18. NAKED LUNCH (1991)

“It’s impossible to make a movie out of ‘Naked Lunch.’ A literal translation just wouldn’t work. It would cost $400 million to make and would be banned in every country of the world.” –David Cronenberg

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DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING:  Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Julian Sands

PLOT:  Bill Lee is a writer/exterminator in New York City whose wife begins mainlining the bug powder he uses to kill roaches, and convinces him to try it as well.  He becomes addicted to the powder, and one night shoots his wife dead while playing “William Tell.”  Lee goes on the lam and lands in Interzone, an exotic free zone reminiscent of Tangier or Casablanca (but which may exist only in his mind), where he begins taking ever more powerful drugs and typing out “reports” partially dictated to him by his living, insectoid typewriter.

Naked Lunch (1991) still

BACKGROUND:

  • William S. Burroughs’s original novel Naked Lunch was selected as one of the 100 best English language novels written after 1923 by Time magazine.
  • The novel was held not to be obscene by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1966.  This was the final obscenity prosecution of a literary work in the United States; there would be no subsequent censorship of the written word (standing alone).
  • Several directors had considered filming the novel before David Cronenberg got the project.  Avant-garde director Anthony Balch wanted to adapt it as a musical (with Burroughs’s blessing), and actually got as far as storyboarding the project and getting a commitment from Mick Jagger (who later backed out) to star.  Among others briefly interested in adapting the novel in some form were Terry Southern, John Huston, Frank Zappa, and Terry Gilliam.
  • Because the novel was essentially a plotless series of hallucinatory vignettes (what Burroughs called “routines’), David Cronenberg chose to make the movie a thinly veiled tale about Burroughs’s writing of the novel, incorporating only a few of the actual characters and incidents from the book.  Actors in the film portray real-life writers and Burroughs associates Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Paul and Jane Bowles.
  • The episode in the film where Lee accidentally shoots his wife while performing the “William Tell routine” is taken from Burroughs real life: he actually shot his common law wife while performing a similar trick in a Mexican bar.  Burroughs felt tremendous guilt through his life for the accident and has said “I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death.”
  • Naked Lunch won seven awards at the Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), including Best Movie and Best Director.
  • Producer Jeremy Thomas has somewhat specialized in bringing weird and unusual fare to the largest possible audience, producing not only Naked Lunch but also Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Tideland (2005).
  • Following a definite theme for the year, Judy Davis also played an author’s muse and lover in another surrealistic 1991 movie about a tortured writer, Barton Fink.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Clark Nova, Lee’s territorial, talking typewriter, who alternately guides and torments the writer.  He’s a beetle who has somehow evolved a QWERTY keyboard as an organ. When he speaks, he lifts his wings to reveal a sphincter through which he dictates his directives.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  It begins with an exterminator who does his rounds wearing a three piece suit and fedora.  His philosophy is to “exterminate all rational thought.”  His wife steals his insecticide and injects it into her breast to get high, and gets him hooked on the bug power, too.  A pair of cops question him on suspicion of possessing dangerous narcotics, and leave him alone in the interrogation room with a huge talking “caseworker” bug who explains that his wife is an agent of Interzone, Incorporated, and is not even human.  And this is just the setup, before the film turns really weird.


Original trailer for Naked Lunch

COMMENTS:  Make no mistake: Naked Lunch is clearly David Cronenberg’s movie, not William S. Burroughs’.  The original novel, while well-written in splotches, was more notorious for its obscurity and its stylistic and thematic taboo-breaking than it was celebrated for its literary quality.  And the novel’s ultimate importance comes not from its internal experimentalism (an evolutionary dead end which failed to bear literary progeny), but from the external symbolism that arose when it became a cause celebre in the battle for free speech and free thought in the early 1960s.  Naked Lunch, with its homosexual rape fantasies wrapped in a shroud of lyrical prose, triumphed in court over the censors’ last-ditch attempts to control what Americans could put into their minds.  It became one of those novels that is much more read about than read, and Burroughs—junky, manslaughterer, and wild prose stylist—became the ultimate symbol of the literary outlaw.

Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch isn’t an adaptation of the novel, although it incorporates a few of Burroughs’s “routines.” Instead, it’s about the process of writing the novel, an exaggerated account of the agonizing pangs of pushing a creative work out of the author’s womb.  Abstracted, Cronenberg’s plot is simple: Bill Lee (an obvious stand-in for Burroughs) accidentally shoots his wife, is tormented by the act and falls into a paranoid drug and sex addiction, all the while writing a novel trying to sort out his feelings about the incident.  (Viewers who complained Cronenberg’s plot was incomprehensible had best stay far away from the source novel).

Given that this basically simple story is told through the hallucinatory haze of constant intoxication and paranoia, the incidents that make up the majority of the film are virtually arbitrary, important only insofar as they convey Lee’s internal state of guilt, torment and confusion. There is at least one scene which makes this abundantly clear: Ian Holmes (portraying expatriate author Tom Frost) mentions that he heard Lee murdered his wife, and casually confesses that he is slowly killing his own wife with drugs and witchcraft.  Lee, alarmed, asks him how he can be discussing this, and Frost answers, “This is all happening telepathically, non-consciously.  If you look carefully at my lips, you’ll see I’m actually talking about something else.”  And he is: his lips movements do not match his words.

Within certain parameters, anything can happen inside the story of Naked Lunch: typewriters can speak through their anuses, characters can turn into each other or metamorphose into sexually ravenous centipedes, sexual desire can materialize into an amorphous living blob and be chased out of the room by a maid dressed as a dominatrix.  But there are a few inflexible boundaries in Interzone, the Moroccan fantasyland Lee flees to to complete his “report,” that are built from Lee’s psychological preoccupations:

Lee will always be stoned.  Opiate addiction was the most central fact in Burroughs’s day-to-day existence during the time he was writing Naked Lunch, and it’s Bill’s core reality, as well.  Lee samples a fantastical pharmacopeia of exotic drugs—bug powder, the ground meat of the black centipede, and “Mugwump jism”—whose effects and power to alter reality are unlimited.  He supplements this diet of fictional intoxicants with mahjoun (a Moroccan hashish concoction) and alcohol.  The constant flow of psychotropic substances in his bloodstream provides the explanation for the hallucinatory vignettes, and also indicates the depth of his need to flee reality.

Lee will remain sexually ambivalent. Burroughs was himself a bisexual, and used his writing to nonjudgementally explore his homosexual urges and fantasies to their absurd limits.  Bill Lee is more sexually ambiguous; he seems to be encountering his own repressed homosexuality as the film goes on.  This aspect of the script is not fully explored, but it adds another undercurrent of mystery and ambiguity to Lee’s search for his self through his writing.

Lee will always write.  Cronenberg’s choice to anthropomorphize the typewriters in Naked Lunch was a stroke of genius.  The idea of a writer sitting down in front of a blank page and struggling with himself over what to type on it is inherently uncinematic.  The director solved this problem by having the typewriter talk back, debating with its owner and occasionally pulling him down psychological roads he would rather not trod.  Lee’s relationship with his Clark Nova typewriter is his most intimate bond.

Lee will always feel guilty.  The idea that guilt from the slaying of his wife was the impetus for Burroughs’s writing career is not a unique one; the author frankly stated as much.  Cronenberg keeps the motivation constantly in the background.  Bill’s mind resurrects the dead Joan Lee in Interzone as the living Joan Frost, and Bill once again romances her, and this time tries to rescue her.  Joan figures prominently in the last scene of the film, when Bill is leaving Interzone for Annexia and presumably returning to the normal world, in a conclusion that makes it crystal clear that her death is the central pivot of the movie.

Lee will always receive communiques and dispatches from mysterious creatures.  From the caseworker bug who tells him Joan is an alien agent and must die to the Mugwump that tells him to write a report on the killing (“with all the tasty details”) and provides him his ticket to Interzone to the Clark Nova typewriter who advises him that “homosexuality is the best cover an agent can have,” Bill constantly imagines himself as manipulated by entities which speak to him alone.  The content of the missions and assignments that these insectoid and alien overlords send Lee on are irrelevant.  They exist to explore Burroughs’s preoccupation with the idea of control: the control of the drug over the addict’ of the sexual impulse over the person; and the ego as the censor of the subconscious, the parts of the psyche we would rather not acknowledge but which the artist must explore.

These five elements–intoxication, sex, writing, guilt, and paranoia–form the walls within which the seemingly incoherent and undisciplined drama of Naked Lunch plays out.  Peter Weller’s deadpan performance further grounds us within this psychologically teeming nightmare world.  Fedora tightly screwed on, he strides among these horrors tight-lipped and poker-faced.  He acts like a 1940s private eye; he has the composure to quip about crabs when cops bring him in for questioning on drug possession, and he reacts to the horrific appearance of a hallucinated talking cockroach with the same suave coolness as Sam Spade confronted by a pistol-packing palooka.  His public demeanor is controlled, but when he’s trapped inside his shabby Interzone apartment with the D.T.s and only his typewriter to talk to, his impassive face cracks and his haunted agony bleeds through.

Cronenberg also creates a consistent visual and aural landscape to keep his world from totally spinning out of control.  The film is shot in a rich brown color scheme that subtly suggests a fecal theme.  Interzone is an exotic Arabic creation of the mind, but look very closely to see how the director subliminally blends features of New York City into the landscape to suggest that in reality Lee has never left the city at all.  The soundtrack (available on available on Milan Records), featuring the free-jazz wailing of saxophone legend Ornette Coleman layered over the exotic and sinister orchestration of Howard Shore, is truly a thing of wonder.  The contrast between Coleman’s wildly imaginative and unconstrained phrasings nestled within Shore’s carefully studied and atmospheric harmonies suggest the collaboration between Cronenberg and Burroughs in the film: just as Shore’s score grounds and contains Ornette’s free-form improvisation without destroying or betraying it, Cronenberg’s film world creates a space that can be decorated by Burroughs’ wild spirit.

What Cronenberg ultimately achieves in Naked Lunch is to tap into the iconography of William S. Burroughs.  Burroughs’s greatest creation was not any of his writings, but himself.  This drug-addicted author became the modern romantic archetype of the artist: tortured, but completely free of social convention, a psychic seeker traveling deep into realms of human greatness and depravity and returning with forbidden wisdom.  That the ending provides no real wisdom, but rather leads into a circular paradox, is immaterial.  Like Interzone itself, it’s the illusion that is the reality.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

By the time it reaches a repellent fever pitch…  ‘Naked Lunch’ has become too stomach-turning and gone too far over the top to regain its initial aplomb. Yet for the most part this is a coolly riveting film and even a darkly entertaining one, at least for audiences with steel nerves, a predisposition toward Mr. Burroughs and a willingness to meet Mr. Cronenberg halfway.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“What ‘Naked Lunch’ jettisons are the narrative signposts that usually anchor Cronenberg’s films. Without them, the movie engrosses or bores on the strength of each sequence, and not all of it fascinates equally. A fever dream told in a chilly, controlled style, it is irrational in a matter-of-fact, deliberate way. Obviously this is not everybody’s cup of weird tea: you must have a taste for the esthetics of disgust. For those up to the dare, it’s one clammily compelling movie.”–David Ansen, Newsweek (contemporaneous)

“It’s a movie about a writer’s relationship to his work — and, as such, perhaps one of the most penetrating examinations of a writer’s processes ever made. Certainly it’s one of the strangest and most disturbing… There’s a synergistic overlap here between Cronenberg’s own particular brand of weirdness and Burroughs’s; they’re both twisted in ways that complement each other nicely.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINKNaked Lunch (1991)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Naked Lunch (1991): The Criterion Collection:  More details on the DVD release, links to two essays on Burroughs and the film, and a discussion board.

“Naked Lunch”: Behind the Scenes:  Contemporaneous Entertainment Weekly article with quotes from Cronenberg and Burroughs

DVD INFO:  The Criterion Collection edition (buy) is the definitive release.  The two-disc set features a new digital transfer, intercut commentaries by director Cronenberg and star Weller, a 45 minute “making of” documentary, an extensive collection of segments from the novel read by Burroughs himself, a collection of stills from the movie, rare pictures of Burroughs from the collection of Allen Ginsberg, trailers, and a small booklet containing essays on the film.

In 2013 the Criterion Collection released Naked Lunch on Blu-ray (buy).

An out-of-print single-disc version of the film for the budget minded can also be found (buy).  Extras are unknown.

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Rui.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

10 thoughts on “18. NAKED LUNCH (1991)”

  1. “I know everything hasn’t been quite right with me, but I can assure you now, very confidently, that it’s going to be alright again.”

    Like all purveyors of the weird, I love the idea of William S. Burroughs. Burroughs truly did some revolutionary work with text. Reading Burroughs is like brushing shoulders with a genius whose every day life is dedicated to making you feel uncomfortable. You want to stop, but every once in a while he says something like:

    “Do you begin to see there is no face there in the tarnished mirror?”

    But, because Burroughs is Burroughs, all this genius is inextricably tied up with homicidal, homosexual rape fantasies. I don’t know about you, but I find that very hard to shake off.

    So, if anybody was going to film one of his books, Cronenberg is clearly the one to do it.

    If you wanted to create a triad of existential horror combined with gooey flesh, you would do well to explore Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs, and David Cronenberg.

    What Cronenberg accomplished here is to put as many ideas of Burroughs’ ideas on film as possible. But he made the audience pleasing point of eschewing the homicidal, homosexual rapes.

    Then again, they’re all still there in the subtext. Hey! Fun film with aliens! Watch it!

  2. I like films like this where directors lure people in with titles suggesting an author’s most famous work, and then instead deliver a jumbled, imaginative mixture of all their works, with the author themselves as the protagonist. There should be a name for this genre, but shamefully, there’s no such name around yet.

  3. I think some are missing the real point of this work. It’s a parody on the great Media Machine. You have these doped up, sexed up writers and performers producing this junk that the public desires.

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  5. Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research about this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more from this post. I am very glad to see such wonderful info being shared freely out there.

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