Monday, December 14, 2009

Great Acid Movies #11: NAKED LUNCH (1991)

The summer of 1991 was a tragic time one to be a recently graduated (with an English lit degree), unemployed alcoholic writer getting over the fact he was no longer in a local but popular band in a college town where every hippie knew his name, and was now back to being just a nobody like everyone else in goddamned central NJ. It was an economic recession, political turmoil, cops being dicks thanks to MADD and the War on Drugs, and CAMP (California Against Marijuana Production) at its height, robbing Northern California of its income and making all stoner Americans miserably straight for the entire summer. There was much irritability and fury. At least we had fascist action movies to soothe our irritated bloodstreams, and the beat lit staple Naked Lunch being adapted into a movie... Wait, what?

How in the hell could a non-X film version of that twisted gay strangulation junk nightmare 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 noose knot snaps their necks, my brain still reeling from our lead guitarist's mid-semester death via autoerotic asphyxiation, I wasn't particularly anxious to see it.

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) and the flow of weed resumed, our LUNCH--a mescaline salad of disturbing hallucinatory creatures, sublimely beat disaffection and a Burroughs biography--was served. Replete with creepy, slightly "wrong" (probably intentionally so) paranoiac's depictions 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 biography wasn't the core of the film anyway. So what was?

It turned out to be about the way, when you're super high, deranged old barflies start to 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. Happens all the time, man.
"It's a literary high. It's a Kafka high."
What was, what wasn't... the point... is that 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 - meant no doubt to sell copies by being banned in 20 countries (my old paperback even included the obscenity court trial transcript). But, even clearing out all the post-hanging orgasms for the movie, there's still enough in LUNCH to, if not quite go around the too-straight room to blow our minds or at least penetrate our quivering frontal lobes. 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 tsunami of madness, the deadpan facade that all true 'heroic dosage' psychedelic explorers need to not wind up in the bughouse when they find themselves suddenly out on the street without their shoes and no direction home (though their front door might be right behind them it may as well be in China and it's hardly even recognizable as one's own) and all the people passing by seem to be melting and turning into centipedes.

Even in a weed drought, man, there's still shrooms.

When Americans and Brits try to adapt druggy literature they tend to literalize and cartoonify too much, and the result is a lot like Terry Gilliam's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS or BASKETBALL DIARIES, over-enunciating the grotesqueries so literally they become merely little showy bits of art direction rather than fluid breathing 'true hallucinations' that trigger nothing in the ways of shivery flashbacks. The hallucinations become examples of what myth is probably like compared to reality, which is to say, a mystic gets really high and sees people in double and triple vision, outside time, so that each movement lingers in the eye longer than usual and superimposes on the  next- so that their movements have 'trails' and he tries to describe / draw the effect. A hundred years later, Hindu gods have six arms; Ezekiel's angels have sixteen heads, and so forth.

Canadian Cronenberg--obviously no stranger to the pharmacy-- understates, understands the nature of hallucination, and stays loose without being flippant; the trippy lines come out like a bare hipster whisper out of the corner of his actors' mouths. You pass him the ticket in a handshake and follow him through the Moroccan marketplace to a quiet tent; your anxious ears tuned to the the hiss and crackle of black centipede meat as you whisk past the vendors' twirling spits; dusky pungencies in the air electrify your salivary glands; you feel a buzzing above the space behind and between your eyes, like your pineal gland is getting the back of its neck shaved with an electric razor. Whatever your guide gives you to eat, quick, you eat it before the smell has time to gag you. In 20 minutes or so, you'll see what lurks behind this incense-choked charade. The monsters may come and may go, but if you don't freak out that your food is trying to escape your fork as you chew, no one will know... that you know. They won't cart you away, or find you twitching on the floor laughing hysterically.

Casting is everything in such an endeavor, 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 in the NYC scenes). 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 wild-eyed but mature muse of 1991-92, everywhere something weird was afoot: a nurse /succubus/ enabler to a Faulkneresque drunk screenwriter in BARTON FINK ('91); a droll and saucy George Sand chasing Chopin for IMPROMPTU (1991); as the jaundiced object of Liam Neeson's unwanted affection in HUSBANDS AND WIVES ('92), and so on. 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 such as myself 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, that we found in our coolest psychedelic surfer female tribe members. When we first meet her in LUNCH she's shooting bug powder into her breast. Her face is pale, eyes pained with ennui mixed with lusty anticipation of the forthcoming Kafka high. We all loved her from that moment on.

Then there was one of those weird coincidences of cinema: BARTON FINK (above) and NAKED LUNCH came out both in 1991 both period pieces about writers and how the writing process warps the writer's reality. Davis plays a writer romantically connected to an older, more successful, male writer and desired by a younger rival writer in both films. Both 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, surreal expressionist digressions, Kafka-esque elipses, mysterious figures, etc. Some might call it kismet or zeitgeist or reading each others' paper at the test--I don't know, it's just interesting, sort of like PSYCHO and HORROR HOTEL in 1960.

from Top: Lunch, Lunch, Fink
 Back to Peter Weller: before LUNCH he was the lead in BUCKAROO BANZAI and his ADVENTURES ACROSS THE EIGHT DIMENSION (1984). There's only one scene from that film everyone remembers: Buckaroo is in a hip nightclub, jamming with his band and Ellen Barkin is crying at a table in the darkened back of the room but he stops the music because he can tell someone out there is sad, and he says his famous line to console her: "You know, no matter where you go... there you are." The quote stuck in all our brains, though a lot of us felt the film was a little too sure of its future cult status to make us want to embrace it with cultish arms, the way we embraced REPO MAN. But that wasn't Weller's fault --he played it perfectly. You could barely tell he was even acting, and that was why that moment landed.

If that ambiguous "there you are" was a quantum entanglement butterfly wing, NAKED LUNCH would be the tsunami that roared ashore seven years later. They knew he was perfect because he was handsome and relaxed yet possessed of the thousand yard stare of the war vet or martial artist, and that thousand yard stare is what you need in the InterZone. Davis has it too. And then there's the queer agents, played with mincing elegance by Julian Sands, and the wide-eyed contact Hans (Robert A. Silverman, above left), one of the stealth great deliverers of Burrough's twisted mix of hallucination and spycraft, his mouth widening and falling showing the rows of possibly false teeth, his eyes alight but speaking in a slow syrupy style so that the words practically drop to the floor.

His familiarity could be a put-on, Bill. Are you actually a real agent of some strange company, getting your orders through the bug typewriter, or just hallucinating, seeing the pattern painted on the auras of everyone at the cafe? Shit can get intense if you're high or in withdrawal on an unfamiliar street (and every street is unfamiliar on psychedelics); you need to be level-headed and deadpan even as the passing people are revealed as fluctuating creatures so comically obscene you can hardly stop from pissing your pants with deranged laughter. But stop you must, Bill. Cool must be maintained or else mounting panic amplifies like feedback and that's the whole idea behind the title, taken from something Kerouac said to you about how when you're dosed on mescaline and trying to eat dinner and your food is squirming on the fork as if alive, and you can't freak out. You must smile and say nothing and eat as if all is well, trusting that the thing squirming on end of your fork isn't really a tiny tentacled monster clinging for dear life to the tines. Some say the title was supposed to be NAKED LUST and Ginsberg typed it wrong from Bill's illegible notes but I like to think it's the squirmy fork meaning, having experienced it several times in 1991, living at home after all, and unemployed, taking quarter hits of my blotter to keep the edge as I wrote my own twisted novel, for example. The worst: arriving home at the wrong time from scoring my first and only double purple barrel mescaline hit-- the girl who gave it to me insisting I take it on the spot, just starting to really get off when I walked through the front door (hoping to make it to my room undetected) right in time for dinner with my parents.

It was then I knew that the true hallucination is not that people are monstrous, but that they aren't. Drugs having stripped, temporarily, all the filters from my eyes, I finally saw the world as it really is: filled with intrigue, paranoia, ghosts, and strange spectral figures tattooed in the auras of my family, all gradually and inevitably manifesting in one way or another in common reality, named and quantified, packaged and finally reduced to a commercial for car insurance. The lunch is exposed as the still twitching evidence of animal and/or plant slaughter, trails of life and energy still clinging to the (barely) inanimate matter. We are just energy devouring energy for more energy, and the energy even at its most vibrant is always encased in dying, slowly rotting, bug-covered matter (we just usually can't see the tiny things crawling all over and within us without a microscope--on psychedelics we can.)

And the weirder things get, the cooler one plays it, for one doesn't want to be shipped off to the nuthouse or to make a public spectacle or otherwise end up pinned to the ground and frisked just because one is foaming at the mouth and raving at everyone on the street (or in the theater) to hide their drugs because cops are coming out of the cracks in the sidewalk.

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.


  1. I love Naked Lunch the movie (haven't read the book). Great blog you have here.

  2. Excellent post! This is one of my fave films of the 1990s and after VIDEODROME, prolly my fave Cronenberg film. I think that part of the reason he does such a good adaptation is that he takes a detached view. He's not concerned with doing some kind of fanboy hero worship thing but get right down in it. Also, he wisely didn't try to do a straight-on adaptation of Burroughs' book which would have been impossible anyway and instead do a cinematic mash-up, mixing in elements from other Burroughs books like JUNKY and EXTERMINATOR and bits from the author's own life. After all, the accidental shooting of his wife Joan led Burroughs to become a writer as a way of coping with what had happened.

  3. Wow, incredible post on a great movie. I too was under the spell of Burroughs, Cronenberg, and Judy Davis as a young college student in '91. This movie was the trifecta. Recently I watched it for the first time in years and I thought it aged incredibly well.

    As for the origins of the title Naked Lunch, I never heard that about Kerouac saying it was from being dosed on mescalin while trying to eat dinner with your family; where is that from? I had always just read about the "naked lust" incident.

  4. Thanks Will! Actually that bit about the eating dinner with your parents was my my own perception, based on much experience, of the meaning of the original alleged Kerouac statement "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."

    I opened for Ginsberg when he read at Syracuse in 88 and saw him laugh at one of my mescalin poems, so there you are, the centipede in action!

    and the trifecta! Nice. Yeah for me it was Impromptu that made me first fall for Judy Davis, then Naked Lunch, and Husbands and Wives - with Barton Fink a film it took me a long time to learn to like, but I wrote about it for Bright Lights not too long ago. Blood, Sweat and Canvas!" I wonder if the New Age is around anywhere...

    And J.D., thanks for your insights! I know for myself that without constantly writing I'd be a basket case, though never shot no wife I did divorce one and can still hear her violent Argentine slang in my head during vulnerable moments, unless I write, write, write

  5. Hello naked lunch sound like a original movie i want to see it cause it looks spooky .

  6. Delectable prose, for one of my favorite films.

  7. Where have you been all my life,E??? I saw this in 1991 in Albany NY with an ex I broke my heart/balls/back on. AFTER we'd split and had serveral reunions. You're almost me except you actually amounted to something! Happy to have discovered your page.

  8. A great thoughtful review of a brilliant and thought-provoking movie. You're so right about Judy Davis.


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