Thursday, February 28, 2008

Films I've watched a thousand times #1

"I can think of at least two things wrong with that title"

I believe it's common among most film geeks that there are certain movies that we watch over and over and over again. These are highly personal choices, and not always the films we would consider to be the greatest in our own opinion. They tend to represent our current mood or state of mind, and certainly our guilty pleasures slip in here more often than not. For example, I might think that TAXI DRIVER is one of the greatest films ever made, yet I can't bring myself to watch it very often. On the other hand, I've watched ROUNDERS twice in the last 3 months, mainly because I'm obsessed with poker. So here's to the films we watch again and again, despite what they say about our psychological make-up, or our questionable taste in trashy entertainment!

David Cronenberg's tripped out vision of NAKED LUNCH is hardly a straight translation of the novel, as it's more an amalgam of many of Burroughs' works and the author's own life. It's a film that I've watched many, many times, on VHS tape for heaven's sake! It's a slow and hazy psycho-sexual drug fueled journey into the process of writing and the depths of our addictions. Anyone who has tried their hand at writing has surely felt at some point like the keyboard was mocking them, in this film it actually happens!

Naked Lunch makes an instantaneous break with conventional reality in its opening moments and never looks back. Centering on the adventures of Bill Lee, played by Peter Weller as a droll, deadpan evocation of the author (Lee was the maiden name of Mr. Burroughs’ mother, and William Lee his pseudonym), the film begins with smallish bugs. Then it moves on to ever more huge, horrible, and intelligent ones. Bill works in New York City as an exterminator and sees even that as a metaphor. “Exterminate all rational thought: that is the conclusion I have come to,” he says.

In addition to viewing his job in philosophical terms, Bill has also used it as an excuse to ingest narcotic bug powder, to which both he and his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), have become addicted. Ms. Davis, who is wonderfully dry and unflappable in two different bizarre incarnations, at first turns up barely long enough to inject bug powder intravenously and conduct a lazy affair with one of Bill’s friends. “Hank and I, we’re just bored,” she tells Bill. “It wasn’t serious.”

This is enough to raise Bill’s suspicions that Joan is a secret agent for an enemy spy ring, especially after a large talking beetle befriends Bill and drops that hint. Joan must be eliminated, the beetle insists, speaking from an orifice that recalls Mr. Burroughs taste for the playfully obscene and talking in the lively, Burroughs-like idiom of Mr. Cronenberg’s inventive screenplay. “It must be done this week,” the insect says, “and it must be done real tasty.”

So Bill and Joan perform their “William Tell act,” just as Mr. Burroughs and his wife, Joan Vollmer Burroughs, did on one drunken evening in Mexico City in 1951. As Bill shoots and kills Joan, the film makes one of its many allusions to the real events of Mr. Burroughs’ life. Soon afterward, he either physically or psychically flees New York for Interzone, a Tangier-like exotic setting in which the film’s nightmarishness escalates to new levels (although Naked Lunch is so thoroughly hallucinatory that it’s difficult to know exactly where its characters are, literally or figuratively). In Interzone, the suffering gets worse and the bugs get bigger as Bill attempts to write what will be Naked Lunch, the novel.

-excerpt of Drifting In and Out Of a Kafkaesque Reality by Janet Maslin.

Disturbing and disjointed, I can see how this film received very mixed reviews, and elicits concerned glares when I sing it's praises. Perhaps it's not for everyone, but I've seen it a thousand times.

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