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Retrospectives

Naked Lunch: Adapting the Unadaptable

It had been nearly four years since I watched David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) for the first time. I remember, upon finishing watching this film, high school me had been so enamored with what I just experienced that the next day I tried to read William S. Burroughs’ novel. I gave dozens of pages a shot, but since this was my first foray into postmodern literature, I was just puzzled with the scattershot and free-form prose of Burroughs. My takeaway though, was that it was incredible that Cronenberg was able to adapt something so unadaptable to film and pull it off so well in the way he did. 

In what starts out as most films do, through the establishment of main characters and a free-form jazz score coupled with art-deco aesthetics; this then morphs into a film about a slew of autobiographical problems that Burroughs faced in real life, that are thrust upon the protagonist, Bill Lee (Peter Weller). Drug use, homosexuality, and the creative process as a writer are the main themes that the film eventually manages to hone in on. The strange, Cronenbergian staples start with the introduction of an insect that talks through the mouth of an anus telling Lee to kill his wife, Joan Lee (Judy Davis) because she is a “secret agent”. It becomes such a Kafka-esque work that Kafka is even mentioned by Joan Lee. Also through Cronenbergian fashion, these various bugs and creatures are given an oozing and hyper-sexualized style and voice to them. This collaboration between Burroughs and Cronenberg was a perfect creative pairing for that reason. Videodrome took the idea of James Woods having moments of intimacy with pulsating Betamax tapes and televisions with faces on them and with Shivers (1975) he had already used the template of tying bugs in with sexuality. 

However, Naked Lunch doesn’t just make the bugs out to be these strange creatures just looking at trying to burrow their way into the minds of as many humans as possible, but as a creative companion, a writer can discuss their work with. The bugs, later on in the film are portrayed as typewriters for that reason, a product of Lee’s hallucinations on his drug-infused fantasies at some points, dictating to Lee what to write. The personal connection to typewriters humanizes these inanimate objects through the names that they are referred to throughout Naked Lunch. Tom Frost (Ian Holm) talks about how much he loves his “mujahideen”, the name given to his favorite typewriter. Burroughs himself was a heroin user and it is quite obvious that the insecticide in the film is a reference to that. The way that the insecticide is shot up intravenously and as the film progresses characters move onto harder drugs. The hardest drug coming from the secretions of the fictional reptilian creatures, Mugwumps. Their scaly and bony mien being one of the more impactful things from the film.

The film also has one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve seen in cinema. It is challenging to decipher which pieces of the film are actually tied to reality and which are inside the head of a drug-addict suffering from writer’s block, needing a fix in order to continue to construct. The far off city of Interzone (Joy Division were a fan of Burroughs’ work) that Lee flees to is when it fully becomes an unhinged meditation in the surreal. What Lee believes are smashed-up typewriter parts in a bag are seen by other characters to be just a collage of various pill bottles. During a discussion with Tom Frost, the synchronized sound coming from his mouth is dubbed over by other dialogue also spoken by Frost where he proclaims: “If you look carefully at my lips, you’ll realize that I’m actually saying something else. I’m not actually telling you about the several ways I’m gradually murdering Joan [Lee]”. The openness of the interpretation between fiction and reality makes Naked Lunch all the better, constantly throwing curveballs and depicting addiction as a sad, puzzling dimension of the human psyche. 

Cronenberg’s adaptation of Burroughs’ work attempts to be a transgressive and provocative work the same way the 1959 novel was. Unfortunately, there was not nearly as much discussion about the film compared to the novel. But for people that enjoy postmodern narratives that deconstruct the creative process such as Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), then this is an enjoyable, Kafkaesque meditation in that wheelhouse.               

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Blog Retrospectives

Specula-tion: A Twin’s Take on Dead Ringers

I am an identical twin. I weighed about three pounds at birth, my brother weighing five. Together, we constituted the birth weight of an average child. I was sickly, hemorrhaging in the brain and suffering with a heart murmur, so despite coming first in the birth order, I would not be home for another two weeks. The doctors found that some of my complications in birth came from malnutrition as a result of twin-to-twin transfusion: my brother was draining me of my nutrients. From that moment on, I was always a bit stunted, always weight class below him when we wrestled, always a few inches shorter, always a bit more sickly. We had times of resonance, freakishly speaking at the same time saying the same thing in debate tournaments, where we were partners, or accidentally dressing the same without meaning to. Despite those brief moments of overlap, though, we were always just off, similar, but not congruent.

Dead Ringers hyperbolizes these moments of symmetry and difference. Beverly and Elliot (both played to perfection by the lovely Jeremy Irons) embody this leading and lagging fraternity in a perverse thriller that you have to see to believe. It has all of Cronenberg’s most notable traits: body horror, fetishism, and an unparalleled mise-en-scène that draws you into the mutant worlds and pathological minds of the characters in the film. A bit uneven at times, slogging in its back half, the film is somewhat lower on the totem pole of David Cronenberg’s work, but it’s an alluring and upsetting watch to add to your October horror rotation.

The film opens with one of the best expository scenes I’ve ever seen. Over black, we see the time and location of the twins as young children, opening with them very scientifically discussing sex. Fish have it differently because they live underwater, one explains to the other, the other preferring it that way as you don’t have to touch another person to do it. The conversation is quite clinical, unsettling out of the mouths of babes, but plainly a mark of their precocity more than anything else. Not a moment later do the twins collude: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” It’s something I’ve said to my own twin many times, our adolescence spent playing tricks on our teachers by pretending to be the other in class. Of course, what follows is decidedly less innocuous, the twins approaching a girl their age and asking her to have sex with them both in their bathtub as “an experiment.” She understandably responds in shock and threatens to tell her father, but not before responding with a street-smart that contrasts their veneer of scholarly interest: “Fuck off you freaks… Besides, I know for a fact you don’t even know what fuck is!” The whole sequence is less than three minutes but clearly establishes our characters’ relationship with each other, aptitude for all things biological, the perverse way in which they use it.

The film quickly hits its stride with the two precocious scientists subbing in for each other to maximize the use of their time, this questionable act becoming especially upsetting when used for its sexual component as Elliot passes women off to the meek Beverly. An archetypal virgin and Chad meme if there ever was one, the contours of their difference begin here, the film presenting Beverly in bookish glasses and non-threatening sweater/button-down combinations that starkly contrast Elliot’s proto-Patrick Bateman suits (Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter’s respective wardrobes in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal certainly find touchstones here). The film’s unsettling atmosphere continues pretty constantly for a while until Beverly’s depressive state sees him go the way of Sheriff Truman in season two of Twin Peaks, killing the film’s momentum for a few beats, but setting up the fascinating disequilibrium between the twins that ushers in the third act. Stay for Irons’ unsettling performance(s), some nightmarish surgical garb that resembles some kind of occult ritual more than actual medical procedures, and one of Cronenberg’s purest images of fetishism in the form of Beverly’s made-to-measure, unsettling gynecological tools, a simple use of a phallic image to respond in kind for Beverly’s sense of emasculation and castration fears.

The film’s minor pacing problems aside, it’s really a treat. It’s perversion manifested in a cinematic space, the grotesque unconscious made visible through a dream screen that uses the horror/thriller genre’s conventions to discuss taboo topics, from quasi-incestuous pairings to medical fetishism. Put simply, the vibes are off, and the film offers a hole in the wall that puts on display all kinds of nasty thoughts. The film is at once erotic and contemptible, using visual spectacle in the mise-en-scène and striking imagery to seduce while the narrative’s sexual neuroses and unhealthy twin dynamic repulse. Forget about The Shining or Sisters for your twinsploitation horror this October; Dead Ringers doubles down on the subject with a clarity of perspective that milks the image of identical twins for all its strangeness while still giving it the gravity it deserves.

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Blog Reclamations

They Cum From Within – On Shivers

David Cronenberg’s filmography has given us some of the most horrific and nauseating body horror ever depicted from The Fly to Videodrome (long live the new flesh!), his work taps into this undeniable, visceral fear of the deconstruction of self as a tactile physical form but also as the site of conflict. It’s a dissociation of the human as a body and a deep dive as an exploration into the facets that make us who we are as entities coexisting but largely shaping each other with each interaction. Then it should come as no surprise that his first feature film, Shivers (1975), earnestly explores these concepts as an extended chamber piece within a consumer-friendly high rise apartment as parasites invade the occupants, turning them into sex-crazed fiends. Just imagine if the Tinder Google Doc for The Standard at Athens hadn’t been deleted and instead of everyone getting COVID, they gave each other massive horny worm parasites.

These laboratory-created parasites spread like wildfire throughout this island resort condominium, infecting everyone with a literal ‘love bug’ with not-so romantic implications. What kicks this whole outbreak into action occurs in one of the opening scenes. After the advertisement slideshow that lured a wholesome young couple in to tour, the audience is berated with a horrifically brutal escape and avoidance scene between a young school girl and an older gentleman that ends with her death and dismemberment. This flagrant and excessive violence against a woman shocks the viewer into the darker underbelly of this middle class paradise facade. Nicolas’s discovery of the girl’s body sets the story into motion as the tacit incrimination of harm enacted on a female and the spread of her parasites into others shifts the film outside the normal paradigm of a low-budget schlock body horror piece and into a critical representation of weaponized female sexuality and brutality in a pre #MeToo-era cautionary tale.

It doesn’t feel like an accident that the ground-zero for this island epidemic starts with a young woman who’s revealed to have been a sexual preoccupation of one of the scientists. Her body was mutilated and mangled from the inside out by her former lover who had injected her with trial parasites for a medical experiment that he was experimenting on. A story of mistrust and abuse of power, this is really the only scene we see these characters throughout the film, but they’re integral in creating this backdrop based on a secret no one is willing to confess to publicly. When her body is discovered, the investigation of the circumstances leads nowhere as the woman’s involvement in the experiment had already been known by his colleagues, and the focus then shifts towards containment. Containment as a means to insulate the knowledge of the crime and the re-narrativization of the scientist as a martyr to public help really captures this story of concealment as a means to guard against an unpleasant truth about the reality of the situation. His involvement with her death faces no scrutiny nor does his serial preoccupation with younger women ever get highlighted in any real critical light.

Regardless, the initial spread from the young woman to Nicolas redirects anxieties to containment as the characters are unaware of what exactly has been happening under their noses the whole time. There’s a slow pickup of scenes as the contamination lurks in every interaction thereafter, staining the walls and floors with its hidden blood trails as infection sets in. The parasites act as a symbol with dualist meanings in the extended metaphor of the film as both a side effect of the original act but also a perpetuation of it forward unto the guests spreading it to one another. As a side effect of negligence on the behalf of those in the know about the parasite, its rapid progression through the floors and levels squirms and writhes just below the carpet silently lurks in each interaction without knowing it had even taken place at all until the insatiable sexual appetite had consumer everyone in its wake and by then it’s too late and the irreparable harm has been done.

On the other hand, the parasites could just be a physical manifestation of the perpetuation of the crime as it moves from person to person. In other analyses, the parasitic worms have been considered a predictive depiction of HIV. Along that same line, sexual misconduct in all its external and internalized effects do have a way of trickling down from the initial point of contact. Every decision and act after the initial murder of the girl can be traced and her presence is felt through each of the infestations as it progresses further until everyone ends up naked in the indoor pool–as horny worm contagions tend to go. Thinking of this in terms of the current Hollywood climate, it’s easy to see the way that certain executives’ interactions with stars and actors alter the layout and design for not only the final film but everything that succeeds it.

Women as perpetrators and the main driving force of sexual pervasiveness and the spread of the parasite definitely complicates this narrative in a lot of ways, but Cronenberg has a fairly consistent preoccupation throughout his films with women as vessels not just for plot but also for deeper sentiments of primitiveness as humans more intensely linked to their id. As Nicolas deals in restraint of his urges while the worms eat him from the inside, the veil of traditionalism of chastity and modesty is yanked away as the impropriety of lust takes hold. The female body becomes the site of danger and excess as actual incubation chambers that are absolutely bursting with eroticism–perhaps as a compensation for scarcity of satisfaction that normally characterizes these women’s intimacy.

Having a phallic shaped worm be the monster of the film coheres well with this idea as it’s grotesquely misshapen and persistently invasive that tends to speak to a larger issue of consent. The look of the worm as the means of creating body horror for the plot of the film is so genuinely impractical as a prop for a practical effect which makes its design so feel intentionally useless but still assuming in its probing movements. Using something like this to facilitate a mass orgy of lust defies the logic of reason but champions its practicality as a mutant penis meant to terrorize an unassuming prudish middle class into sexual awakening solidifies this as a Cronenberg film in its execution of not only being a body horror piece but also an exploration into the language of deceit and suppression to the underground world that has altered the visual world of film forever.

To understand the pure direction that went into something that looks so conceptually simple that guides the story in a remarkably pointed and mindful way is exactly what you’ll find with Cronenberg’s work. This as a first feature film for him really sets the tone for his body of work as a whole but moreover the personality that makes this movie a cult classic.