also showing some interestingly subdued moments, in-particular for Holm when his first scene shows that he can't totally be trusted. Aside from the obviously wonderful make-up and special effects (in a wonderfully weird fashion), the production design is very keen in how it doesn't call too much attention to itself, as if this *is* all reality, raising the stakes just a little higher with the paranoia factor.
Many head-scratching moments, and one-of-a-kind abstractions, in a "literary" adaptation of one of those books that was deemed unfilmable, and bypassed into something that could potentially be deeper in some aspects than the book (though I can't say for certain). One things for sure, Cronenberg fans won't leave too unhappy at the results.
Naked Lunch Indecypherable mess to some, a cinematic masterpiece to
other, masturbatory intellectia to still other, this Cronenberg film,
an (rather loose) adaption of the unadaptable William Burroughs novel
deals with drug addiction, homosexuality, the art of writing, jazz, and
snippets of Burroughs actual life in a prism of science fiction,
heavily symbolic allusions, and overly stylized dialog. If it didn't
accomplish anything else, the film is a testament to how criminally
underrated Peter Weller is as an actor. He is perfect in the part and
it's hard to envision anyone else in that difficult role. However it
accomplishes more then just that. As a film about drug addiction it's
above "Requiem for a Dream", as an essay on the art of writing it's
remarkably poignant. Is it a perfect film? No far from it. Is it
Cronenberg's best? Again sadly no as a handful of his excellent movies
do trump this one. However, despite it's flaws (most of which are
superficial) this still remains a rewarding film, if a tough one to
My Grade: B
Critericon Collection 2-disc DVD Extras:
Disc 1) commentary by director David Cronenberg and actor Peter Weller.
Disc 2) 49 minute Making of; Stills galleries; Marketing campaign featurette; B-roll montage; Excerpts from the novel as read by Willim Burroughs; Theatrical Trailer; and TV spots
With respect to the musical score to "Naked Lunch", well-worth purchase on its own, don't overlook the rare-in-film contribution of visionary jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The jazzman's passionate and non-traditional approach to improvisation partners both Burrough's maverick manipulation of prose and story line and Cronenberg's idiosyncratic gumbo of genres, pulling in the attention of reader, listener, and viewer but not packing that attention into any recognizable, expected structure. In my ears and eyes, this was one of the best uses of sax in film, another being Courtney Pine's anguished sound behind "Angel Heart".
I have been an avid reader of William s Burroughs since the age of 15, and I give props to Cronenberg for attempting to film the unfilmable, which is Naked Lunch. Of course, there is plenty in the book, which is brilliant that isn't in the film, and plenty in the film that never occurs in the book. A novel like Naked Lunch has plenty in which to delve into and Cronenberg really failed to take advantage of most of it deciding instead to make a half adaptation, half bio-pic about the author and the process from which the novel emerged. One has to bring something to the table, notably a prior knowledge of Burroughs life and the events surrounding The writing of naked lunch. lets face it, naked lunch is just too much for the screen, and a true adaptation is probably impossible. Enjoy the film for the dark twisted story and characterization, not to mention Mugwumps! the recitation of Burroughs classic story of "the man who taught his asshole to talk" is worth the price of admission alone. Peter Weller's effortless portrayal of Burroughs as Bill Lee (one of his actual pseudonyms) is by far the best of any other attempts I've seen. Much better than Dennis Hopper's stiff attempt in "The Source" and way, way better than Kiefer Sutherlands forgettable role in "beat". the moral is, like the movie, love the book. the ending is fitting. since Lee enters "Anexsia" only after accidentally murdering his wife, since Burroughs didn't seriously begin writing until this event in his life, the accidental killing of Joan Volmer in the same fashion. I do believe that the novel "junky" may make for a far better bio pic and contains a Hollywood worthy story, unfortunately its formula has been borrowed far too much since its writing.
OK, bear in mind that I haven't read the book.. Cronenberg said though,
that a straight adaptation of Naked
Lunch would firstly cost 40-50 million dollars to make, and two; it
would be banned in every single country of the world.
The movie is ultimately crazy too though. And I think its one the
movies I've felt most stimulated by.. Its lovely. Amazing.
If you like bizarre movies, and you like David Lynch's movies.. this
Someone else quoted that the movie was depressing. I had that in
mind while watching the movie, and I couldn't see any traces of
that? I found the movie humorous more. Fantastic fantastic movie.
David Cronenberg has played with a type of magical realism in many of his
films. He enjoys sharing the madness of his characters with the audience.
Their worlds, constructed on a skewed perception of reality, begin to lose
their familiarity as their delusions become more pronounced. This is true
in Videodrome, Existenz, Spider, and in Naked Lunch. One could argue that
the same is true for M Butterfly.
In Naked Lunch, the hero moves in and out of a drug induced paranoid fantasy where warring factions of secret agencies try to win his allegiance. He, and the audience, are thrust into an unreal world where one cannot discern truth from fiction. Even Julian Sands' character, seemingly real, becomes a nightmarish fantasy and one cannot know if he ever existed in reality.
One real highlight of this film is the music. Howard Shore, along with Ornette Coleman, creates an abstract, jazz infused, middle eastern mélange of great power. It is a very important 'character' in the film.
If the film suffers from anything, it is merely a certain cheesiness of the mechanical creatures that inhabit the fantasy world Cronenberg creates. This, no doubt, is due to unavoidable budget limitations. Honestly, however, because his films are such unique creations, if one can forgive these small compromises and let go of preconceptions, this and his other works can be deeply rewarding.
If, however, you are seeking 'normal' narrative, character development, or portrayals, his work isn't for you.
I haven't gone through the extras yet, just watched the movie itself.
Beautiful transfer--and the package is packed with stuff. 2 discs (one
just extras), plus a nice big booklet all in a big case.
I haven't watched my old Laserdisc of this movie in awhile, but I could have sworn there were some minor extra scenes in it that I don't remember from the original. But I could be wrong--I haven't dug through the extras to know yet (or listened to the commentary).
Many people may not know this even came out, as I found it just by accident when searching on amazon. But it's well worth the price (about $35 or so).
Sorted for madness, Peter Weller at his best. Not for the faint hearted, a truly bizzare work of art, recommended to all who need that experience they have been looking for to completely weird them out. A must see in my opinion
I really enjoyed this movie, finding it intriguing, creative, somewhat
original, and an all-out crazy flick from one of my favorite directors,
The acting was tip-top, especially from Judy Davis who I couldn't believe is in this movie, but glad she was. Peter Weller was all right, though he wasn't really acting, per se, rather just passively moving through the motions (which is what he was SUPPOSED to be doing anyway).
The music and cinematagrophy were astounding, especially a lot of the shadow sequences when people first enter the screen. Lots of fun.
My main problem with the movie was that for people who have read "Naked Lunch" or other Burroughs' work, or for people who simply know about his life, this movie was really not very strange at all, and it was somewhat of a disappointment.
Basically, this was just an oddball subjective explanation of Burroughs' life whilst writing the letters from Tangiers to Ginsberg that would be named "Naked Lunch" by Jack Kerouac and published as one of Burroughs' best works. It was kind of fun at first figuring out that Martin was Allen and that Hank was Jack, that Joan was Burroughs' wife (who meets a strikingly similar end to Bill's REAL late wife), and so forth. But, after a while, the novelty wore off somewhat.
I liked the movie and all, I just wish that one of two things had occurred: either the tagline "destroy all rational thought" was erased, OR Cronenberg actually tried to have written a script that was as kooky and outlandish as the original letters.
See this movie, it was amazing. And read the book.
They said it was unfilmable (and I agreed with them) but apparently in the
remarkable hands of David Cronenburg "they" (and me.. very much so) were
proven wrong. This is a great beat film. It (amazingly) makes immense
amounts of vivid and perverse SENSE! While it's not so much a direct
adaptation of the book (which is the "impossibility" which many
short-sighted intellectuals probably had in mind when they discounted the
notion of 'Naked Lunch: The Movie'..) it is an interpretation of elements of
the book combined (to great effect) with real-life events in the life of the
author William S Burroughs.
It's done exceptionally well. Far superior to any of the other past
cinematic stabs at capturing the "beat" mindset on film. This is the second
movie I've seen in as many days depicting Bill & Joan's tragic William Tell
routine. It's far less dramatic in this than in 2000's "Beat"... but in this
it has a warped LOGIC. A bug told him to do it! (That's a perverse take on
"the butler did it" if ever there was one..) Joanie was an agent for
Interzone, an elite core centipede, you see and the over-sized
cockroach-like creature said she must be dead within the week... and as
juicily as possible. (Females are a different species, but Joanie was an
exception.) I think Cronenburg gave a pretty good swing at understanding the
book, the beats, the stories, the drugs, the nightmares... I enjoyed
particularly the part where the typewriter began dictating. Done very well.
I'm definitely going to read the book again soon.
Peter Weller is perfect (as perfect can be) in the William Lee role. (I'd like one of those Burroughsian felt fedora porkpie hats he wears in the film for myself. Lesser brim than Sam Spade thereby marginally less camp. Great hat.)
I wonder (more than pretty much any other story in history, except possibly Joan Of Arc) about what really happened on that Mexico evening in 1944 between Mr & Mrs Burroughs and that sure-shot 44.... Bill said that he realized later, with some horror, that if it hadn't been for his wife's death he might never have thrown himself into writing and become the writer he was. I wonder at the extent to which it haunted him. I wonder not so much HOW it happened as WHY. Bill was an ace-shot and standing less than 3 feet away. I wonder WHY he shot her in the head, not HOW. This movie offers no real explanation (of course not.. why should it? How could it?) but takes the notorious tale and melds it into the story and logic of the book (and thereby the movie.) An impressively clever move on Cronenburg's part.
Cronenburg's movie is the perfect adaptation (and the most unlikely success of it's kind in history.) A risk that paid off thanks to a lot of THOUGHT. (I'll bet Cronenburg thought about it in great depth and long into many a night for YEARS before he made it..)
We await with baited breath Francis Ford Coppola's adaption of 'On The Road'....................................
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