Exterminate All Rational Thought: Naked Lunch (1991)

I am both regretting, as well as beginning to appreciate the #100filmsforJune marathon I have decided to undertake along with a ton of other members on Letterboxd.  I am regretful because it is proving to be an incredibly daunting and time-consuming process, especially considering that I am trying to avoid repeat viewings per the stipulations of the marathon.  However, it has thus far afforded me an opportunity to catch up with a few blind spots within my film literacy a problem that I hope will be noticeably altered by the end of the month.  One such blind spot for me, as mentioned with my previous post concerning Sunshine, is that of underrated or overlooked science fiction films, which made a viewing such as Naked Lunch excellent, primarily because it falls within the confines of lesser known science fiction, while also affording me the very welcomed opportunity to fill in a gap on my desired viewing list with the psychosexual madness of yet another Cronenberg film.  While I would not say that Cronenberg hits every work out of the park, I do find most of his choices engaging and, at times, deeply profound.  Works like Videodrome and Existenz have become staples of consumerist fears and the detachment of the body in regards to an omnipresent, artificial entity that can fulfill even the most base of human needs and desires.  As should be little surprise, Cronenberg takes lens in Naked Lunch and spins a web of insanity relating to some absurd hybrid of drug culture and repressed heterosexuality.  What comes out of his cauldron of visions is a film that is parts Terry Gilliam and Ken Russell, engaging the very fabric of human life and its fractured psyche during a state of dependence that parallels nicely with the narrative of Linklater's A Scanner Darkly which provides for yet another layer of fitting parallels, in that both manage to perfectly adapt rather dense and challenging texts from equally prolific authors into a world all their own, using similar metaphors and messages to paint their facsimile of society in such a way that it is entirely implausible to the point of viewers finding safe detachment, while also being incredibly prescient and a cause for very real feels of discontent and dismay.

Naked Lunch is set inconceivably in fifties era New York and follows the life of exterminator Bill Lee (Peter Weller), a rather interesting job in the context of this world considering that both bugs, as well as particular pesticides prove to be highly addictive drugs, so much so that his girlfriend Joan (Judy Davis) is a strung out addict to bug powder herself, often stealing large quantities from Bill's work supply to get her fix, which, in turn, leads to his being fired from his job. Later that evening in an attempt to get people out of his house, Bill and Joan do a William Tell routine that involves him shooting a glass off of Joan's head, only for it to go awry and result in her being shot.  During an arrest related to his assumed murder Bill begins his own hallucinations as a result of repeated work around bug powder, where in he sees a large insect who informs him that he is to be a secret agent in a alternate world known as Inter Zone where he will serve as a writer for the various alien-like bugs that inhabit the world.  During his work for a particular bug, one named Clark Nova, after the typewriter which it manifests itself though, Bill is told that he is to find one Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), an endeavor that leads him to meeting doppleganger of his deceased wife.  As this navigation towards Dr. Benway continues, Bill comes to realize that the entirity of Inter Zone, as well as its extended alternate universe Annexia are riddle with drug addicted individuals, many of which actively engage in gay relationships, and that a larger narcotics trade orbits around the trafficking of a particular bug based drug known as "black meat."  Of course, getting to the center of the issues is far from simple, particularly since Bill himself is navigating various drug induced trips, yet after a constant shifting of mind states, he eventually comes to realize that it is indeed Dr. Benway who is the veritable kingpin of the narcotics pushing and in an attempt to flee to Annexia, he, as well as the doppleganger of Joan, is stopped by border police, also dopplegangers of previous characters themselves who demand that Bill prove he is a writer.   After pulling a pen out of his pocket as evidence, Bill, for no obvious reason, recreates the William Tell accident from earlier, thus bring the acid trip of a film full circle and Bill no closer to a sort of meaning and happiness he so clearly seeks throughout.

Much like other Cronenberg films, the narrative and its visual stylings seem to have a particular fascination with flesh, penetration and the seemingly inextricable connection between the mind and body as it relates to identity and survival.  This cinematic theme within Cronenberg's films furthermore always seems to have a psychosexual layer added as well, one of invasion and intrusion that is made all the more grotesque by the perfectly disgusting creatures that Cronenberg's crew makes for his films.  While I know I am not going to do any justice to this thematically, I feel it necessary to talk about the particularly unusual way in which the psychosexual elements relate to homosexuality between males.  Much like Barton Fink, the film has a drifting writer character to seems to be struggling with something larger than himself that is forcefully and unsuccessfully being repressed only to blow apart in troubling and destructive ways.  I would argue that both the character of Barton, as well as Bill are dealing with their respective oppressed sexualities, ones that are necessariliy oppressed for fear of violence and desertion from society.  In Cronenberg's film, this repression means that Bill must shack up with a drug addicted woman who he "accidentally" kills not out of malice, but out of a desperate hope to escape to something desirable, an escape he and the other openly gay characters of the film seem to pursue via wild hallucinogenics.  The escape only proves mildly beneficial for Bill, in that he is arguably surrounded by other gay males, although the price is pretty severe because the various drugs essentially allow for his feuding id and superego to go unchecked resulting in some bizarre drug induced visions. Of course the image that will be easy to pick up to the non-Freudian thinking viewer will undoubtedly be that of the various writers and other figures suckling at the flaccid stem of the white bug hoping to receive the liquid that emerges upon the completion of "good writing," which, of course, extends to include a good sexual performance as well.  Bill while madly struggling to repress his feelings cannot help but desire this secretion, much as he cannot change his desire for other men.  Of course, there is also the bug whose back, and apparent form of communication very much resemble the anus, suggesting a point of sexual pleasure, as well as verbal interaction whose implications both within the context of sexuality and Freudian psychology are many and multifaceted.

Key Scene:  The bug farm scene and the revelation of Dr. Benway's disguise are a fitting way to bring this narrative to a near close and defy all the logic in the film, which was minimal to begin with.

This is an excellent film and Criterion has recently put out a bluray, I would strongly encourage obtaining a copy when finances allow you to do so.

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