Sunday, July 20, 2014

Naked Lunch (1991)

Director: David Cronenberg                              Writer: David Cronenberg
Film Score: Howard Shore                               Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Starring: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm and Roy Scheider

Based on the semi-autobiographical writings by William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch is a surrealist effort by shock director David Cronenberg, and was the the last film in his peak period that began ten years earlier with Scanners. The book by Burroughs is a non-linear piece of writing that has little to do with the film. Cronenberg decided to combine the parts of the novel that dealt with the writing of it, with episodes from Burroughs life to come up with the narrative for the film. In some ways it presages the film Adaptation in the way that the film is only tangentially about the story itself and primarily about how the work was created. Cronenberg, of course, brings his customary psycho-sexual special effects to the proceedings in order to realize his vision, but by then he failed to really deliver the kind of jolt that he did when it was new. His previous film, Dead Ringers, appeared to mark the way forward for Cronenber but with this film it felt like a giant step backward. In the end, it would take yet another decade before his mainstream work found him a new audience.

The year is 1953 and Peter Weller is working as an exterminator. One day he runs out of roach powder on the job and gets chewed out by his boss. Later he meets with his friends, fellow writers Michael Zelniker and Nicholas Campbell, at a café and they hint that the problem could be a “domestic” one. Sure enough, he goes home to find his wife, Judy Davis, shooting up his roach powder and she gets him to join her. When he is picked up the next day by narcotic cops, he hallucinates that a foot-long bug is talking to him and orders him to kill his wife. He makes his escape, however, and tells Davis they’ve been discovered. Then goes to a doctor, Roy Scheider, to get help kicking the bug powder and he gives Weller ground up centipedes. When he goes home, he shoots up the centipede powder and then shoots Davis in the head killing her. At a bar, a giant alien sitting two stools down from him thinks he was just following orders. He wants Weller to type up a report for Interzone, and deliver it in person. When he meets Zelniker in a pawn shop it becomes clear that the talking insects and aliens, the centipede powder, everything is actually a drug-induced hallucination that he is living through, and we are experiencing it from Weller’s point of view.

The Interzone is a Middle-Eastern cityscape that Weller actually winds up writing in. Davis reappears along with Ian Holm, and even Zelniker and Campbell show up at one point to tell him that a publisher is interested in his book. But Weller is so deep into his drugs that he doesn’t remember writing any of it. Peter Weller does an exceptional job in a difficult role. He plays it straight, with a dry wit that really works with the material. His acceptance of the hallucinations allows the story to spin out without interrupting it with disbelief. His suspension, then, becomes the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. This is not one of the better roles for Judy Davis, however, though it is good to see her in anything. She spends most of her screen time drugged out and adds little to the plot. It is definitely Weller’s story. The great Roy Scheider has a couple of terrific cameos, as does one of my favorite actors, Michael Zelniker. Naked Lunch, despite its literary connection, seems really only something for Cronenberg fans of his classic period or those interested in the William S. Burroughs biography. It’s not gripping, and it’s not really even dramatic. It’s a stream of consciousness hallucination that never gets close to reaching its own literary aspirations.

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