Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Films of David Cronenberg Vol. #2

Naked Lunch (1991) - 4 Stars (B)

I was listening to Mad Hatter's The MatineeCast the other day and he was talking with Anna Tyorinoja about the 'weirdest films they have ever seen'. Hatter mentioned this film, and while I only saw it this week, I think it ranks up there amongst the weirdest films I have ever seen. David Cronenberg's bizarre and near incomprehensible version of the life of William S. Burrough's draws from the inspiration behind a number of the man's works, but most notably his controversial novel, Naked Lunch, which is the result of the central protagonist's writing throughout the film. It is not a straight adaptation of the novel, but Cronenberg draws elements, characters and locations from the novel and rearranges them. Other elements from the film are drawn from the writer's experiences during the process of writing the novel, but also some of Burrough's other novels. I don't know that Naked Lunch is Cronenberg's most controversial film, that prize goes to Crash, but it is easily amongst his most widely discussed and critiqued. The only advice I can give when tackling this surreal and creepy film is to exterminate all rational thinking.

I will attempt to summarize the plot, though this is no easy feat. William Lee (Peter Weller) is a dedicated insect exterminator who finds that his wife Joan (Judy Davis) is stealing his insecticide for recreational drug purposes. Lee is obsessed with his 'bug powder', and when his supply runs out during a job, he seeks to confiscate his colleagues'. When Lee is arrested by the police, he comes to the conclusion that he is hallucinating because of insecticide exposure, picked up for carrying an illegal black-market cure for bug-powder addiction. He believes he is a secret agent whose controller (a giant bug) assigns him the mission of killing his wife, who is agent of an organisation called Interzone Inc. After escaping custody and returning home to find his wife sleeping with his writer friend Hank, he shoots Joan during a William Tell routine (a fatal accident Burrough's himself was guilty of; the death of his wife Joan Vollmer at a party in Mexico City). Burroughs fled to the United States where he was convicted in absentia for homicide. Burrough's expressed Joan's death as the starting point of his literature career, exactly the way it is also portrayed in the film.

Having inadvertently accomplished his "mission", Lee flees to Interzone, where Interzone Inc. is based, and spends his time writing reports on his mission, which ultimately become the novel 'Naked Lunch'. Clark Nova, one of Lee's 'living' typewriters, tells him to find Dr Benway (Roy Scheider), by seducing Joan Frost (also Judy Davis), a doppelganger of his dead wife. Frost's husband Tom (Ian Holm) is a writer Lee befriends. Some very strange things happen; there are many references to Lee hallucinating and becoming addicted to a drug called 'Black Meat'. His typewriter transforms into a talking bug, and actually attacks and eats a typewriter lent to Lee by Tom Frost. There are some pretty unsubtle homosexual undertones too. It seems the norm for writers in Interzone to accompany young men to parties, and Lee must befriend some of these young men to survive in Interzone. Lee eventually locates Benway, who is the head of a narcotics harvesting operation which produces Black Meat, drawn from the guts of giant centipedes. Lee's journey takes many peculiar turns but he ultimately finishes his report (which is actually the bare bones of his novel) and flees to another town called Annexia with Joan Frost. I don't really want to discuss the conclusion, it is seriously befuddling.

While the plot will prove incomprehensible to most viewers, there is a story that can be deciphered, but I think it is necessary to have read Burrough's novels and have some understanding of the man. I don't think it really matters because there is something about Naked Lunch that makes it different from anything you have ever seen before. Cronenberg has endowed this bizarre and surreal experience with beautiful, orange-hued visuals. The skin of the characters glistens, and Interzone is made to appear like a dusty, humid and foul realm, home to all assortment of strange individuals. Howard Shore is once again the man behind the score, though this time he has collaborated with jazz musician Ornette Coleman. The performances, though over-the-top in almost every sense, are uniformly good. Peter Weller's noir protagonist drifts through Interzone, and his dry intellectual wit and stony gaze make him really interesting. He also never seemed to move his mouth. Judy Davis and Roy Scheider were solid in support, but nearly everyone else come across as vile caricatures, which aid to enhance the films surreality. I've been considering whether to watch it again ever since I saw it, so I must have enjoyed it.

Crash (1996) - 4 Stars (B+)

Based on the J.G Ballard 1973 novel of the same name Crash tells the story of a group of people who take sexual pleasure from car accidents. It certainly is a daring premise, and there is plenty to commend (especially the incredible performances, the sublime use of the camera, and the score by who else, but Howard Shore). The coverage of the character's driving is especially well done. They aren't exactly pursuits, just very aggressive driving, and shot from a variety of perspectives and angles, from within the car's interiors and from an exterior force. More intense than some of Hollywood's most elaborate vehicular pursuits, we are aware that these characters are consciously hoping to crash for the sexual rush that accompanies it.

Set in Toronto, James Ballard (James Spader), a prominent film producer, has a disconnected and unhappy marriage to his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger). With the relationship diminished to cold and unenthusiastic sex, the film opens with each partaking in their own infidelities. Their sex life is only given a spark later when they vividly discuss the details of these extramarital encounters. When driving home from work late on night, Ballard's car collides head on with another, killing the male passenger. Surviving, but trapped in the wreckage is a woman, Dr Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). In hospital he meets her again, and also a scarred man named Vaughn (Elias Koteas), who at first seems to be an accident and injury photographer. Upon leaving hospital, Ballard and Remington meet and start to have an affair, one primarily fuelled by their shared experience of the car crash. All of their sexual encounters take place in vehicles.

In an attempt to make sense of their arousal following the violent car wreck, Ballard and Helen attend a cult meeting of Vaughn's, which is actually a recreation of the accident that killed James Dean, with authentic cars, stunt drivers and injuries. Shortly later, transport ministry officials break up the event and the group flees to Vaughn's base, where they meet fellow fetishists and followers, and watch videos of constructed car crashes. Ballard befriends Vaughn and on occasions drives his convertible around town while he picks up and uses street prostitutes in the back of the car. The series of sexual encounters between the group wildly vary, including a dalliance between Vaughn and Christine, Ballard and another of the group members, Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), and even Ballard and Vaughn. They all take place in cars, living out Vaughn's philosophy that a car crash is a "fertilising rather than a destructive event, mediating the sexuality of those who died with an intensity that's impossible in any other form." Okaaaaay. Crash is essentially a metaphor for the extremes of human obsession, and is not easy viewing.

Few people will find a film about unhealthy and destructive fetishes appealing or enjoyable. It is neither, but you have to admire Cronenberg's dedication to his art and his willingness to continually push the boundaries of what he presents to his audience. The performances are absolutely incredible. James Spader, who is usually excellent, tackles an extremely controversial role. Who doesn't he have sex with in this film. The rest of the cast are great too, although with the exception of The Thin Red Line, I have never liked Elias Koteas too much.

The soap-like whispered dialogue was also very strange. I don't remember there existing a proper conversation, with the characters seeming to exist in a dream where time and space do not matter. All that exists is this 'fetish' that links all the characters together. It is their activity that tells the story. The sex scenes are extremely explicit, but so well simulated that they felt real. Cronenberg's use of the camera is also fantastic. Whenever the camera started a side track across the room, I expected it to end on a couple embraced in sex, and in most cases it did. As I mentioned above, the coverage of the driving is also really imaginative. Arguably the best feature is Howard Shore's score, which gave me shivers. Crash is a cold-hearted film that combines devastating violence and destruction with sexual energy; a combination that is socially reprehensible. I don't want to recommend this film, but for anyone interested in Cronenberg's work, it is one of his finest.


  1. Both Naked Lunch and Crash have been highly recommended to me and ones that have been on the cards of me watching them eventually for quite some time now.

    I think Cronenberg would be the most likely person to hit the nail with Burroughs writing, that's for sure.

    Nice reviews of both the films. Reminded me why I wanted to see them so much in the first place.

    Thanks for the follow by the way! I am assuming you came to Feminising Film via Stevee, so I shall continue to be thanking her too.

    Repaying the follow, and looking forward to checking out more of your stuff man, it seems pretty good to me!

  2. Thanks for reading and for the return follow. Yes, I found Feminising Film via Stevee. You're a pretty frequent commenter on her blog, and saw that yours had drawn some attention.

    Both Naked Lunch and Crash aren't easy viewings, especially the latter, but they are iconic films, not only in the career of Cronenberg, but cinema of the 90's. I have been working through his films and I think these rank amongst his best so far (along with The Fly). I haven't read any of Burrough's writing, but if there is anyone that can transform the surreal and incomprehensible into engaging cinema, it is Cronenberg.

    Hope you enjoy them when you get around to watching them.

  3. It is a real switch-up of Cronenberg's career as he was very set in the horror/surrealism elements, but that became quite grounded within thrillish films.

    I like uneasy viewings. The only thing I can't handle when watching a film is animal cruelty, really. That's when I kind of draw the line.

    Even though I slide more to liking the surrealism/horror side of Cronenberg, at least he tries new things, which is commendable.

    Really looking forward to Dangerous Methods, though. Top-notch cast and the stills look great.

    Your welcome for the follow, and I hope they are good'ens when I watch them, (I don't doubt they aren't excellent films though, to be fair.)

  4. I think "difficult" is a good word for these films. While I haven't seen Crash yet, Naked Lunch was too tough for me to swallow. The strange thing is, while I didn't like the movie at all, it did pique my interest in his other films. I think that's one of the reasons I like Cronenberg; when I dislike his stuff, it's still ambitious enough to make me wonder if his next film will be better.

  5. Naked Lunch is easily my least favorite Cronenberg film; although the effects are great and his ability to transport us so convincingly into the mind of Burroughs is uncanny, the film feels cold. I think fans of Burroughs' work will best appreciate it. I didn't like the book, either, so I wasn't expecting much from the film. Crash, however, is beyond creepy. It's like a bug that gets under your skin.

  6. @sirbriang2 - I was really intrigued by Naked Lunch, and I had this strange urge to watch it again straight away. It was one of the weirdest films I had ever seen. I had already seen a few of Cronenberg's films earlier in the month, so I was on a roll. The only one I really disliked was Dead Ringers. Crash is a tough one. Not that it is hard to follow, it is just unsettling. It is also one of his best films IMO.

    @gregcwik - I haven't read the book, nor am I a fan of Burroughs, though I agree it would appeal more to viewers with this knowledge. I was really absorbed into the film; I can't really explain why. It was just so odd. Crash is a film I don't think I will see again. While Cronenberg has made some 'fucked up' films, nothing I have seen tops Crash. I couldn't help but admire the man, though. Few directors could have turned a premise like that into a film that is not only scarring, but a genuinely fine film.

    Thanks for the comments guys. Appreciate it!