Directed by David Cronenberg
Line that stays with me: “I got my ticket”
Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together.
Do you want to go have a naked lunch? The title of the book, the film, continues to rattle in my head as I try to make up my mind on what to say about this film. It brings to mind the scene when our hero Bill Lee’s friend Hank talks about how re-writing is a sin. I don’t know about that but at this point in my life and career I can understand what he’s getting at. This film is a marriage of two great artistic minds William S. Burroughs and David Cronenberg. It would probably have never existed without David Cronenberg and oddly enough David Cronenberg would have never made films if it wasn’t for Mr. Burroughs. David Cronenberg wanted to be a writer but trying to surpass the master proved to be too difficult. So instead of being a cheap imitation he decided to move his artistic ventures towards cinema. He moved his ventures so he could grow freely with no ceiling and still implement the many influences, lessons, and ideas he had found along the way. William S Burroughs influence in David Cronenberg’s work is very apparent, even in his commercial work like the “The Fly” where the Kafkaesque experience is in full walking display. “Naked Lunch” to me means (Please remember that no interpretation is right or wrong) a visual meeting of two artistic minds completely “Naked” with their work and thoughts. David Cronenberg did not base this film solely on the book of the same name; he used various writings from Williams S. Burroughs career and added auto-biographical accounts as well. In the end we have this film, which presents both artists in Full Monty, dragging us through artistic hell and quiet victories.
The work of William S. Burroughs will forever be intriguing. It is the work of a stubborn realist who’s lived enough to not be fooled again. When Mr. Burroughs work first came out during the end of the cold war and the beginning of the 60’s beatnik/counter culture revolution, it brought forth a loss of innocence so profound it transformed a whole generation of artistic minds forever. These are ideas that shake the very ground you walk on dealing with perception and reality. Many people shy away from this kind of conversations because they tend to bring to light certain natural fears all humans have about life and death. One of the reasons I think people love Mr. Burroughs is because he went to “The Abyss” for us. If you have ever been to “The Abyss” you can relate with his war stories. I know many people get excited about the film in relation to the drugs and that sort of wild lifestyle but the film offers much more than that. The film deals more with the creative process, and. The strange forever scarring moments that births it and the long road ahead. Mr. Burroughs said the reason he became a writer was due to the fact that he killed his wife Joan when trying to pull their “William Tell Routine”. I love how David Cronenberg found a brilliant way to bookend the film with this important fact of Mr. Burroughs life. It gives the film weight so it does not come across as flimsy but as a true nightmare of the creative process.
“Naked Lunch” is one of those films everybody wants an explanation for. What does that scene mean? What did he mean with that shot? That sort of approach doesn’t work for me with films like “Naked Lunch” because this film is a prose. This film says many things all at once and in a very straight forward manner. One of the famous lines from the film “Exterminate all rational thought that is the conclusion I have come to” makes this plain. That line of dialog sets the tone for the film. Makes me think, I mean what kind of living situation does a man have to be in order to contemplate such thoughts. After watching my local news for about five minutes that phrase is about the only thing that makes sense. People kill each other with no disregard, and the politicians don’t care how many people they kill to get their objectives done, but they want us to remain civil. Does that make any sense?? NO! “Naked Lunch” takes us on an extreme journey of an artist who would rather live a life of debauchery, fueled by bug powder than conform to “reality” and its many paradoxes. The film is also very funny thank God! Roy Scheider’s performance as Dr. Benway, is comic gold. Judy Davis is perfect even though she's playing two different characters. The film is not a sad sappy story about addiction. It revels in artistic hardships and new beginnings. It finds humor in hallucinations, delivers great special effect to bring characters like the Mugwump to life and finds it center with genuine cinematic moments of obliqueness that have a strange calm to them.
I once thought that sort of artistic temperament was hogwash. Getting lost in your work and all that, how naïve I was. Of course it depends what kind of artist you are. Nowadays it is hard to tell. Many artists these days have nothing to offer and work more as product placement. Luckily, we are not discussing any of today’s artists but Mr. Burroughs, he is an artist who took it to the limit and back. Today’s society looks at art as a means to make money, no longer is it a means of human discovery. To discover who we are, what our brain and heart truly want to say during this life, leaving a visible imprint on the wall of time for future generations. I took that artistic plunge four years ago. Left my 9 to 5 behind for good, it no longer made sense to work there after a robbery that took place that could have cost me my life. I would have been killed for less than $500. I decided that night that I could no longer waste time and started to do what I love with my life FULL TIME and dedicate my time to become great in my craft. Of course hardships followed, but the experience, the writing, and the ideas that came out ever since I’ve dedicated myself to this life have been a revelation for me and have brought me happiness because I am myself. I no longer have to waste time doing somebody else's dirty work. I have gotten a chance to grow as an artist and believe me when I tell you can get lost in your work!
When the credits roll at the end of “Naked Lunch” there is not much to hold onto except the journey. Same can be said of the creative process. It is hard trying to find that magic and hone it. “The Spirit” as the late Ian Curtis called it in my favorite Joy Division song “Disorder”. It truly comes and goes like a lost ghost. Timing is everything, when I was young I wrote about fun adventures where all the characters live happily ever after. As I got older I started to write tragedies. As an artist you want to lose yourself in order to find something new, to find some truth worth printing. There is no map for such an endeavor and we are all built differently, with the past of our parents guiding the compass. Most of our artistic heroes were on something to escape the cheap venal reality of distorted logic. From alcohol to heroin it doesn’t matter, we all got one vice. If you are a consumer you go shopping and it makes you feel better. If you are an artist you might drink till honest thoughts come pouring out and you make the song you always wanted to make. We all pay for what we want one way or another. “Naked Lunch” was paid by Bill Lee’s guilt and nightmarish hallucinations. That’s that. It is not a pretty picture but nobody said it was supposed to be. I love the “As is” attitude this film projects. It is not about the “truth” or “meaning”, it is simply about the crazy twists and turns some artists go through in order to get the job done. At times the story ends unhappily but as a whole it can be quiet riveting and mesmerizing. Worth the whole trip!
ABOUT RCM: Rutz Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: George Romero's Day of the Dead