Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
If ever an author and a director were made for each other, it's David Cronenberg and William S.
Burroughs. Burroughs' drug-induced literary dreamscapes were considered unfilmable, but Cronenberg
took ideas from the 1959 novel Naked Lunch and bound them to a mercifully straightforward
storyline, if a warped narrative that only has a few elements of reality can be called straightforward.
Events and themes from Burroughs' own life are interpolated into the freakish, often unpleasant
tale, but through the fever-haze comes an interesting and original take on the problem of
Only the inventor of 'venereal horror' could really interpret Burroughs' world with an apt set of
filmic metaphors, and in doing so he makes one of his strongest and most repellent films.
Excellent acting, evocative production design and impressive special effects combine to produce a
living nightmare unlike any other on film.
Naked Lunch has of course already been out for a decade, but Criterion re-energizes it with
a stunning transfer and extras that open up the worlds of both the filmmaker and the author to
easy study. This is no feel-good movie, and definitely not for anyone depressed or even squeamish.
Exterminator Bill Lee (Peter Weller) discovers that his wife Joan (Judy Davis) has been
swiping his bug powder to inject as a drug. He himself is a heroin addict, and doesn't care when
his friends Hank (Nicholas Campbell) and Martin (Michael Zelnicker) have a party with Joan, one that
she later says, 'didn't mean anything.' Detectives haul Bill downtown because the bug powder is an
illegal substance, and introduce him to the first of several monster bugs. They are really mutated
typewriters, that help tell him what to write and what to do. There are enemy agents afoot, they
claim. His wife Joan is one of them and has to be killed, and it 'has to be done real tasty.'
The first thing about Naked Lunch is that one has to wonder who in any studio in any year
could think that it could possibly make a profit. It's very creative, but the Kafka-esque nightmare
it pictures is loaded with mutated insects, gross monsters with quasi-sexual functions, and drug
use interpreted into new, grotesque extremes. The second thought that comes to mind is how beautifully David
Cronenberg interprets the hallucinogenic world of William S. Burroughs, and how clearly he depicts
poor Bill Lee's adventure-nightmare in it. This is no hazy freak-out where illusions and distortions
are interchangeable or arbitrary; anybody paying attention can make perfect sense out of it.
The only problem is avoiding being revolted by what one sees.
Cronenberg's script 'embraces' several of the writer's taboo topics - 'polymorphous perversion',
homosexuality, and alien-ness both within and without. Bill Lee is beseiged by monster typewriters
and weird creatures called Mugwumps that secrete obscene but tantalizingly addictive aphrodisiacs.
We accept that this is the world of a heroin addict, and all of the fantastic drugs and the worlds
he visits acn be interpreted as interior states. 'The Interzone' is a place reachable by Greyhound
Bus, even though it seems to be Tangier or Morocco in North Africa - a fantasy limbo
bearing similarities to Cocteau's La Zone or Jean-Luc Godard's
Alphaville, reached across intersidereal
space via an ordinary freeway.
Through actor Peter Weller, Bill Lee remains a sympathetic protagonist, something essential to our
wanting to stay with this cockeyed narrative. He's deadpan-funny but and terribly, terribly
sad with guilt over a tragedy that could send anyone out of their mind.
Much of Lee's weird world is composed of familiar paranoid fantasies. Weird crime syndicates and
foreign powers are conspiring against him and sending agents in the form of typewriters that
are also monstrous insects. They have to be seen to be believed. They talk through obscene orifices
in their abdomens. The 'literature' Bill writes (seemingly the first draft of Naked Lunch)
becomes 'reports' sent back to headquarters. In the Interzone, Bill meets several shady characters
with bizarre sexual identities. Ian Holm is another writer with an equally 'personal' relationship
with his own portable typewriter. Holm's wife is a strange duplicate of Bill's wife Joan, and together
they type erotica into a bizarre Arabic typewriter that transforms into a strange combination of
insectoid and human sex organs. In a bar, Bill is introduced to a Mugwump, a rather convivial alien
monster said to specialize in 'sexual ambiguity.' A rich homosexual playboy (Julian Sands) also
transforms into a monster insect, to pierce and devour one of his 'lovers'. Bill's doctor back
in New York may have a second identity in the Interzone as a purveyor and processor of the meat of
the giant aquatic Brazilian centipede. No wonder that Bill Lee's only response to those wanting to
make sense of this state of affairs, is to recommend the policy, "Exterminate all rational thought."
Bill is haunted by his luckless junkie wife Joan, played perfectly by Judy Davis. The drug life
makes one an outsider criminal, which certainly comes across in the tale. Essentially a Science
Fiction director obsessed with human bodies that age, can become
diseased, attacked by parasites or die, Cronenberg is totally at home in a world where inanimate
objects morph into disgusting fleshy creatures. Writer Bill Lee has a sexual relationship with his
own creative tools, represented by a typewriter that talks, motivates, controls. Thus we get a
world of hideous transformations like Cronenberg's The Fly remake, or the various 'venereal'
parasites of Shivers and Rabid. The oozing, tendril covered creature that one typewriter
becomes reminds of the pupae-like pods of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The alien Mugwump
is a strange, benign species misused by a greedy drug syndicate. It's all tactile and all disgusting,
particularly the harvesting of the flesh of those monstrous colossal centipedes.
Cronenberg uses the trauma of Burroughs' neverending re-living of tragedy for an
ending, in a context of political paranoia not unlike
Scream and Scream Again. Thanks
to the design of a strange vehicle, Sci-Fi aficionados will recognize the end scene as similar to
border crossing in an ancient British Sci-Fi film called High Treason from 1929. Bill Lee
will always be a stranger in a strange land, trapped in some political tangle and crippled by
his guilt and his addictions. 1
If Martin Scorsese was once described as a filmmaker who specialized in characters we wouldn't want
to meet, Cronenberg consistently takes us on psychic tours that many of us can't stomach. Naked
Lunch doubtless emptied many a theater in 1991, but Criterion's special edition may bring some
brave viewers back for a second look.
Criterion's DVD of Naked Lunch is one of the better introductions to the seamy & mildewed mind
of William S. Burroughs. The ample extras give both standard and subjective viewpoints on the author
and his worldview as re-formed by Cronenberg into a big-budgeted studio film.
The transfer is impeccable, with Suschitsky's neo-noir lighting giving every amazing sight the
optimized look of a vivid and scary dream. The enhanced transfer encourages us to examine
Chris Walas' oozing effects in their full detail.
The key extra is Naked Making Lunch, a longform English docu about the making of the film that
takes advantage of Burroughs' presence during the filming. Cronenberg, producer Thomas and several
actors discuss the artistic aims of the movie, without resorting to EPK fluff; when the elderly
Burroughs talks on screen, his sideways remarks about the movie soon turn to more self-critical
There's a moment at the end when a reporter asks him if there's anything in his life he regrets, a
loaded question for a man obviously tortured for 40 years over killing his beloved wife. Instead of
retreating, Burroughs takes the question on at face value.
Criterion loads its two platters with commentaries (Cronenberg & Peter Weller), still and art galleries
and an effects essay in text and pictures, in the old Criterion style. There's also a selection of
Ginsberg photos of Burroughs in North Africa, an audio extra of Burroughs reading from his book in
his raspy voice, and a fat booklet packed with essays from critics and the author himself.
The artwork and production of the disc packaging and its menus are tastefully sinister, incorporating
Escher-like patterns and unnerving roaches that crawl across the text pages.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Naked Lunch rates:
Movie: Excellent but strong stuff
Supplements: English TV docu, commentary, illustrated effects essay, film stills
gallery, Burroughs audio recording of book excerpts, 32 page booklet
Packaging: Double keep case
Reviewed: December 18, 2003
1. This is course just a
personal reference, initiated by staring at pictures of a strange vehicle in High Treason in
an ancient issue of Famous Monsters. Somebody else might pick up on Burroughs' hideously
outrageous nonsense story about a man killed in a grotesque accident, that seems to be an obscene
elaboration on the death of dancer Isadora Duncan. Her long silk scarf became entangled in the axle of
a fancy touring car and broke her neck - how fashionable a death. This kind of morbidity is a given
in black comedy, and often served up with an ironic twist of cruelty, such as the wedding ring of
a story told early on in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse - Five. But for sheer unthinkable
horror, Burroughs takes the cake.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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