Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Friday Night Films: Naked Lunch (1991)

For some reason as of yet unknown, I decided recently that it would be a good idea to read William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch. I had previously read all about Cronenberg's adaption in Cronenberg on Cronenberg and was instantly drawn to it. Clearly I was enticed by a book that could possibly feature a drug addict's stream of consciousness and giant bugs. Well let me tell you something. If anyone tells you that it's a good idea to read Naked Lunch--kick them. Naked Lunch may in fact be the craziest thing you will ever try to read. Nothing makes sense, nothing is linear, and it's barely readable. If you don't know already, this is the book William S. Burroughs wrote while he was in a state of constant high thanks to some crazy Moroccan drugs. Yeah.

After about 30 pages I gave up and moved onto Cronenberg's take on the story. Cronenberg's film is actually less of an adaption of the book and more of an interpretation. He used real incidents from Burrough's life, kept some of the same names and places and the film became the story of how Burrough's came to write Naked Lunch.

Now, I want to make it very clear that I know Cronenberg. I'm used to his style, and his constant need to include something that resembles a penis in anyway that he can.

I'm used to his themes of blending the physical with the psychological, and how he often intertwines the two as though they were one. I'm used to the overtly gooey style of blood and guts and I'm used to how amazing yet utterly mind numbing and weird his films can be. That being said, Cronenberg's Naked Lunch is the strangest movie I have ever seen.

Watching Naked Lunch is basically a film that you just have to watch. By that I mean, you really can't think too much while you're watching it or you'll get incredibly frustrated. Don't try to make sense of why typewriters are suddenly changing into giant beetles.

Don't try to come up with a sane approach as to why the type writer bugs have ginormous penis' and definitely do not try to make any big conclusions about drug use and its effects on the writer. Just relax, and take it all in on a visual level. Worry about the deep meanings later....MAYBE.

Here's the thing about Naked Lunch---I have no idea what the hell it means and I don't really plan on ever finding out. I would rather just sit and marvel at how completely outrageous the whole thing is. Naked Lunch is one of those films that oddly knocks you back into reality. It reminds you that you are NOT as smart as you think, and that no matter how hard you try--you will never be able to make a film quite like this. That's what always throws me off about Cronenberg. He isn't one of those directors that make seemingly genius films yet refuse to tell anybody what they really mean (cough David Lynch). Cronenberg however knows exactly what his films mean and he explains it and this is the best part---it makes sense!

To be honest, I'm not at all interested in what the true meaning of Naked Lunch is. I'm much more interested in seeing the way that David Cronenberg processed the book into a logical movie (well, logical as in it does have somewhat of a plot). I can't even fathom taking a book like Naked Lunch and converting it into a readable screenplay. And then to see what he did with it---how he took real elements from Burrough's life and somehow involved all these giants insects and penis' and men hiding in woman's skin--

it's kind of mind blowing. As if the very concept and idea of Naked Lunch wasn't mind blowing enough...David had to once again blow us away with his creativity and intelligence.

So what if we may never know what it means? What's so wrong about just watching a film and not trying to dissect it? If there was ever a movie that stood for "Not giving a fuck"--Naked Lunch would be it. Yes, it's probably the weirdest thing that Cronenberg has ever done and yes it's insane but good god, I think I love it--and that's all I really care about.


Zachary Kelley said...

I normally think that your reviews are spot on Andre, but I have to take you to task for this one. Naked Lunch is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and without the novel, Lynch, Cronenberg, etc. may never have become the artists that they are.

I've been reading Naked Lunch every two years for twenty years now and slowly it becomes easier to understand, but like Joyce, it only rewards the reader with a real fervor for the material. It's not for everyone, but I think calling it barely readable is entirely incorrect and hyperbolic. The thing is to understand the movie you have to have a basis in the book and in William's life. If you have neither, it will leave you baffled. If you have both, it's intensely rewarding.

Andre Dumas said...

Haha no I feel you Zach. The thing is breaking blindly into a book like Naked Lunch is kind of horrifying. It's the kind of book that is, I will maintain this "unreadable" on your first stab.

It reminds me of how people always say not to try to read Ulysses until you are well....older, or rather, until you been through more than a few walks of life.

I should have clarified that I'm not saying Naked Lunch is a meaningless book, I'm just saying it's meaningless to me at this point in my life, and especially now when my brain is constantly in movie mode and hard to grasp onto little words on pages....aahh

It makes sense of course that my immediate disinterest in understanding the film is directly correlated to my inability to understand the book. Although it is my understanding that Cronenberg's vision is really not about the book so much. After having just read Cronenberg on Cronenberg it explains this more intelligently (obviously, because he's the smartest person I know). But I know what you are saying. Maybe someday I will return to Naked Lunch, but right now I just feel anger and confusion.

Anyways, I agree with you that I'm probably wrong. This wasn't really a review per say--just a description of my initial reactions to what I have now dubbed as the strangest film I have ever seen....

Unknown said...

If you apply a Gone With The Wind sensibility of linear prose and story telling style, then yes Naked Lunch is going to appear like a rambling diatribe or insane nonsensical gibberish. if you take it for what it is and allow the text to do what it does than it's a fabulous book. Burroughs was also a champion of the cut up style of prose writing (a very Beat thing to do at the time) and a lot of that is evident in the construction of the book. it's not an A to Z experience. it's a ride without a start and no clear finish.

Unknown said...

I don't think Andrea so much has a problem with the book as she doesn't feel she's at the right place in life to appreciate it. Hell, the last time I tried to pick it up, I was the same way. Now it's been six years and I may give it another shot, see what happens.

Andre Dumas said...

Thanks Nate ; )

That is what I'm trying to blab on about anyways. It's funny how I inadvertently described exactly how to enjoy a reading experience like Naked Lunch by describing how to enjoy a film watching experience like Naked Lunch the movie. Just sit back and let it happen. Don't be so worried about it not making sense it won't---not yet anyways.

Simon Powell said...

As a big William Burroughs fan, I think Naked Lunch is definitely a fascinating film, and David Cronenberg is the perfect director to make it. Although some sections of dialogue are lifted straight from it, it is not a movie version of the book, but more of a symbolic biography of a period of William Burroughs life time and the events that led to the writing of the book. He did accidentally shoot his wife, Interzone is basically Tangiers in the 1950s, and the Hank and Martin characters are made to look like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who helped in the compilation and editing of Naked Lunch. Cronenberg is also the perfect director to make a film like this because of the obvious influence of the book on him. Any one of the strange foundations or corporations in his 70s and 80s work is straight out of Burroughs, as well as the fearless and controversial exploration of sexuality. Plus, Peter Weller's impersonation of his voice is spot on

Will Errickson said...

I can definitely feel your frustration! I read NAKED LUNCH back when I heard that Cronenberg was going to do an adaptation. At first I approached it like a "regular" novel with a linear storyline and was vastly disappointed and gave up. But I was intrigued, it was like a puzzle I had to solve, so I read *about* Burroughs's life and the cut-up style, then about how when published the book's chapters were tossed in at random (I believe this is alluded to in the movie). Once I "deconstructed" the book for myself, it opened right up. But yes, multiple readings are required. T.L. Bugg's and Simon Powell's comments are spot-on.

A few months ago I rewatched the movie on the stellar Criterion DVD and was impressed at how well it held up. Cronenberg's ending is sublime - few filmmakers know how to end a movie like he does - in that it links the accidental death of his wife with his emergence as an artist of real substance. The only true emotion Bill Lee ever shows is in that last, final shot. Brilliant!

miumiu said...

I have read Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs and got the same feeling as you from Naked Lunch. I think that this delirium isn't a literature.
All tales which were written by drug addicts isn't art.

Marc Patterson said...

I got turned onto Naked Lunch when I was about 18 years old. I had just completed reading On The Road, which I still give out to family friends and relatives who are graduating high school. On the Road might have changed my life, but Naked Lunch twisted my perception. It's a tough pill on the first swallow, but as TL Bugg says, it gets easier. I will suggest Andre that if Burroughs interests you in the least that you take a more accessible route to the Interzone by attacking Junky. It's more readable and does a great job at immersing you into Burroughs mind, also providing context for the material both in Naked Lunch the book as well as the film.