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Naked Lunch (1991)

by on 2012/08/19

“Exterminate all rational thought. That is the conclusion I have come to.”

* * *

I’m a big fan of the Beat Generation, that 1950s anti-establishment movement perpetrated by poets smoking in coffee shops, listening to jazz, wearing berets, and growing out goatees.

Well, sort of.

I guess I prefer the idea of that world, the one found in pop culture: Peter Gunn, Johnny Staccato, film noir, and various B-movies. (See also Off Beat Cinema and So I Married an Axe Murderer.)

When it comes to the so-called Beats themselves, I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Jack Kerouac, and less so for Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, the latter of whom wrote the infamous classic, Naked Lunch.

Its feature adaptation, co-written and directed by David Cronenberg, doesn’t much resemble the world in my mind. It’s rather like eXistenZ exploded on a sidewalk to rot, and bake, and bubble in the high noon sun.

An eclectic mix of elements from Burroughs’ life and writings, it begins in New York City, 1953. His surrogate, William Lee (RoboCop’s Peter Weller) and wife Joan (The Ref’s Judy Davis) inject themselves with pesticide and go on a strange adventure. Fact and fiction blend together in Lee’s narcotic attempts to escape his own creative and sexual insecurities.

Joining them on a surreal quest through a puppet-infested North Africa are a cast including Nicholas Campbell (Fast Company), Ian Holm (The Sweet Hereafter), Julian Sands (Smallville), and Roy Scheider (Romeo Is Bleeding).

For me, the oddest trick of Naked Lunch was its ability to juggle its surrealisms. Neither choppy nor hallucinatory, it manages to throw all kind of bizarreness in its own path, and dance through nearly unscathed. Which is not to say it makes much conventional sense.

There were parts I appreciated, historical and invented alike, though mostly in isolation, with the whole never gelling in a satisfactory way. I was admittedly disappointed, for I had (reasonably) high hopes. It began well, with appropriate touches like the credit sequence fonts and designs, the background jazz, and less overt things: Joan’s fate, Hank’s (Kerouac’s) mother and football references.

Unfortunately the infrastructure supporting it all too often drove me to distraction. The environments were limited, perhaps claustrophobic by intention. All the same, they felt unnecessarily cheap and confined. I wanted more space, more fantasy, and more compelling angles. Likewise the practical effects work lost me, less gross than weird and fake, maybe by intention as well, but still unsatisfying.

Even the look of the stock itself bothered me, the quality of its grain and colour palette. Black and white might have been interesting, or something approximating the saturated simplicity of Alfred Hitchcock’s VistaVision pictures.

By virtually every measure, I was profoundly disappointed, not because Naked Lunch was awful, but because it wasn’t excellent. I’ve longed to see it for ages yet never got around to it. The delay is a shame, because my university self probably would have loved it. I respect what Cronenberg’s doing here. I simply didn’t enjoy it on either a visceral or intellectual level.

* * *

Rated 18A

115 minutes

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