Watching David Cronenberg‘s abstract 1991 film adaptation of William S. Burroughs‘ incendiary literary nightmare Naked Lunch, these are the themes that swirl through my head. Or penetrate my brain <—- might be a more accurate description.
You see, there’s plenty of time to digest the material being so carefully flung at the wall in Naked Lunch, out now from The Criterion Collection in an extras-packed Blu-ray. The cinema’s most intellectual purveyor of psychological torment masquerading as body horror proved himself up to the task of bringing Burroughs’ hallucinatory masterwork to the screen, if for no other reason than he embraced its narrative chaos. It’s hard to believe 20th Century Fox put out this uncompromising film.
Cronenberg’s movie parallels the book Naked Lunch in that it takes elements from seemingly unrelated passages of work and puts them together, relying on thematic symbolism to carry the show. There’s some of the quasi-autobiographical Naked Lunch in there, but there’s also spare parts from his novels Queer and Exterminator!, and a little of Burroughs’ real-life exploits (warped and twisted, of course).
This means that trying to follow, in kind of linear fashion, the “story” of frustrated writer and part-time exterminator William Lee (the stone-faced Peter Weller, donning a fedora and talking to reptilian-humanoid Mugwumps) who becomes addicted to professional-grade cockroach-killing powder, is impossible. As the film goes down one of its many rabbit holes, I find myself on the verge of some sort of healthy … or is it abnormal? … digestion of these various themes. Since the “intrigue” surrounding Lee and the reason he may or may not have been drafted into some sort of secret service has a hard time sustaining plot-driven tension, my roving mind must find deeper fears to sink its teeth into.
That’s Roy Scheider, one of many unseemly characters that come into contact with William, talking about the drug known as “black meat.” Are these people spies? Gangsters? Is it all in his head? Words that he can’t get right certainly are. I first saw Naked Lunch in the same year as the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, a no less intellectual and mordant paean to writer’s block, but a completely different kind of bug.
Judy Davis is the femme fatale of this noir-tinged surreality, playing the dual role of of William’s wife Joan Lee (killed in a disturbing autobiographical manner from Burroughs’ own life but in a completely different context) and Joan Frost, a woman whom William feels compelled to recreate madness with.
An almost two-hour running time is a challenge if you are expecting anything approaching a forward-moving plot … but there is also more than enough pitch-black humor and straight-faced madness to lighten the mood, especially since Burroughs’ strange lingo and vicious knack for language are intact.
The extras are exhilarating: A 50-minute 1992 documentary called Naked Making Lunch, an informative feature-length commentary with David Cronenberg and Peter Weller (recorded separately but edited together), photo galleries of the film’s special effects, film stills, and design sketches, a photo gallery of Burroughs and other Beat poets taken by Allen Ginsberg during the time Naked Lunch was written/published, 64 minutes of Burroughs reading from his book (recorded in 1995), some of the film’s original marketing, and a 40-page booklet with some great essays. It all adds to the appreciation of this one-of-a-kind movie.