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Naked Lunch: SE

The Criterion Collection // R // November 11, 2003
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by G. Noel Gross | posted December 2, 2003 | E-mail the Author

"Unfilmable!" That's an exclamation yelped much too freely in regard to a handful of great American novels that've actually born rather mind-bending cinematic adaptations. Two that leap to mind are Terry Gilliam's take on Hunter S. Thompson's drug-addled cry from a glittering wilderness, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Mary Harron's focused stab at Bret Easton Ellis' grisly social satire, American Psycho. Perhaps both writer/directors followed in the waters David Cronenberg charted with his artful approximation of William S. Burroughs' most famous work. Well, infamous would likely be more apt in this case. Principally written in Tangier and first published in France, Wild Bill's oft banned, richly profane and masterfully barbed collection of reports from "Interzone" boil into a twisting verbal nightmare understandably daunting for casual readers, let alone filmmakers. But Cronenberg bravely nurtured an innate creative kinship with the literary outlaw by fusing his own predilection for stories of bodily invasion by sinister forces -- both within and without -- with Burroughs' lurid manifesto on the omnipresent nature of addiction. Mr. Cronenberg also freed himself from the novel's formidable mold by approaching the movie as a patchwork of quasi-biographical episodes from Bill's life, cherry-picked portions from the book and the author's other writings, as well as his own riffs to approximate the genesis and gestation of Naked Lunch rather than attempt a strictly faithful regurgitation. The result is often equally as repulsive, ponderous and outright WEIRD as its namesake -- and that's a good thing.

Robocop goes low-tech as Bill Lee (Peter Weller) an exterminator and reformed writer for whom married life doesn't agree, partially because she enjoys recreational uses of his bug powder, but mostly due to his underembraced alternative lifestyle. Then again, Bill's a hard fella to get a handle on in any regard. Mostly the gloomy guss just grunts lines like "Exterminate all rational thought" whilst proceeding to exterminate his every last brain cell with a myriad of bizzaro drugs derived from mythical insects and the reproductive squeezings of a mugwump. What's THAT!?! You'll know it when you see it. No wonder Bill finds himself an expatriate, and one prone to protracted spy-vs-spy conversations with Shitzu-sized beetles that pose as typewriters and squeeze out words via their hineys like Jim Carrey to Tone Loc in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Pretty arty stuff. Especially when Bill's really, really attentive Moroccan houseboy Kiki (Joseph Scoren) becomes subject to the not-so-sweet lovin' of an 8-foot-tall centipede that looks an awful lot like English heartthrob Julian Sands. Just because that's not weird enough, the rendezvous takes place in a Beyond Thunderdome-style canary cage. Surprisingly, Bill's as horrified as we all are by this, which provides an opportune time for his Jack Keroauc and Allen Ginsberg surrogates to breeze in and suggest all this MIGHT make a nifty novel -- and a movie, decades later, of course.

CineSchlockers intrigued by Mr. Weller's doomsday demeanor might also be amused with his decidedly more gregarious, cee-gar chomping turn as Texan shuttle jockey Chuck Taggart on the Showtime-maligned series Odyssey Five. Roughly a year ago, the premium cable network inexplicably lost interest in its second-highest rated program before bothering to air the last SIX EPISODES of the sci-fi conspiracy epic! They've since aired in Canada, the UK and are due to turn up on B-ball billionaire Mark Cuban's HDNet. Let's hope DVD canonization isn't far behind.

Two breasts. Three corpses. Diddling. Horse whipping. Deadly halitosis. Multiple bug squishings. Ill-advised William Tell impersonations. Gratuitous urination. Oozing wangdoodles. Multiple beasts. Voodoo. Insecticide gulping. Gratuitous acid jazz. Amazing tear-away transvestite. Typing as foreplay. Kiki bids Bill bon voyage: "I'd like you to meet a friend of mine. He specializes in sexual ambivalence." Bill gets fussy: "Save the psychoanalysis for your grasshopper friends!" Bill's bug buddy unlocks the mystery that is femininity: "Women aren't human ... or perhaps more precisely, they're a different species from men with different wills and different purposes on Earth."

Cronenberg and Weller provide an academic, though hardly boring commentary that expounds on their high-minded hopes for the project and their mutual admiration of William S. Burroughs. There's an unavoidable disconnect from time to time given their tracks were recorded separately with Peter used more as a sometimes unruly punctuator. Well, by comparison, that is. Much of Cronenberg's philosophical take on his development of the film is also recounted in Naked Making Lunch which was originally broadcast at the time of the flick's release. The documentary contains intriguing footage of a gray, stooped Burroughs skulking around the set in his signature fedora. Although of most interest to yours truly was Criterion's inclusion of more than an HOUR of novel excerpts read aloud in that unmistakable growl of the Godfather of the Beats, especially his immortal routine: "Did I Ever Tell You About the Man That Taught His Asshole to Talk?" CineSchlockers equally amused should consider investing in Bill's contemporary spoken-word albums Dead City Radio and Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales. Oh, one last note, here's to Neil Kellerhouse and Christine Ditrio for not only crafting the two-disc set's impeccably evocative design, but for having the good humor to have cockroaches skitter for the shadows when viewers first switch on the light and begin nosing around the menus. (1991, 115 mins, 1.78:1 anam, DD surround, Commentary, Documentary, Author readings, Annotated FX gallery, Photos, Extensive printed liner notes.)

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G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.
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