Grotesque, Bizarre, Brutal and Homoerotic
David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William Burrough’s “Naked Lunch” is a grotesque, bizarre, brutal and homoerotic film of a book that many felt could never be filmed. Bill Lee (Peter Weller), a part-time exterminator and full-time drug addict finds himself in Interzone, the nightmarish world of sinister cabals and talking insects. This surreal film is both humorous and grotesque and it mixes parts of Burroughs’s novel with incidents from his life and the result is an “evocative paranoid fantasy and a self-reflexive investigation into the mysteries of the creative process”. Lee develops an addiction to the chemicals that he uses to kill bugs and he accidentally murders his wife and becomes involved in a secret government plot which is being run by giant bugs in North Africa.
Burroughs wrote this novel in the 1950s and because it is nonlinear and filled with shocking imagery, it has always been considered impossible to film. That was all David Cronenberg had to hear and he has taken the hallucinatory novel and made am imaginative and homoerotic film out of it. Bill Lee is the alter ego of Burroughs who, along with his wife, becomes addicted to his own bug powder.
William Burroughs is regarded as one of this country’s great writers of fiction. He, along with Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, helped to create the beat movement of American literary modernism and post-modernism. Burroughs had the power to create highly tactile ironic and seductively repulsive descriptions of everyday life which were surreal, accurate and fragmented. He depicted the temper of the times and his own life with hermeneutic precision.
“Naked Lunch” is Cronenberg’s interpretation of his own experience of reading Burroughs, of Burroughs’s life and of his novel. The film consists of plots and subplots operating on different layers in the film and all of the action is focused on Bill Lee, Burroughs’s alter-ego as he tries to discover the relationships between the plots. The plots that are recognizable somewhat easily as both Burroughs’s and Lee’s relationship with Joan, Lee’s addiction to drugs, Lee’s investigations with drug trafficking at Interzone, Burroughs’s attempt t discover himself and to make sense of the connections between the plots. There are others as well and some may even find more depending where he is and where he is coming from. The film is self-conscious, personal and visually intense yet it also keeps a distance from the audience so to fully appreciate what it is all about requires several viewings. Burroughs Okayed Cronenberg for the film which shows how much respect the writer had for the director. The cast, alone, is fantastic—Ian Holm and Roy Scheider are always great. Peter Weller, a big Burroughs fan and a severely underrated actor gives what may be the performance of his lifetime, Judy Davis and Julian Sands are both perfectly cast and powerful in their roles.
The imagery is disturbing as it should be and it is not really necessary to like Burroughs in order to respect the film. At first viewing it seems to be totally incomprehensible, however as we watch it again and again, things come together and we realize that the ultimate message here is just a metaphor for addiction to heroin yet it goes even deeper. It is a study of man. Burroughs was addicted to heroin and the film goes deeply into his psyche with touches of reality and flashes of paranoia.
What Cronenberg has done is to take the central characters of the book and replaces them with Burroughs, his family and friends and then uses the names of the characters in the book for them. The viewer must not think rationally as he watches and then he will be able to understand the film.
“Bill Lee is an exterminator who, along with his wife, has become addicted to bug repellent powder. One night, while on a bit of a bender, Bill accidentally shoots his wife, Joan, in the head during a game of William Tell. Following this, he uses the powder to go on a seemingly endless trip, ripe with sinister cabals, talking bugs, and journalistic endeavors”. The film theorizes how Burroughs wrote the book.
One viewer states that the film “is a pornographically perverted look at the complexities of drug abuse and the difficulties of the writing process. I don’t use the word pornographically lightly. This is as extreme a movie as I’ve ever seen, especially coming from the Hollywood system”. The film is gross and disturbing and it is also a masterpiece”.
Exterminator Bill Lee is dispatched to Interzone following the violent death of his wife (Judy Davis) after a drug-induced game of “William Tell” (based on the bizarre death of Burroughs’ real wife in 1951; Cronenberg incorporates elements from the author’s life and several of his books into the screenplay). He sends reports through an insectoid typewriter and maintains a cover story that he is homosexual and in search of a new drug called “black meat,” introduced to him by the sinister Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider).
But Lee gets double-crossed, tries a few double-crosses himself, and no one can tell what side anyone is on. Worse, his best friends, Martin and Hank (Michael Zelniker and Nicholas Campbell, standing in here for Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac), have been receiving Lee’s letters and assuming they are pieces of a novel he is writing called “Naked Lunch”. So is Lee being duped, or is he merely duping himself?
The film is not really an adaptation of Burroughs’ novel but an attempt to frame it with a fictional account of its composition. It explores the artistic process. For Burroughs writing was an addiction, sexual release and a kind of betrayal—Cronenberg’s film may be the ultimate expression of the artist’s plight ever captured It does not, however, really function without Burroughs’ book. The book here is really a supplement to the novel, rather than a film that operates on its own. The film is about the book … it comments on the novel, and reference to the novel is almost necessary to make any sense of what it all means.
Criterion’s DVD of the film remains true to Cronenberg’s wild ride through the human psyche. The film will probably make you dizzy, but no one else could have ever tackled this challenge as successfully as David Cronenberg. William S. Burroughs’ novel was clearly impossible to adapt to film, so Cronenberg’s choice to make his version an adaptation about adaptation—both in literary sense and in the sense of physical and psychic transformation—was inspired. We can only guess however exactly whom or what inspired it.