Rates: * * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? Have been revisiting a few old faves I have not seen for a while.
If there was one movie that turned me from someone who liked films, and watched the big summer blockbusters each year and not much else, into someone who watched EVERYTHING, and sought out weird and obscure stuff, it was this film. And if it was two films, it was this and ‘Brazil’.
I discovered them both the same way.
I was at high school in the early 90s, and my favourite tv show was the sketch comedy program ‘The Late Show’, on the ABC. The sketches were a mix of cerebral satire, and goofy slapstick with people getting clonked on the head. It was VERY anti-establishment. The perfect show for a teenager, and myself and a handful of friends would watch it every week, and then unpack it all at school after.
The Late Show was on Friday nights, and afterwards came a very different program; ‘Movie of the Week’ with Bill Collins.
Collins was an old school film critic, who had been bouncing around Australian media forever. Towards the end of his career by this stage, he had this little corner on the ABC; each Friday he would pick a film, spend ten minutes introducing it and talking about why he liked it and what things to look out for, and then it would screen. And he would come back at the end to recap, and tease the following week’s movie.
I really had no interest in this.
But: it was on right after my favourite program, and being a teenager and so pretty lazy, I would often not change the channel, and The Late Show would bleed into Movie of the Week.
And this is how I first watched ‘Naked Lunch’; it was the Movie of the Week, one week, when I was about 15. You never know when, or how, your life is going to change.
Of director David Cronenberg’s other films, I had probably only seen ‘The Fly’ by this stage. And I did not know about William S. Burroughs, or the Beat Generation. So I was not prepared for what I was about to watch.
The opening is moderate: unusual, sure, but pretty sedate. William Lee is an unhappy pest exterminator in New York in the 1950s. His wife is a drug addict, and his two friends (who later I realised are meant to be Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg) are wannabe writers; the four of them hangout and get high on a variety of substances.
But then they all start imbibing Lee’s bug powder, and weird stuff starts to happen. Lee accidentally shoots his wife, and at the behest of a life sized talking bug called a ‘Mugwump’, who he meets at a bar, takes off for ‘Interzone’ to lay low. The Zone is a Tangiers like place, decadent, full of expats with shadey backgrounds, where drugs and debauchery are part of the scenery.
Lee becomes involved with an American couple, the Frosts, and his typewriter starts talking to him, educating him on the hidden hand that is manipulating Interzone behind the scenes. A shadowy war is raging, fought between secret governments and sinister drug cartels, looking to control the bodies and minds of the local population through the trade of the dried black meat of the giant Brazillian centipede.
The typewriters talk to each other, and one eats another. Mrs Frost is under the control of a witch, who wears a zip up body suit that conceals her real identity. Lee hears people’s thoughts, and converses with them telepathically. People morph into creatures, exchange imaginary substances, engage in aggressively weird sex, reference events that you know never happened. What is real, and not real, is unclear.
And 15 year old me was like, ‘What the fuck am I watching?’
So I did not like it at first. The movie finished and I was kind of annoyed i had wasted two hours on this thing, that I did not understand and which creeped me out. It wasn’t like the fun thrills of a horror movie, it was just… unsettling.
But in the days and weeks ahead, I could not stop thinking about it. Primarily, what did it mean? Was there a way you could decipher this movie, and reconfigure it into something comprehensible? There must be a way, otherwise: why make it? And many of the dark, nightmarish images had lodged in my head.
I thought about it a lot.
Finally, I went and rented it from the local video store. It had been out for a couple of years and was a weekly rental, and during the 7 days I had it, I watched it multiple times. My mother was curious about this film I kept talking about, and she joined me for one of these screenings… and gave up about half way through, pronouncing it ‘disgusting’.
But I was hooked now, and the more I watched, the better I liked the film. I realised, it was actually very funny. There was a lot of satire here, making fun of the institutions that constitute the modern world. And the extreme nature of the presentation was on purpose; it was never intended to be for everyone! And if you were too squeamish for some of it, then the film makers were fine with that. They didn’t want you either. This was my first movie experience that didn’t feel safe; the creative people behind this had a vision they were going to follow, and damn the consequences.
I starting reading about Burroughs, and so then understood that the film was also about the writing of a book. The creative process. I bought a copy of ‘Naked Lunch’, the avant-garde novel, and then ‘On the Road’, and then a book about the Beats. And I realised; that sometimes to understand a movie, you have to understand a bit more about the world, that these things go together. One thing will lead you to the next thing, and on and on. An endless chain of knowledge (it was not until a bit later that I realised this will also work in reverse; that movies can help you understand the world also).
All of this sounds pretty simple, but I was a teenager living in a small country town, and I knew less than nothing. There wasn’t even the internet yet. And I feel like this film pushed open a door, that I have always been grateful that I walked through.
I watched my old Criterion last night for the first time in ages, and this film is still a knockout. It is very clever and so unusual, and the images remain highly disturbing; Cronenberg’s trademark blurring of machines and organics at its peak. Peter Weller is astonishingly good in the lead; his unflappable composure and rasping, growling voice, a performance like no other. And this is probably my favourite Judy Davis; two roles, both different, both off the wall in distinctive ways, and she is in peak form. This is around the time she was labelled the ‘world’s greatest actress’, and you can see why. There is also a nice, smallish, role for Ian Holm, who sadly just passed away.
One of those significant films, that people who are very into movies have in their lives.
Exterminate all rational thought.
View my favourite 100 movie list here.