Thursday, March 20, 2008

naked lunch, by david cronenberg

So this week, continuing on our "films about writers" thread, we turned to David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991).

Like many films in our recent sequence, this film blurs the line between biography and fiction, being partially a retelling of events from the life of writer William S. Burroughs, and partially a retelling of the novel Naked Lunch... a novel which, just to muddy the waters a little bit more, expends some of its narrative energy telling the tale of a Burroughs-esque writer, Bill Lee.

At first glance, Lee looks like a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Burroughs himself, an interpretation that's certainly helped along by the fact that Burroughs writes his first book, Junkie, using "William Lee" as his pseudonym. But try to read Naked Lunch as straight autobio and you won't get far: the book's narrative is so alien that it really lands closer to the realm of nightmarish science fiction than it does to the realm of memoir. So, long before Cronenberg comes along to complicate matters even further, one can already make onesself dizzy by playing the game of trying to discern which events in Naked Lunch are "real," which are false perceptions induced by drug addiction, and which are pure fiction invented by Burroughs.

Ultimately, of course, the answer to the question can never be determined (it's doubtful that even Burroughs himself could, or would, have distinguished between these three layers in a way we could have called "authoritative"). This confusion between reality and fantasy, between external realities and internal perceptual states, is perhaps a necessary precondition for the onset of paranoia, and, indeed, Burroughs is one of the 20th century's great chroniclers of the paranoid mindset. The world of Naked Lunch and Burroughs' later works is a world utterly riddled with conspiracies and confidence artists, a world in which the individual is, at best, a naive mark, and at worst, an unwitting cog in some vast, sinister operation. In Burroughs' world, it is possible to learn at any moment that all your human activity, whatever you thought you were doing out of free will, has in fact been merely you toiling in the service of a conspiracy designed to enslave and control you.

Cronenberg zeroes in on this aspect of Burroughs' work, and makes it the central narrative mechanism of the film. Cronenberg has explored this territory fruitfully in the past, most notably with his own Videodrome (1982), in which television executive Max Renn ends up as a kind of zomboid drone, having had his consciousness programmed and re-programmed by a pair of warring secret societies. But Renn has further to fall: at the outset of Videodrome he's essentially a functional member of society, and much of the film details the way he becomes enmeshed in the conspiracy, and begins to lose his identity. Lee, by contrast, begins Naked Lunch already on the fringes, his personality already only halfway operational, his status as a perceiving individual already questionable. This allows the hallucinatory / paranoid hijinks to kick in much earlier: nearly everyone he encounters in the film seems to know more about his life than he does, and before a dozen minutes have elapsed he's been picked up by police who officially inaugurate him into the film's mysteries by presenting him with a mysterious box:

—which contains this nasty fellow, who begins to give Bill cryptic instructions, and will continue to for much of the remainder of the film.

So, basically, Naked Lunch feels like the last twenty minutes of Videodrome expanded into feature length. It's so rife with double-agents and perplexing alliances that it becomes impossible to discern who's on which side, much less which side might constitute the "good guys." Puzzling out the intrigue is really beside the point anyway; the appeal of the film comes much more from watching Bill Lee's identity grow increasingly tattered under the grinding force of conspiracies and drugs. Poor Bill's personality ends up being so emotionally reversed that he scarcely reacts when he finds one of his only friends fucking his wife, but he's reduced to tears by the sight of a bowl of dried centipedes in a marketplace:

And that's only twenty minutes into a film that's about two hours long!

Final note: part of the disorienting effect of Naked Lunch derives from the fact that it's a very interior film. Although the film is ostensibly set in picturesque locales (New York City, and Interzone, a fictional analogue for Tangiers), Cronenberg bucks the demands of cinematic grammar by pointedly avoiding the use of any sort of establishing shot, in fact almost entirely avoiding any exterior shots whatsoever. This helps create a very effective insular feeling, adding to the overall menace and claustrophobia. Part of the credit here belongs to production designer Carol Spier, whose eclectic, jumbled interiors are some of the most lastingly memorable elements of the film for me:

Next week: Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Poet.

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