The year of 1991 was a scary one to be a recently graduated, unemployed alcoholic writer who's still getting over the fact he's no longer in a band, and therefore no one: there was a terrible recession, political turmoil, and worst of all was George Bush Sr's CAMP (California Against Marijuana Production) robbing Northern California of its income and making all hip Americans miserable for the entire summer. At least we had fascist action movies to soothe our angry hearts, and the beat canon staple Naked Lunch being adapted into a movie... wait, what? How in the hell could a non-XXX film version be anything but an embarrassment, even with David Cronenberg as the director? Imagining endless shots of hangings, the victims with naked erections ejaculating as the knot hits their back. My brain still reeled from the mid-semester death via autoerotic asphyxiation of our guitarist.
But then we learned in the trades that even Burroughs approved of the final script. And so, as Nirvana prepared to descend from Seattle and lovingly fog our panes and CAMP failed, as evil always does, our LUNCH--a mescaline salad of disturbing hallucinatory creatures, sublimely deadpan comic slimy croutons, and a Burroughs-biographical dressing ala JUNKY or EXTERMINATOR--was served. Replete with creepy, slightly "wrong" (probably intentionally so) renditions of Kerouac and Ginsberg, the memoir aspect didn't succumb to gushy bourgeois period piece hero worship like so many druggy cult figure bios/memoirs of the past and future (THE DOORS, FACTORY GIRL, etc) and wasn't the core of the film. So what was? The way people keep turning up and yes, when you're super high deranged old barflies look and speak like intra-dimensional monsters, dealing bug powder to kill typewriters that turn, as one breathes in and out the serpentine air, into insects.
"It's a literary high. It's a Kafka high."What was, what wasn't... the point is Cronenberg had made a good adaptation of a very weird and purposely disturbing, non-narrative book, one originally (apparently) aimed at the ever-dwindling demographic of gay autoerotic asphyxiation devotees. But clearing out all the post-hanging orgasms for the movie there's still enough in LUNCH to, if not quite blow our minds, at least penetrate the frontal lobes; and, if it doesn't quite have us doubled over in laughter, at least it's wryly aware of just what hipster cool is really all about, the whistling-in-the-dark surfer on the swamp of madness, the deadpan facade that all brave psychedelic explorers need to not wind up in the bughouse when they find themselves out on the street without their party, and without their shoes. And all the people passing by seem to be melting and turning into centipedes.
When Americans and Brits try to adapt druggy literature they tend to shout and overemphasize too much and the result is a lot like Terry Gilliam's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS or BASKETBALL DIARIES, interpreting the highs and lows and monsters so literally it makes you feel nothing inside. But Candian Cronenberg understates, and stays loose without being flippant, the trippy lines come out like a bare whisper out of the corner of his actors' mouths. You pass him the money in a handshake and follow him through the Moroccan marketplace to a quiet tent; your paranoid ears tuned to the the hiss and crackle of black centipede meat as you whisk past the vendors' twirling spits. Whatever he gives you to eat, quick, you eat it! The monsters may come and may go, but if you don't freak out no one will notice you're crazy.
Casting is everything and Cronenberg's great deadpan style would still add up to little more than half a film if not for Judy Davis as Sally Bowles and Bill's wife. She has such incredibly dry, cool hipster rapport with Peter Weller's bug-eyed Bill that Hollywood matched them up again in a film called THE NEW AGE shortly thereafter. Davis blazed along in many great films of that year. She was the indie artistic mature goddess of 1991-92: nurse/succubus/enabler to a Faulkneresque drunk in BARTON FINK ('91); a droll and saucy George Sand chasing Chopin for IMPROMPTU (1991) and most famously as the jaundiced object of Liam Neeson's unwanted affection in HUSBANDS AND WIVES ('92). She was the older, more gravitas-engorged Parker Posey of her day. For a brief while she shone in enough nervy, sexy, intelligent roles to cause many a prematurely disillusioned young writing student to fall in love with her. She alone seemed to nail the ideal antithetical mix of sexuality and brains, insanity and maternity, canny courage and vulnerable confusion. When we first meet her she's shooting bug powder into her breast. Her face is pale, her face seems pained, tired, but confident it will all soon change in a Kafka-bug-esque rush. And we love her. We all loved her. I loved her since her awesome George Sand in INTERMEZZO. Then there was one of those weird coincidences of cinema: BARTON FINK and NAKED LUNCH came out both in 1991. In each Davis plays a writer connected to an older male writer and desired by a younger rival. Both films feature hallucinations and fearsome black insectoid typewriters on desks in hotel rooms in foreign lands (Isn't Hollywood America's interzone?). Each has interesting use of beaches, weirdo muse figures, surreal expressionist digressions, Kafka-esque elipses, etc.
|Top: Lunch, Bottom: Fink|
Depicting hallucinations has always been a tricky issue in cinema. It's not that typewriters turn into actual insects on drugs, it's just that they almost do, their true insect nature is revealed. And when you're alone and hoping the acid you took will lead you to write some brilliant poetry and the letters start squiggling and trying to escape the page as soon as you type them, the typewriter seems more and more alive and shiny with arthropodical imperviousness. Fictionalization naturally ensues. On good hallucinogens one is allowed to see all the nuts and bolts of vision and how we're still hard-wired to identify insects camouflaged in trees that might sting our hands or perhaps provide food. I could go on and on about how if we learned to eat insects all our problems would be solved, that it's a jive corporate mind fuck that makes eating slaughtered mammals acceptable but bugs disgusting. If aliens saw what we eat they'd think we were cannibals! Why bother eating your own kingdom when rival larval arthropods are so much more deserving. That's why when people have the DTs or are twitching on cheap meth they see bugs everywhere. We're hardwired to be seeing bugs everywhere because we're hardwired for outdoor, forest living. Bugs are meant to be everywhere. So while our symbolic stencil kit tells us the thing we see on our desk is a typewriter, if acid dissolves that stencil symbol kit, just what is that thing?
Then there's the gay aspect. NAKED LUNCH scores extra eerie frisson if you're a sexually frustrated straight male in 1991, a time when queerness wasn't yet PC police-protected and thus allowed to carry a creepy closeted charge, even to the extent of casting the uncanny Mr. Julian Sands as the first character to use the word 'queer' and get it out in the open. You remember when he was Elisabeth Shue's deranged Russian pimp in LEAVING LAS VEGAS? In 1991, being gay was still much more controversial than it is now, and the brave thing about LUNCH is how it gradually "outs" its protagonist, from flinching at Ginsberg's suggestion that he and Bill "join" Jack and Judy Davis in an orgy (like he's ashamed he's in the same sexual set as this Rick Moranis-ish poet) to conveying vague unease over the advances of Julian Sands, to waking up quietly contented and happy next to Kiki, a pretty Moroccan boy hustler. Without trumpets and a big fuss, through this gradual process, LUNCH brings queerness into the acid cinema canon without raising a single hackle. The way it does this is first by shocking the audience--with the gay come-ons which are creepy and rejected--then retreating back to heterosexuality (with Judy Davis), and then, once we're completely confused, setting Bill up with lil' Kiki. By that point in the film you're too dislocated to be able to muster any knee-jerk homophobic horror. You're just glad Bill's finally found a friend.
Lastly, there's the late, great Roy Scheider as Dr. Benway. When near the end he rips off his disguise and shouts "Benway!" with a roar of delight, you know you're seeing a fuckin' great movie, it may have taken the whole film to get there, but there's no denying it now.
In structure, NAKED LUNCH bears similarity to the sacred ritual myths of initiation and creative evolution. In that sense Scheider is like Prospero in THE TEMPEST or Sarastro THE MAGIC FLUTE, or even the little girl hologram in RESIDENT EVIL, letting you know you're ready for the next level, the higher initiation; and every time the serpent takes another swallow of its own tail, the circle gets just that much smaller, i.e. wider.
Bill's very nature reflects the inextricable union of life and death: he works as an exterminator, but gets high on his own bug powder. Both Cronenberg and Burroughs are unafraid to look death in the eye and see it as merely temporary (like life), the tunnel portion of an endlessly looped carnival ride. The topography is changed just a little after each journey into the Stygian darkness, but memories of past events warp to accommodate new information. And then Benway appears with a trial prescription like Glenda the Good Witch, with a new pair of rubier slippers to celebrate your completing the first level of Oz. But each pair has a price: like Moira Shearer you can't stop easing on down the yellow bricks. For every bridge deeper into the Oz Interzone another universe of possibility dies behind you. What Buckaroo Banzai didn't realize about the 8th dimension is that you don't need a fast car driving into a rock to get there, you just need a taste of Dr. Benway's patented black centipede syrup, and a deadpan facade. Wherever you go, there you are, but then, also there you aren't... so best look like you intended to be wherever it is you are from the beginning. That's what you call 'turning pro' and that's where this movie fades the competition like a shifty boardwalk trickster.