Friday, December 02, 2005


From the Vault: Naked Lunch

While director David Cronenberg takes a decent stab at filming William Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch, the movie still ends up much like the book itself — too bizarre to maintain interest for its entire length.

To Cronenberg's credit, he doesn't try to film the novel literally, seeing that the task would be too improbable and too expensive. Instead, Cronenberg's Naked Lunch focuses on the writing of the novel itself with a wonderfully deadpan Peter Weller playing Bill Lee, a very Burroughsian character — lowkey, gaunt and monotonous.

Don't be misled though: This is not your typical writer story. Naked Lunch summons a two-hour hallucination where large insects instruct humans as their "agents" and where people have consumed so much of a bug powder they actually can kill centipedes just by breathing on them.

The director takes a few of the realities of Burroughs' drug-filled and tragic early life and fuses them with the novel's wild leaps of consciousness to create a concrete visual environment that epitomizes the author's abstract imagination. For a while, the approach works to fascinating, humorous effect. The visual effects by Chris Walas, Stephen Dupuis and Jim Isaac are grotesque and funny early on, but eventually you've seen too many talking typewriters, too many encounters with mugwumps.

The dialogue propels the film, especially when delivered by Weller and Judy Davis. Davis plays Joan Lee, Bill's wife, as well as Joan Frost, another woman Bill meets in the fictional world of Interzone. Davis manages to create two wonderfully distinct characters, one of whom has a fascination with injecting bug powder into her breast. With this performance and her work in Barton Fink and lead in Improptu last year, her failure to earn an Oscar nomination goes down in Academy history as one of its worst outrages.

There also are nice turns by Ian Holm as Joan Frost's husband and Roy Scheider, in an all-too-brief appearance, as Dr. Benway.

With Naked Lunch, Cronenberg creates a film of dreamlike quality. Unfortunately, the audience wakes up too soon and spends the rest of the film trying to recall what they saw while they slept. The dream was certainly interesting, but it was too long, too disturbing and too disjointed to want to experience it twice.

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Isn't the "bug powder" a cryptonym for nicotine? Nicotine is a pesticide. Wasn't Burroughs suggesting the worst addicts are cigarette smokers and the vilest drug pushers are our government(s)?

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