Thursday, February 17, 2011

Interzone vs Intern's Own: good and bad readings of books

The Remington Roach: Interzone's finest.
There were a number of attempts to adapt William Burroughs' novel The Naked Lunch into a film but none reached the big screen until David Cronenberg's version in 1991. I was glad of this. Not only was any diluted attempt to present the novel literally now rendered needless the interpretation was now in the hands of someone who could be trusted to create an extension to the book rather than gaffer tape all the safer scenes together and call it macaroni.

That's important. The Naked Lunch is one of the most fiercely individual novels of its century. Its narrative swings a long slow arc above a canvas of set pieces as crowded as a Bosch painting. While a given passage is rendered in perfectly lucid prose (it was written before the cut up method) any group of them together could bewilder a Joycean scholar (especially this amateur one). Much of the descriptions were considered unfilmable because of their extreme violence or graphic sex which were often indistinguishable from each other. A faithful depiction of what was on the page would be condemned to the feared X rating; cinema death.

But Cronenberg knew his material and the halflit world of its birth among the leading heads of the beats in New York and the hallucinogenically alien realm of Tangier. He knew that Burroughs had made several kinds of journey writing it and had little trouble analogising reality and realising analogy. He'd even offered a bridge which he called interzone. Cronenberg took these concepts and ran. He thought like a filmmaker.

Beginning in New York with a title to inform his audience that we start on a recognisable Earth, we follow Bill Lee, his marriage and his career as an insect exterminator. His apartment is peopled by figures traceable to their biographical inspirations (a clear Joan Burroughs along with a Ginsberg and a Kerouac) who discuss the far out vibe-nations of the dharma ticket while shooting up Bill's bug powder. This life on the ocean page comes to a big loud wreck the afternoon that Bill plays William Tell with his wife's head and a whiskey tumbler. Goes badly.

So off he goes to Tangier. The zurnas wail and the air is filled with hash smoke. Expats speak to him telepathically and he gets a job as an agent reporting from interzone. His typewriters have been turning into insects that talk like Bowery bums. He has an affair with the wife of the American abroad in chief who is a reiteration of his own wife. They have steamy erotic encounters in which his typewriter metamorphoses into as many sex organs as it is possible to fit into the machine's size. It falls humping to the floor and crosses the room to the light.

The Ginsberg and the Kerouac pay a visit and the world of the film is revealed. When Bill is addressing them they are in sunlit Tangier. When they bear witness to his state they are in a garbage swashing slum less than a nautical mile from the initial action. Dig? This is interzone. One way of looking at it is to imagine Hell as a state of mind: you see one thing and everyone else sees its opposite. You know the No one believes you. Cassandra is queen.

That's Cronenberg's doing. He locked on to the only concept that could not only bridge historical reality with the tortured imagination of the writer but provide a bridge for us as well. The result is a constant scission which yet remains seamless. There's the book and there's the film; a perfect fit. That's how you do an interpretation.

George C. Looney: man bear goat.
In Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats the man who did stare a goat to death did so by imagining a religious scene in which he is beckoned by Jesus to walk a path of golden light which gives him power. He then conjures an image of St Michael standing by the goat in the next room. St Michael plunges his sword into the goat's body and the goat in the room collapses.

In the film version of this George Clooney stares at a goat through a glass wall until it falls down.

Here's the problem. This book presents a series of fantastical anecdotes that are intentionally left unverified until the end notes. It is written as a journalistic account, not a novel but the author's skill encourages his readers' credulity as tale after mind boggling tale unfolds. While this does involve a lightness of touch to the prose it is administered with extra care to keep things just this side of implausible. Result: a highly entertaining book that presents some intriguing ideas that feel like the most enjoyable after dinner lies once you've finished reading.

So why does this movie feel like Midnight Run in camouflage? Why? Because it hangs its bum between two stools: here a kind of revisited Catch 22 satire using the book's more outrageous claims and there a limping self indulgent buddy movie with George C. Looney at his cutest and Ewen MacGregor as a foil to George. And along for the ride we also have a Kevin Spacey who gets a chance to consciously point to how smug his usual screen presence is and just ends up being smug again. Jeff Bridges acquits himself as the founding father of the First Earth Battalion but he always acquits himself.

Where's the book in all this? Well it wasn't that great a book to begin with, reading like a million of those pulp jobs from the seventies about UFO encounters or pyramid power. There is clear skill in its pages but the fact that it presents itself as pointing to the plain sight hiding place of the esoteric arms race pretty much disqualifies its credibility. From there you can, of course, say, "well, that's all part of the plan, isn't it?" at which point I run out of patience. It's not a fine book but doesn't care that it isn't. The film, on the other hand wants to be something phenomenal, a kind of cross of Oliver Stone and Robert Altman. But any film that has to resort to dosing the stiff neck character with LSD for ironic laughs has long lost its way.

There's a moment where Clooney tells MacGregor about killing the goat with his mind and how haunted he is by it. MacGregor slips in with, "the silence of the goats." The line hangs in the air and floats around the lighting for the rest of the scene, an ugly remnant of a late late night's brainstorming that wasn't erased before it hit the shooting script. MacGregor does get the surprisingly well crafted final moment but by then it is far too late. Read the book and leave it on a tramstop but use the ninety plus minutes you might have wasted on its film adaptation doing your taxes or really committing to watching that cinema classic you've been putting off every time you look at it on the shelf in your living room. Go on, you know you need to.

SHADOWS resumes March 4. Program here.

No comments:

Post a Comment