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Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
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#25: Naked Lunch
(USA, 1991; dir. David Cronenberg; scr. David Cronenberg; cin. Peter Suschitzky; with Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider, Julian Sands, Joseph Scorsiani, Monique Mercure)
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The first time I saw Naked Lunch, in May 1998, I wasn't all that crazy about it. I had just finished an eight-hour shift of my fume-heavy janitorial job, and maybe the psychedelic misadventures of a laconic exterminator hit too close to home? But the film presented its own problems, blending the qualities of an unruly dream, a spill of looseleaf papers, and a congested pipe. Spectacles seemed lodged in the film's mind, heavy in texture and stubbornly recurrent, without offering the viewer much help in unpacking them. Even for a portrait of a deeply troubled subject, the unwitting wife-killer and deadpan exile Bill Lee, the movie felt divided against itself. Images, subplots, even locations keep shuffling, and questions of perspective are multiply complicated by imaginative fantasy, narcotic abandon, and traumatic disavowal. Still, the plasticky look of the film and of its signature props work completely against these diaphanous tilts: the heavily armored beetle-writers, the reptilian Mugwumps, the giant steel cage where the original human centipede murders and sodomizes a vulnerable maghrebin. Most of this compelled me, but either failed (I'd have said then) or refused (I'd say now) to compel in the same way. And this was back in the day when Internal Consistency and Fluid Articulation reigned even more than they do now as traits I demanded from "good" movies. I might not have revisited the film if I weren't so enthralled by Cronenberg's Dead Ringers and Crash, if I weren't so enraptured with Judy Davis's brilliant, casually bilious take on the ill-fated Joan Lee, or if I lacked the context of movies opening in theaters around that time. These encompassed LGBT films that weren't the insolent pastiches of early-90s New Queer Cinema, because their formal claims seemed either more modest (The Opposite of Sex, High Art) or quite baroque but to unclear political and rhetorical ends (Psycho, Velvet Goldmine). The strangeness of Naked Lunch suddenly seemed to mediate the challenging, queer-inclined representations of its early-90s cohort and the rococo yet somewhat inchoate stylistic experiments of a decade later.

From all this a book was eventually born, in which I have plenty to say about Naked Lunch as both an artistic feat and a theoretical proposition. Through all that process of fortuitous timing, endless revision, and steady career-building, this outlandishly, self-consciously unlovable movie became quite dear to me. I owe it so much; I'm so incredibly fond of it. I also feel certain, even as I stand completely behind all my book's claims about Naked Lunch (and I have heard readers describe that chapter as exhaustively detailed, for better or worse), that I performed something similar on the movie as Cronenberg performed on William Burroughs's novel. I configured the movie in the image of my own obsessions with it, which make some of its aspects primary (its pansexuality) and others less than they might have been (its Orientalism). I made nothing up, but I did remake, and thought a lot during and after the writing about the implications of this process, as unavoidable critically as it is artistically. Burroughs had or at least performed remarkable equanimity about Cronenberg's massive changes to his novel's incidents, arc, eroticism, and tone. "He didn't do anything to my book," he told a reporter who went fishing for recriminations. "My book's right there, on the shelf." Cronenberg, having boldly altered so many sources of his scripts, surely wouldn't mind. Peter Weller, whom I met once while writing the book, and was initially quite agitated about my projecting contemporary paradigms of gayness or queer politics onto the movie (much less the novel), started digging my recombinatory approach the more we spoke about it. This was my first experience feeling a creator's approval for the use I was making of his own artistry, and of course I enjoyed that.

Still, the approval of particular people, actual or imagined, didn't teach me as much as the process of writing the book did: that dichotomoies of looseness vs. loyalty are just as inadequate in framing how humanist scholars treat our objects of study as they are in organizing our ideas about book-to-film adaptation. The details always tell a more complicated story. An unexpected corollary to this epiphany was that a familiar adage about Naked Lunch—that it's one of the screen's best, most honest allegories of the process of writing—finally resonated for me. In truth, I'd often found this assertion high-handed and self-enclosing, like when people underscore Dawn of the Dead's critique of commercialism. These are the kinds of theses that can draw almost every detail of the film under their umbrella, which is another way of saying they are unhelpfully broad and don't necessarily go anywhere. Naked Lunch sometimes seems quite arch in how it invokes the Beat cohort (Ginsberg, Kerouac, etc.) and a bit indulgent in staging how it feels to churn out a book, as though delirium tremens and repeated murders are both tropic for and subservient to a more sacrosanct theme of writer's block. This is another way of saying I still don't love everything about Naked Lunch. It's a little besotted with its ideas about literature and the agonies of the artist, only seeming to repudiate any hint of the "precious." The Benway/Fadela stuff is hard to embrace, or to perceive as totally successful. Ditto the Yves/Kiki dynamics, and the refractions of John and Jane Bowles. But what I didn't "get" and, more than that, didn't love about the film as a finished work I wound up getting and loving once I appropriated it as a text and started creating with it, from it, alongside it. That changed my whole relationship to movies and to writing about them, demanding more rigor but also releasing me into new creativities. The movie is a favorite because it challenged so much of what I assumed it implied for a movie to be a "favorite." You can easily over-tire of the films you spend years writing about, so lately I don't pop Naked Lunch into the Blu-ray player all that often. But in my mind, it's always spinning.

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