The year of 1991 was a scary one to be a recently graduated, unemployed alcoholic writer: recession, turmoil, George Bush senior, CAMP (California Against Marijuana Production), fascist action movies, beat canon staple Naked Lunch being adapted into a movie... wait, what?
LUNCH was property of the freaks, man. How in the hell could it be anything but an embarrassment, even with David Cronenberg as the director? 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 once clear windows with layers of heavenly grunge, LUNCH was served.
It was pretty good, a meta-esque mescalin salad of disturbing hallucinatory creatures, a sublimely deadpan comic edge, and a Burrowhgs-biographical dressing ala JUNKY or EXTERMINATOR--not in the LUNCH menu itself, but a good idea. 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, any movie about John Lennon or Brian Jones).
In short, Canadian Cronenberg quietly did the impossible, 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 devotee beatniks. But clearing out all the hangings and orgasms for the movie--and good riddance says I--there's still enough in LUNCH to blow your mind and have you bent over with laughter. And Cronenberg clearly found his own way in, making it all more Burroughs than you thought possible while being uniquely Cronenbergian.
Maybe it's because he's Canadian?? When Americans and Brits try to adapt druggy literature shout and overemphasize too much and the result is a lot like Terry Gilliam's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. But Candian Cronenberg delivers the raw black meat the right way: on the sly, 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 eyes seeing all the roasting centipedes hissing like basilisks as you whisk pass the vendors' twirling spits.
Casting is everything and Cronenberg's great deadpan style would still add up to nothing if not for Judy Davis as Sally Bowles. 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 period: 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 without any doubt the ideal antithetical mix of sexuality and brains, insanity and maternity, canny courage and vulnerable confusion, quiet but no doormat, and--best of all--she was nonjudgmental. You could drink, shoot up, shoot her, cheat on her with a rentboy, she could care less and expected the same allowances. In fact in one of those weird coincidences of cinema, there's a lot of similarity in her two roles of 1999, BARTON FINK and NAKED LUNCH. In each she's a writer connected to an older male writer and desired by a younger rival writer. Both films are rife with hallucinatory imagery in and around a typewriter and a room wherein protagonist is alone and tortured by writer's block. Each has interesting use of beaches, weirdos, surreal expressionism, Kafka-esque elipses, etc.
|Top: Lunch, Bottom: Fink|
To eat of the black meat, to sample strange hallucinogens on a regular basis, one needs the thousand yard stare of the war vet, one needs to be level-headed and whistling a mellow happy tune even as the people around you on the street seem so comically obscene you can hardly stop from pissing your pants with deranged laughter. Cool must be maintained, as panic amplifies like feedback in the drug user's mind. That's the whole idea behind the title, taken from something Kerouac said to Burroughs about how when you're dosed on mescalin and trying to eat and your food is squirming on the fork as if alive, and you can't freak out because you're at the dinner table with family or a public restaurant. What do you do? You be cool. You smile and say nothing and eat as if all is well, trusting that the thing squirming on end of your fork isn't a tiny tentacled monster clinging for dear life. Although some say the title was supposed to be NAKED LUST and Ginsberg typed it wrong from Bill's illegible notes, it's nonetheless an idea people could relate to. For the true hallucination is not that people are monstrous, but that they aren't. Stripped temporarily of all the social indoctrination and laziness by which we filter our sensory input down to the bare minimum, we see the world as it really is, the lunch exposed as the fruits of animal and/or plant slaughter, trails of life and energy still clinging to the animate matter.
And the weirder things get, the cooler one plays it, for one doesn't want to be shipped off to the bughouse or to make a public spectacle or otherwise end up pinned to the ground and frisked by hastily summoned law enforcement. Weller plays it cool just like this in NAKED LUNCH and we're allowed to ride shotgun through his hashish and mescalin musings.
Depicting hallucinations has always been a tricky issue in cinema. It's not that typewriters turn into insects on drugs, it's just that they do look insect-like when you're alone and hoping the acid you took will lead you to write some brilliant poetry, but instead the letters start squiggling and trying to escape the page as soon as you type them. Fictionalization naturally ensues. 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 when if aliens saw us they'd think it was absurd to devour beasts from our own kingdom when rival 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 is a typewriters and if our blinders are off, our cortex makes it bug-like, the way the guy stranded on a desert island sees his friend start to look like a hot dog in Bugs Bunny cartoons.
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 an thus allowed to carry a creepy closeted charge, even to the extent of casting the uncanny Mr. Julian Sands. 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 Bill's wife in an orgy (like he's ashamed he's in the same sexual set as this Rick Moranis-ish poet) to conveying disgust at the advances of Julian Sands, to waking up quietly contented and happy next to Kiki, a pretty Moroccan boy hustler who's taken a shine to our Bill. Without trumpets and a big fuss, 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 anymore.
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.
At first, for example, our ideas of Bill's sexuality are pretty vague, reflecting a kind of immature albeit pupae-like readiness. Bill's very nature reflects the duality 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, to celebrate the new transformation, Benway appears with a trial prescription like Glenda the Good Witch, arriving with a new pair of rubier slippers, to celebrate your completing Oz round 1. But each new pair of red shoes has a price; drugs take as much as they give and for every bridge deeper into the interzone another universe of possibility dies behind you. What Buckaroo Banzai didn't realize about the eighth 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 take your time travelin'.