***½/**** Image A
starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider
screenplay by David Cronenberg, based on the book by William S. Burroughs
directed by David Cronenberg
"A group of children have tied an idiot to a
post with barbed
wire and built a fire between his legs and stand watching with bestial
curiosity as the flames lick his thighs. His flesh jerks in the fire
with insect agony." --William
S. Burroughs, Naked
by Walter Chaw "Sexual ambulance, did you say?" asks Bill Lee (Peter Weller), erstwhile exterminator of rational thought (and cockroaches) and stand-in for William S. Burroughs (who used the nom de guerre himself in Junkie) in David Cronenberg's impenetrable, impossibly complex, surprisingly funny, curiously pleasurable Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch. Bill is responding to a statement--an introduction, really--to a creature called a "Mugwump," named after a political group that split from the Republican party in 1884 to support Grover Cleveland in protest of their own candidate James Blaine's financial corruption. Those Mugwumps were members of a social elite; these Mugwumps, Cronenberg's, are reptiles or insects (or should I say "also reptiles or insects"?), each voiced by Peter Boretski in his insistent, Columbo-esque rasp, asking just one more clarifying question. This Mugwump declares itself to be a master of sexual ambivalence, leading to Bill Lee's miscomprehension of it as "sexual ambulance"--which, as mondegreens go, is a fairly loaded one. Naked Lunch is, after all, invested in language and corruption. Describing to Bill what it's like to get high by injecting the toxin Bill uses to kill roaches, Bill's wife Joan (the great Judy Davis) says, "It's a very literary high--it's a Kafka high, you feel like a bug"--the processing of which provides by itself a kind of literary high.
"Well these are the simple facts of the case--There were at least two parasites one sexual the other cerebral working together the way parasites will--And why has no one ever asked 'What is word?'--Why do you talk to yourself all the time?" --William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Bill Lee, playing at William Tell one night, accidentally kills his wife Joan, just as Bill Burroughs, drunk one night in Mexico, plays at William Tell and kills his wife, Joan. Bill flees to Interzone, where he's accused of homosexuality. He encounters expatriate writer Tom (Ian Holm), Tom's wife Joan, and the debonair Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands); and he traces a mysterious heroin-like substance called "black meat" (ground from the flesh of giant centipedes) to the evil Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), who, in an otherwise-oblique film, bluntly comes to represent Burroughs's sometime gender confusion. Bill's friends Martin (Michael Zelniker) and Hank (Nicholas Campbell) bear witness, representing Burroughs's buddies Allen Ginsberg (who testified at his obscenity trial and with whom he had a brief, disastrous affair) and Jack Kerouac, who typed the manuscript for Naked Lunch and confessed it made him sick. Naked Lunch isn't so much an adaptation of the book as it is an adaptation of an author's entire ethos. It's a feat that wouldn't be done again, or this well again, until the Coens' True Grit.
"I understood writing could be danger, I didn't know the danger was in the machinery." --William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Bill Lee's vocation--he's bug man, as Burroughs once was and wrote about in his short story "Exterminator!"--allows for Cronenberg's deeper exploration of his own obsession with insects. I've often thought of Cronenberg himself as an insect of sorts, an alien anthropologist observing the interactions of human beings with equal parts curiosity and apprehension. It would explain his sympathy with scientist Seth Brundle of The Fly and schizophrenic Dennis Cleg of Spider. In Naked Lunch, the auteur appears as typewriter-shaped bugs that, in a nod to one of the most famous/notorious bits of the novel, speak out of prominent assholes square in the middle of their abdomen. He also appears in a pair of sex scenes, one of which fuses a centipede with a young male prostitute in Interzone/Tangier, the other of which posits a ménage a trois between Bill, a woman identical his wife (the other Joan (Davis, again)), and a beautiful antique Oliver typewriter that has metamorphosed into something between a human-fleshed centipede and a well-formed pair of buttocks. Obscene? Certainly obscene--and incomprehensible in a literal sense, but made intricate, sticky, in the characters' insistence on calling the Oliver typewriter "the Mujahideen" (a Muslim having difficulty walking the path of Allah). What Cronenberg has done, essentially, is understand Burroughs's prose as not obtuse--obtuse is the easy portion to diagnose--but usefully obtuse, no matter that the author may simply be hiding himself in a cloud of nonsense words and repugnant signs. Burroughs is constantly hinting that this is so. He is as much a deconstructionalist as Derrida, designing novels meant to be flipped through and read at random. He is Hunter S. Thompson, really: a gonzo journalist, his quarry the primacy of the Word.
The pairing of this material with Cronenberg is an intriguing one. A failed novelist, he was hoisted on the twin petards of Burroughs and Vladimir Nabokov, finding himself incapable of creating outside of their influence. Through that, it feels as though Cronenberg has internalized Burroughs's warning that language is a virus, a contagious disease, easily spread, that results in addiction and painful DTs. Burroughs said once that he feared he was addicted to an invisible drug and furthermore feared the withdrawal; what Naked Lunch attempts to do is describe the feeling of literary madness in something that is at once Theatre of the Absurd and surrealism. All its themes of enslavement speak to intoxication through the Word--its writer-heroes are insensate prophets to soulless Gods, writing their streams of holy consciousness on Byzantine machines that become, through their agency, intensely biological. The typewriters in Naked Lunch ooze, send out phallic tentacles in the full maturation of the appendage devised for Cronenberg's own tax-shelter creeper Rabid, interact like flesh and bend in kinship with the television monitors of his Videodrome. It's a manifesto, of sorts, this Naked Lunch, a summary of the director's body of work up to this point as well as a hint of many of the films to come (eXistenZ owes much of its imagery to Naked Lunch, for instance)--a picture that represents the same thing the Gospel of St. John represents to the nature of Jesus, especially, in the New Testament: It seeks to explain the ways of this creation to the created. Watch it in conjunction with Alphaville for a more complete picture of how semiotics informs certain movies, for a lesson in how an artist in one medium can provide clarity for himself and for a source from another medium simultaneously, and how one of our most consistently-innovative and intelligent filmmakers transitions from the more literal horrors of his early career to the more cerebral ones of his later masterpieces.
Criterion brings Naked Lunch to Blu-ray in a beautiful 1.78:1, 1080p transfer that retains DP Peter Suschitzky's intensely-saturated palette. The whole of it suggests a freshly-painted pulp cover--this is what noir would have looked like if its key pictures were in glorious three-strip Technicolor. Close-up detail is gratifying, dynamic range is supple, and grain is neutralized without disappearing altogether, yielding a well-balanced, filmic image. It's unbelievable, really, and the best I've ever seen this picture look in or out of a movie theatre, frankly. The accompanying 2.0 surround DTS-HD MA track presents Howard Shore's discordant score--or should I say Orentte Coleman's jazz solos?--with lovely fidelity. A low-key mix crisply and faithfully reproduced.
Upscaled to HD, a 50-minute documentary, Naked Making Lunch, by Cronenberg on Cronenberg author Chris Rodley, spends a lot of vintage 1991 time with Burroughs and Cronenberg as they speak of this project during its conception. It's always a hoot to watch/listen to Burroughs, no less so than in a joint interview from a press junket where Burroughs says he's not disappointed in the film because he didn't expect it to capture even a fraction of his novel, so in that regard it did not disappoint. The composed Cronenberg non-reaction is classic. Judy Davis, effervescent and irresistible in her native Aussie accent, confesses that she was a little offended that Cronenberg asked her to play Joan in the picture--what could possibly remind him of her, she wonders. Her appearance that year in Naked Lunch and Barton Fink in, in many ways, identical roles says something interesting about synchronicity. For the record, Davis would be anyone-worth-his-salt's muse on any day. "Special Effects Gallery" is a collection of images from Chris "The Fly" Walas's creature shop as they developed the Mugwumps and typewriters for the picture. Jody Duncan contributes running text commentary for each image. This section made me long for a line of Naked Lunch vinyl statues.
"Film Still & Design Sketch Gallery" is another series of stills, while a "Marketing" tab offers links to the original trailer (2 mins.), a short vintage "Featurette" (7 mins.) that's far more along the lines of a typical EPK, a "B-Roll Montage" (4 mins.) that is watchable mainly for Davis and Weller (one can never get enough of Davis and Weller), and two one-minute TV Spots. All of this material is upscaled to 1080i. "William Burroughs Reads Naked Lunch" (64 mins.) is an excerpt from a 1995 audiobook that has the author reading the entire thing, cover to cover, and is one of the real aural experiences of the Lost Generation. "Photographs of William S. Burroughs by Allen Ginsberg" are from the poets' private collection and culled from the period during which Burroughs wrote the eponymous book. The photos aren't particularly well curated, but for Beat junkies, here's that fix. Incidentally, the Martin character in the film recites some choice Ginsberg in a pivotal scene that should deliver some of the same thrill that these photos do.
The centrepiece is a commentary, ported over from Criterion's 2003 DVD release, by Cronenberg and Weller (recorded separately) that not only demonstrates Cronenberg's surpassing intelligence but also contains invaluable insight into the making of the film. How else would one learn that the creature design for the Mugwump was based in large part on Burroughs himself? His posture, his expression... I appreciated Cronenberg's acknowledgment of specials effects that don't hold up, to his regret. Moreover, he reveals that the obsession with writing machines is his and not Burroughs's. There's a wealth of information here and it's well worth a listen. A medium-thick booklet accompanies the disc and features a nice overview by Janet Maslin, a deeper dive by Rodley, and a good article on Burroughs by the curiously-named Gary Indiana. Burroughs himself submits an essay about the film adaptation, written in September of '91, mourning the downplaying of his homosexuality but hailing the invention of imaginary drugs as a "masterstroke." What strikes me most about this piece is its essential kindness and generosity of spirit. When reading Naked Lunch proper, I never once associated those words with Burroughs. Then again, before seeing Cronenberg's film version of it, I didn't know how funny Burroughs was, either. I love being taught.