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Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch
Criterion 220
1991 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 115 min. / Street Date November 11, 2003 / 39.95
Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider, Monique Mercure, Nicholas Campbell, Michael Zelniker, Robert A. Silverman, Joseph Scoren
Cinematography Peter Suschitzky
Production Designer Carol Spier
Art Direction James McAteer
Film Editor Ronald Sanders
Original Music Ornette Coleman, Howard Shore
Written by David Cronenberg from the novel by William S. Burroughs
Produced by Gabriella Martinelli, Jeremy Thomas
Directed by David Cronenberg

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 creativity.

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 the end 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 thoughts. 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
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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 death in a story told early on in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse - Five. But for sheer unthinkable horror, Burroughs takes the cake.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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