Naked Lunch

cast: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider, and Julian Sands

director: David Cronenberg

110 minutes (18) 1991
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Roger Keen

When David Cronenberg’s film version of William Burroughs’ cult novel appeared in 1991, it divided opinion in the way it treated the material, offering up a montage of fragments from several Burroughs’ novels plus biographical elements, all composited together in Cronenberg’s own distinctive style, but losing much of the meaning of the sources in the process. Cronenberg’s core fans and connoisseurs of weird movies approved, but Burroughs purists considered it a travesty of the original novel. I certainly found myself in the latter camp, and wrote indignantly about it at the time, but what I found subsequently was that the novel is hardly read anymore, belonging in the category of those difficult experimental works of the 1950s and 1960s; and for those who don’t know or care what’s in the novel, Naked Lunch is just another weird film to be judged on its own merits. So, 13 years on, with its release on DVD for the first time, I will look at it again in those terms.
Bill Lee (Peter Weller), a conventionally dressed exterminator in 1950s’ America, finds that the bug powder he uses for his work is in short supply, and this is because his wife Joan (Judy Davis) has been stealing it to feed her addiction. When challenged she declares it to be “A literary high… A Kafka high… It makes you feel like a bug.” Lee is then arrested by two narcotics’ detectives, Hauser and O’Brien, and interrogated over his possession of the bug powder – peculiar since it is one of the tools of his trade. When left alone Lee perceives a giant cockroach hop onto the bug powder and commence a conversation by means of a ‘talking asshole’ on its back, under the wings. The cockroach claims to be Lee’s case officer within some spy network, and tells Lee that his wife is an agent of Interzone Incorporated, and he must kill her. Lee reacts as though the experience is some kind of schizoid hallucination, though he physically destroys the cockroach by battering it with his shoe. Later he invites Jean to play a game of ‘William Tell’, which involves shooting a glass off her head. He aims low and kills her.
Lee then flees to Interzone, a fantasyland in the novel, but represented in the film as Tangiers, a favourite Burroughs’ haunt. Here Lee meets the writer Paul Frost (Ian Holm) and his wife Joan (also played by Judy Davis). Frost is meant to represent the real life writer Paul Bowles, and earlier on we saw Lee’s friends Hank and Martin, who in turn represent fellow beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. In Interzone, Lee writes agent-style reports on his portable Clark Nova typewriter, which turn out to be parts of the actual Burroughs’ novel. But there is more to the Clark Nova than meets the eye, for it is subject to transmogrify into a hybrid of typewriter and the giant talking cockroach Lee encountered earlier. Again the cockroach feeds Lee with instructions and paranoid-type interpretations of what is going on. Lee has encounters with other typewriters belonging to Frost, which also have insect identities, and he meets the Mugwump, a large green reptilian creature that secretes a potent fluid from penis-like extrusions on its head.
Weird sex and drugs abound in Interzone. Lee befriends suave homosexual Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands) and local boy Kiki, as well as commencing an insectoid affair with Joan Frost. Lee has also started using the black meat of the giant aquatic Brazilian centipede, after obtaining a sample Stateside from the dubious Dr Benway (Roy Scheider); but the real drug action in Interzone lies in Mugwump fluid, and Benway re-emerges as the mastermind behind the Mugwump operation. Lee’s ‘reports’ are accumulating into The Naked Lunch, and Martin offers to find him a publisher, but nonetheless Lee decamps to the Soviet-like Annexia, another Burroughs’ territory, where the film ends on a note that is off-key even by the standards of what has gone on before.
“Exterminate all rational thought” is the film’s catchphrase, and that is right. Not much of what happens makes narrative sense, for Cronenberg is creating a mutant narrative that involves fact, fiction, fantasy and so on, but doesn’t preserve the interfaces between those modes or conform to any accepted rules about how those modes react together. The result is a melange; a pot pourri; a smorgasbord of the source material that has something of the quality of a dream or a drug trip, but which finally defies categorisation. Like a Rorschach test you can read into it what you like, and you might find it anything from extremely profound to complete gobbledegook. As an experiment in film it is certainly innovative and captivating, and fits in with what Cronenberg has been doing other works such as Videodrome and Dead Ringers. To understand it better, one needs to have information about the sources – the Burroughs’ novels Queer and Exterminator!, as well as The Naked Lunch, and Ted Morgan’s extensive biography of Burroughs, which provides the actual life details in and around the fiction.
Along with Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary, William Burroughs ranks as a major figure in American counter-culture, though his contribution is perhaps less obvious. And Naked Lunch does capture the flavour of 1950s’ social and artistic experimentation, the strangeness of Burroughs’ imagination, and something of the bizarre interior world of drug-induced states, all of which is valuable. The performances are uniformly first class – especially Weller and Davis – and the ambience created by the superb photography, the authentically yellowing interiors of the sets, and the soundtrack with its swooping Ornette Coleman saxophone, is just about perfect.
Included in the DVD package is the excellent full-length documentary Naked Making Lunch that answers many of the questions the film poses. There are some insightful and amusing cast and crew interviews, and also Burroughs himself, reading from the novel in his hypnotic, drawling voice, and attending a press conference with Cronenberg. This is intercut with archive footage of Burroughs and the beats, and a picture is established of what the novel is about and how it came to be written. Beat commentator Barry Miles is also interviewed, and his insights are most illuminating. Ultimately it is Cronenberg himself who gets the film in perspective, saying it was as if he and Burroughs fused in the telepod like Brundle and the Fly, merging their DNA – and that is the best description we’ll ever get of this peculiar and intriguing piece of cinema. A detailed audio commentary by the director backs up the documentary in deciphering what’s on the screen, and a zappy trailer completes the extras package.
The film together with the disc extras makes a cohesive and worthwhile package, both didactic and off-the-wall weird, which isn’t at all a bad combination!