Queers and Junk: Naked Lunch

I now return to the Cronenberg series after what feels like an eternity and I can’t say I’m taking much pleasure from the next few films. Naked Lunch is the starting point for “the second shit period” and although it isn’t as bad as I remembered it being, I can’t say that I actually enjoyed watching it.

Naked Lunch follows the adventures of exterminator Bill Lee, who becomes addicted to the powder he uses to kill cockroaches, shoots his wife in the head, moves to Interzone (flagrantly Tangiers in the 50’s) and becomes a sort of writer. His encounters are completely and utterly bizarre, featuring talking insect typewriters, homosexual Mugwumps, and a completely and utterly surreal American couple.

If that brief synopsis sounds fragmented, well, that’s because it is. Naked Lunch is a novel that was frequently described as unfilmable. This is, I’m sorry to say, absolutely true, as what we have here is not Naked Lunch. Without boring on too severely about the history of the book, the reason it is unfilmable is intrinsic to the novel. William Burroughs was a serious heroin user with homosexual tendencies. He was resident in a gay brothel in Tangiers and fucked out of his mind. Whilst high, he scribbled fragments of random thoughts on paper, which were then assembled at a later date by Beat Poet Allan Ginsberg. As a result, Naked Lunch is not so much a novel, rather it is a series of completely unconnected but compelling passages that touch upon the themes important to Burroughs.

Cronenberg was never going to be able to film this- it’s impossible. Instead, and this isn’t a bad idea, he filmed what he called “a response” to the novel. The film Naked Lunch contains a few set pieces from the book (the mugwump buggering the young boy to death, Lee’s employment, Dr. Benway and so forth), but interlaced it with characters and events from Burroughs life. For example, 2 minor characters are clearly modelled on Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the American ex-patriots are based on Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky, and his wife Jane and the “William Tell” scene is straight from Burroughs biography, although he was never tried for murder.

If I am honest, then I’ll try to review the film on its own merits- and the first one is that the casting and acting are top-notch. Peter Weller plays Lee, and is superb as the man gradually descending into the very depths of insanity and addiction. He’s ably supported by Roy Scheider, Ian Holm and Julian Sands and all the acting in this film is really first-rate. Judy Davis is also excellent in a demanding dual role, putting in a convincingly grimy performance.

Secondly, the creature effects on the typewriter bugs with weird orifice-like mouths all look sufficiently creepy and are all well done. Clark Nova (Lee’s controller), the most realised of the bugs, is extremely well designed and operated. Other effects, particularly the mugwumps, aren’t anywhere near as good, but credit where it’s due.

Thirdly, there is a dry comedy operating throughout the film (Lee’s explanation of his new typewriter as “dispensing two types of intoxicating fluid when you write something good” is genuinely witty). This is, funnily enough, appropriate to the novel as it laces scabrous satire with some very funny jokes (AJ and the baboon), and Cronenberg does as good a job as is possible of translating Burroughs sardonic humour to the screen.

However, that doesn’t mean that Naked Lunch is an entirely successful film. Cronenberg made several terrible decisions that directly impact on my enjoyment. Firstly, and by far the most important, is that Naked Lunch is a novel that I really like, however, that doesn’t mean that I want to see entire passages of it narrated on-screen. There are several interminable scenes where the Ginsberg character reads out a passage straight from the novel, and Lee himself tells two lengthy anecdotes that come straight off the page, and weirdly result in a jarring atonal laughter from the other characters. The problem here is that it is weird, and more than a little boring, listening to the lengthy story of the man who’s arsehole learned to talk. It’s also lazy, which is incongruous given how much effort was clearly put into the attempt at a coherent film.

Secondly, although it does deal with Burroughs’ themes of addiction etc, it feels deeply unsatisfactory and more than a little bit pretentious. The ending is completely and utterly anticlimactic, nonsensical and frustrating. Upon reflection, it’s arguable that the film could only end the way it does, however, why introduce the idea of Annexia at this late stage? All that serves to do is remind me on how much they chose to omit from the film.

To add to the jarring and pretentious atmosphere of the film, Howard Shore’s score is a dreadful atonal jazz number, that while appropriate for a work based on one of the pivotal figures of the Beat generation, simply adds to the sense of “what the fuck am I watching, and why am I watching it?” It’s basically everything a score shouldn’t be: intrusive, distracting, irritating and overpowering. Personally, I’m not an experimental Jazz fan at the best of times, but the score to Naked Lunch pushed me into agreement with Roddy Doyle that Jazz is little more than “musical wanking”.

Overall, do I recommend Naked Lunch? This is a tough one, as I can’t wholeheartedly say I do. This is a film that I want to like as I love the novel and love the director, but it’s one that I just don’t. I do, I have to say, admire the work and sheer effort that it took to get this film to the screen, but in all honesty I just consider Naked Lunch to be a failure and am reluctantly forced to agree with those that said the novel should not, and could not, be adapted to the screen. I rate a sterling attempt at an impossible task with a deeply disappointed 1.5 Changs out of 4.

It just doesn’t work.

Next up is one I’ve never heard of and am having problems finding so it may be a while so…

Until next time,

Jarv

The order so far:

  1. Dead Ringers (4 Changs)
  2. The Fly (4 Changs)
  3. Videodrome (4 Changs)
  4. Scanners (3.5 Changs)
  5. The Brood (3 Changs)
  6. The Dead Zone (3 Changs)
  7. Shivers (2 Changs)
  8. Naked Lunch (1.5 Changs)
  9. Rabid (1 Changs)
  10. Fast Company (Orangutan of Doom)
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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

21 responses to “Queers and Junk: Naked Lunch”

  1. xiphos0311 says :

    OK post time again.

    I’ve never seen this movie and I chalk it up to the fact that I hate the source material and I’m not a big Cronenberg fan. That being said Jarv makes a compelling point with this review to give it a shot.

    • Jarv says :

      If you hate the source material and don’t like Cronenberg, then I can’t really say that this will be a good idea.

      As an academic exercise, it’s a good effort, as entertainment or any other reasonable standard of film it’s a failure.

      • xiphos0311 says :

        I don’t hate Cronenberg I’m just not a huge fan and I’m approaching this like a challenge.

        As far as the source material goes I might harbor an unreasonable dislike for it due to the college instructor that used the book as part of the course I was taking. I spent the entire term in a knock down drag out fight with the bitch.

      • Jarv says :

        Academics love it because of its experimental style. They’re completely and utterly wrong. The style is a direct result of Ginsberg reassembling every scrap of paper Burroughs wrote something on. I could stand to be corrected here, but I think his other novels are far more coherent.

        Also it hits a lot of academically “trendy” themes (homosexuality).

        Fuck the lot of them.

  2. koutchboom says :

    Man even just READING about Naked Lunch makes my head hurt. I’ve seen this a couple of times it never sticks with me for whatever reason.

    I have this at home i’ve read it. Didn’t make a lick of sense anyone else seen this?

    FUCK here is the link, I tried to just put the picture up but it’s a fucking massive picture.

    • Jarv says :

      Really? This is many things, but I wouldn’t have said it was forgettable.

      The novel doesn’t make sense- because it’s a heroin ramble. As individual short stories it’s quite good, but it isn’t coherent. It’s meant to be an insight into a drugs high.

      Not easy.

      • koutchboom says :

        I don’t connect with the movie on any level so it never sticks with me. A lot of Croneburg movies have that effect on me. I even own Naked Lunch Criterion. I’ve seen it like 3 times and every time it’s like I’ve never seen it before.

  3. Droid says :

    Yeah, you already know what I’m going to say. Haven’t seen it. And from the sounds of it, it’s unlikely that I ever will.

    • Droid says :

      Might read the book at some stage though.

      • Jarv says :

        The book’s much shorter. If you do ever read the book, then the film may pique your curiousity just to see how the fuck Cronenberg was ever going to get it on the screen.

        Books tend to be called unfilmable for a few reasons, and mostly people that use the term are wrong.

        However, in the case of Naked Lunch, because there is nothing that remotely resembles a narrative, or even coherent thought, the term is apt- and Cronenberg didn’t “film” Naked Lunch. He could just as easily have called it something else and subtitled it with “a response to Burroughs”.

        As I say, this is a film that I admire- simply because they managed to get anything on the screen. However, I do consider it a failure and can’t say that I particularly like it.

  4. pausner says :

    If you need M. Butterfly it is available, at least in Region 1, on DVD. If you have a region free player, I can loan it to you. I’d need it back so my Cronenberg collection stays complete.

    • Jarv says :

      Cheers for the offer Pausner, but unfortunately I am region 2 based- and it doesn’t seem to be available here.

      I shall get my hands on it at some stage.

  5. just pillow talk says :

    I’ve seen bits of this, which isn’t the best way of course, but it never interested me. And I highly doubt I’ll ever search it out to try and watch the whole damn thing.

  6. Bartleby says :

    I agree with Koutch actually. It’s forgettable because of its inability to connect with any basic human emotions. I love surrealistic stuff, but it’s got the same problems as Fear and Loathing movie, multiplied by a thousand, because even Gilliam connects with Thomspon enough times to maKe int interesting. Also, add in Thompson is the writer Burroughs wishes he was.

    I agree too with Jarv’s assumption about the novel. Burroughs was never a great ‘novelist’ but Nake Lunch is like he just vomited everything he’d ever thought while donzed and Ginsberg shoveled it up into an envelope and sent it out before it could soak through.

  7. Jarv says :

    While it does have the same problem (in that it’s a recreated drugs trip) it doesn’t fade as badly as FandL.

    However, there’s a much bigger problem with this in that the attempt to translate the fragments of Naked Lunch into a narrative is impossible. Fear and Loathing is at least coherent.

    Both films are severely flawed in my opinion but F and L is much more successful.

    At the end of the day Naked Lunch is an unfilmable novel, and this is as close as it is possible to get.

  8. Jarv says :

    I got that about Ginsberg assembling it from an essay on the Beat Poets I found on-line. Apparently it’s completely true.

    • Bartleby says :

      the recent burroughs docu they sent me for the film fest more or less skirts around that, but corroborates the same thing.

      Even after the docu, I still remain, not a Burroughs acolyte.

      • Jarv says :

        Actually, if I think about it, Naked Lunch doesn’t bear scrutiny as a Burroughs work- it’s so far removed stylistically. (Thematically, Drugs and homosexuality is all Burroughs ever wrote about)

        On another note, if you remove the drugs from Naked Lunch, then there’s nothing else there. This, by the way, is also true of most Drugs novels- see Novel with Cocaine or Memoirs and Confessions of an Opium Eater.

  9. kloipy says :

    I wanted to like this a whole lot more than I actually did. I went through a Burroughs stage around 19-21. Loved the NL and Junkie. Movie just didn’t do anything for me, but i may have to revisit it as the review piqued my interest.

    I may be the only one here who really likes F and L. I’m still a fan of Hunter to this day. I think the movie really captures that crazy out of control feeling of a drug binge (those of us who have been on them can probably attest to the same) and it’s an over the top look at a weird time in American history in one of the strangest places. So as far as a surreal look into things I think that the movie works. If you are looking for a more realistic view of Hunter, I suggest Where the Buffalo Roam with Bill Murray as Thompson. It’s a good movie and spans a lot of Thompson’s early work, up through the Nixon campaign. I think the major issue with F and L that people have, and though i can agree I think it’s done purposefully, is that toward the end of the movie, when Raoul Duke leaves Vegas to get stopped by the traffic cop, things sort of start losing connection. I think this symbolizes the coming down of a trip, when you have lost connection with what took place and have to piece together yourself again. So I think it’s done well but just puts people off. It’s interesting because it changes pretty much after the ‘wave’ speech.
    So there was that novel of a comment
    great review Jarv

    • Jarv says :

      Cheers Kloipy

      F&L isn’t a bad film, and Droid loves it, but it is seriously flawed. You’ve their outlined his whole thing about it. I maintain, though, that cinematically 2 guys getting fucked up in a room naturally becomes boring without Thompson’s observations about America, and there’s no way to get that across on the screen.

      Naked Lunch isn’t as bad a film as I remembered it being. As a “how the fuck did they film it” sort of experience, then it is quite worthwhile, but I agree- it just doesn’t work.

  10. ThereWolf says :

    The cast is excellent, Weller is top and it’s technically well put together. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t connect with the film on any level. Did I just contradict meself?

    Anyway. I haven’t read the novel, but an ex-gf used to read passages to me while we were smoking weed. It sounded like genius. But probably wasn’t.

    I keep meaning to watch this film again but I can’t be bothered.

    Well done, Jarv.

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