director David Cronenberg
What brought me back to David Cronenberg’s 1991 film, Naked Lunch, was simply that I finally got around to reading the William S. Burroughs book earlier this year and was curious to see it again. Cronenberg is one of a moderately small number of directors whose any work I would watch (or re-watch) because most anything they do (have done) is at the least interesting. And the book itself, so far out, one of the “unfilmable” classics in American letters made me want to see what made it onscreen after all.
Of course, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch doesn’t try to render the novel Naked Lunch into film. Actually, it’s a sort of meta-story, incorporating other Burroughs novels, stories, and ultimately his own real life biography into an essentially science fiction head-trip narrative that really is its own thing more than any element of its parts. Cronenberg apparently consulted with Burroughs on this at the time, who deemed it appropriate. And fair enough, if the unfilmable is unfilmable, why try to film it? Why not make up some fantasy take on the period of the text’s creation and call that a movie?
It’s a bit confusing if you don’t know that or know enough to know what is “borrowed”, interpreted, or what-have-you, especially if you think that much of it was in Burroughs original writing.
Peter Weller plays Bill Lee (a common pseudonym for Burroughs in his and others’ books), an exterminator with a wife who gets hooked on the insecticide he uses to kill. His own experiments with the drug (a metaphor or stand-in for his real heroin use) sets him off into a world populated by giant insects or insect/typewriters who speak through an anal “mouth” on their thoraxes. There are also Mugwumps, strange oozy creatures and the world of Interzone, a version of Tangiers on a movie set.
Judy Davis plays Lee’s wife, who he shoots in the head during an attempt at shooting a glass off of her head (while stoned), which references a real event in Burroughs’ life, which triggered his journey into writing. She also plays the wife of Ian Holm’s character, a stand-in for Paul Bowles, evoking more Kafkaesque weirdness and drugs.
The elephant in the room for the film is the way it skirts Burroughs’ sexuality. Naked Lunch the book is replete with gruesomely detailed surrealist sex, but a huge aspect of the text and subtext is Burroughs’ homosexuality and his deranged relationship with his identities. Nothing is straightforward but it’s there in deep, seething detail. Cronenberg adheres more closely to Burroughs’ heterosexual life: his relationship with his wife Joan but also his attraction to her doppelgänger in Interzone. While his ambivalence towards his homosexual life is on display, it feels very muted and buried. Cronenberg stated that he did this to reflect the times and attitudes of the 1950’s and Burroughs’ own ambivalence, but it does seem to miss a significant point of the book and the reality.
All told, it’s almost better to consider the film as a science fiction fantasy first, pulling elements of history or reality in, rather than taking it the other way around, which is how I think I came to it before. Thinking of it as a twisted take on the content of Burroughs work and life, it seems more bastardized and lacking. But seen with the eyes of someone who is following Cronenberg’s work in genre, with consistent themes, his animatronic creatures, oozing beings, distortion and corruption of the body. His ability to have gotten talking anuses on large insects getting rubbed with intoxicants while they moan past the censors…well, that’s an accomplishment in itself. And the film is certainly connected to certain aspects of the Burroughsian cosmology or logic. And it’s doubtlessly an interesting film.