Naked Lunch (1991) (out of 4)
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider, Julian Sands
Barton Fink (1991) (out of 4)
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub
The inner turmoil of writers is the main concern of Naked Lunch and Barton Fink (both movies also sharing the same year of release and actor Judy Davis). While the surface attributes of the films are different, they both aim to share the same ideas with the audience – the loneliness and isolation of authors and the need to reach out through the written word. They both try to understand the writer, which involves, of course, displaying the weaknesses within as well as the strengths.
William S Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in the fifties while in Tangiers. The book was the subject of a famous obscenity trial in Boston a few years later. A homosexual junkie who accidentally killed his wife in Mexico while playing a drunken game of William Tell, Burroughs was a brilliant and tortured writer who hung out with the beat poets of the era (Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsbourg, the latter of whom defended the book in court). Director David Cronenberg correctly realized that there would be no way to recreate the book scene for scene, so he made the decision to film a part biographical, part fictional account of the life of Burroughs himself, showing the events leading up to the creation of the book Naked Lunch, using one of Burroughs’ characters as the author (William Lee), and incorporating some elements from Burroughs’ own novels Naked Lunch, Exterminator, and Junkie.
The result is a brilliant movie filled with parts Kafkaesque nightmare, insect fluids, eroticism, black humor, sadness and despair. Starting out in 1953 New York with the character Lee (Peter Weller) as a bug exterminator, he has conversations with Kerouac and Ginsbourg stand-ins Hank (Nicholas Campbell) and Martin (Michael Zelniker) about whether authors should censor their work (“Exterminate all rational thought” says Lee). Lee’s wife Joan (a great performance by Judy Davis) has been stealing Lee’s bug powder and shooting up with it. Later in a William Tell game gone wrong, Lee accidentally kills his wife and runs off to a Middle Eastern port city called Interzone, where he is contacted by various insects and monsters to write reports, using his Clark Nova typewriter, which also happens to be a (living) bug that tells him he’s a secret agent and occasionally gives him orders. Now addicted to the bug powder himself, Lee hooks up with writer Tom Frost (Paul Bowles stand-in, played by Ian Holm) and his wife Joan (Jane Bowles stand-in – also played by Davis). As Lee’s loneliness and hallucinations increase, he finds himself on a fast track to a strange addiction involving a giant aquatic Brazilian centipede and an eventual run-in with elusive mastermind Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider).
The sadness carried by the Burroughs/Lee character is fully realized by Weller, and Cronenberg successfully merges his fondness for body mutation, strange fluids, and phallic symbols with Burroughs’ smart dialogue and understanding of addiction. The movie is complex – it shows descent into drug addiction but also matches the drug need with the act of writing as Lee’s lifeblood – indeed, later in the film his soul seems re-energized after finding a replacement for his “dead” Clark Nova. The film externalizes the tension between dueling authors Lee and Frost in the form of dueling typewriters (each with its own peculiar personality) just as it externalizes the fractured psyche of Lee through use of talking insects and his constant reliving of his wife’s death, something he is doomed to repeat over and over again.
Those looking for pieces of the book itself will only find snippets – the mugwumps and Dr. Benway, certainly, and some of Burroughs wicked monologues, including the “talking asshole” and a variation of the death of Professor Fingerbottom (in the movie, a “wise old queen named Bobo”) in Duc de Ventre’s Hispano-Suiza. Lee’s homosexuality is also touched upon, and the use of bug powder as a substitute for heroin and other “real” drugs hammers home the lessons of addiction in a more abstract way (in this regard, the spirit of the book and its discussion of the hierarchy of needs is retained). Finally, the proceedings are accompanied by a lively soundtrack score consisting of free jazz performed by Howard Shore with Ornette Coleman on sax – the chaotic “beatnik” jazz matching the chaos of William Lee’s life as well as the time period.
Certainly as metaphorical as Naked Lunch but perhaps on a less visceral level (but only a little bit less), Barton Fink takes place in 1941 with critically acclaimed playwright Fink (played magnificently by John Turturro) moving up in the world from New York City/Broadway to Los Angeles/Hollywood, as he is hired to write for the Capitol Pictures. Working for Jack Lipnick (a hilarious Michael Lerner made to look like Louis B. Mayer), he is tasked to write a screenplay for a wrestling picture, naturally a horrifying scenario for a self-centered intellectual who dreams of creating a new theater for the “common man” but who happens to be completely out of touch with said common man. Pretentious and oblivious to Hollywood itself and the life of the working stiffs – Fink checks into a local dump of a hotel, sparsely populated by bellboy Steve Buscemi and semi-permanent guest Charlie, played by John Goodman (one of his best roles). The hotel itself is straight out of the Twilight Zone, a creation seemingly built by parts Lynch and Dante. The heat is unbearable, the wallpaper peeling, and the rooms suffer from a curious lack of occupants, save for Charlie – an insurance salesman who could tell Barton some stories about the experiences of the common folk. Trouble is, Fink is so wrapped up in his own angst that he has no interest in what Charlie has to say, only in obtaining a sympathetic ear to the troubles of writers block.
Fink seeks help from William Faulkner-like W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) and Mayhew’s “secretary” Audrey (Judy Davis – again a writer’s muse!). Mayhew is a drunk and Audrey is his ghostwriter, Fink gets a little too close with Audrey, two detectives show up looking for Charlie, also known as Madman Mundt the serial killer, and the hotel starts getting hotter.
Sufficed to say, Fink’s writers block gives way to a surrealistic nightmare involving dead bodies, impatient Hollywood producers, hotel corridors on fire, a strange beach fantasy, and a mysterious package that may or may not contain a head. The movie is complex, engaging, and multi-layered – at once a dark comedy, a dramatization of the humbling of egocentric hacks, a jab at old Hollywood, and also, a metaphor for the rise of fascism and the Nazi party. The presence of anti-Semitism surrounding Fink, the reference to Charlie’s last name as Mundt and his cryptic line “Heil Hitler” before committing a murder, the last names of the two detectives Mastrionotti and Deutsch, and Barton’s ignorance of the ways of the world around him seem to point to the failure of the intellectual elite to see the coming horrors which led to World War II. All of it is filtered through an eerie lens of the Hotel Earle, an establishment that pours emotion through its peeling wallpaper, the kind of personality of a non-living entity not seen since the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.
One of the Coen brothers’ strongest films, Barton Fink, like Naked Lunch, is a rewarding peek into the life of the literary mind. Each film is rich with subtext and worth repeated viewings.
- Bill Gordon
Criterion releases Naked Lunch in a 2 Disc Set, widescreen/Dolby 2.0 surround with commentary by Cronenberg and Weller. The second disc sports an informative documentary on the making of the film, as well as audio excerpts from William Burroughs as he reads passages from the book. Also featuring multiple essays, this edition is worth picking up.
20th Century Fox releases a widescreen anamorphic Barton Fink in 2.0 stereo, with deleted scenes and some trailers. Hopefully, they will get on the ball and release a special edition… hey Fox, how about a 5.1 surround with commentary by the Coen brothers?