“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
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.
- 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 Continue reading 18. NAKED LUNCH (1991)