It was of the immediate opinion before this film went into production, twenty plus years ago, that William S. Burroughs novel of the same name was “unfilmable”. Many were baffled as to why David Cronenberg would attempt to do it. It was thought that he was setting himself up for an epic failure. PLUS, he was casting Peter Weller in the pivotal role of Bill Lee(a name that the actual Burroughs used as a pseudonym early in his career). PETER WELLER! It was only four years prior to the release of “Naked Lunch” that Mr. Weller rose to national recognition as the title character in 1987’s “Robocop”. That’s right, “Robocop”. And he followed it up in the summer of 1990 with “Robocop 2”. Was Cronenberg out of his mind? Well, as anyone familiar with his film canon would alert you—maybe. However, based on the final result(and his Genie Award nominated performance as Best Actor—Genie being the Canadian equivalent of Oscar), the answer could only be a resounding NO. Turns out Cronenberg was way ahead of just about everyone as to how to pull this off. DC was not only spot on in casting Mr. Weller in the lead role, but he never intended to attempt a literal adaptation of the “unfilmable” novel. Instead, he would factor episodes from Burroughs beat period life into the script, including his friendship with eventual literary giants of the 1950’s Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg(as the characters Hank and Martin, respectively), as well as his Tangiers, Morocco association with author Paul Bowles(renowned for the novel “The Sheltering Sky”)and his wife Jane. Jane, btw, would be treated as a doppelgänger for Burroughs’ own wife, Joan, who William infamously killed(the shooting has been called “accidental”)publicly in a “show-off” game of “William Tell”(in this case by attempting to shoot a glass off of his wife’s head instead of an apple). The “William Tell” routine would be utilized in the film too, as well as a variety of metaphors for the character of Bill’s struggles with his “latent” homosexuality. In other words, a win/win at the American box office, right? Yeah, sure. Even a variety of critics weren’t sure what to make of Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch”, but many were impressed that he managed to actually pull it off. Love it or hate it, it’s a wildly ambitious work, with a plentiful amount of grotesque(at least, to the uninitiated)imagery, involving bugs, drug addiction, sex and body parts(body-horror in full swing this time around). Those who weren’t fans of David would never recover(a friend of mine was so disturbed by “Naked Lunch”, that he has been unable to watch anything from my favorite director to this day—his loss!), while those who “discovered” him mid-career were groupies for life(we are a minor, yet proud, cult!). There was no turning back after “Naked Lunch”. David Cronenberg had made a resounding artistic statement. His reputation and infamy would only grow from here.
The plot line of “Naked Lunch” involves the character of Bill Lee(Mr. Weller)who works as a bug exterminator in New York City. A diner meeting with friends reveals that he is also a frustrated writer(“exterminate all rational thought”), and soon we find that his company-rationed, insect-killing bug powder is being pilfered by his wife Joan(the astonishing Judy Davis, ironically performing nearly identical functions in my two favorite films from 1991—this, and the Coen Brothers shamefully underseen, “Barton Fink”. Really, the similarity of her characters is uncanny), and being injected by her like heroin(“it’s a Kafka high”, claims Joan). Mr. Lee, apparently no stranger to intravenous addiction himself, begins a hallucinatory(?)journey involving secret agents, talking typewriters that look like bugs, Mugwumps(otherworldly looking creatures with secreting phallic symbols on their heads—they also spout plans and advice), an on-the-run escape to the Moroccan desert(again, “?”). Plus, there is the framework of two reenacted “William Tell” routines, the first involving the accidental shooting of Joan Lee and the second as a coda involving Ms. Lee’s “twin”, Joan Frost(Frost being the last name given in the script to the thinly-veiled couple Bowles). And then there is the introduction and intermittent appearance of the mysterious addiction expert, Dr. Benway(the incomparable Roy Sheider). So, what’s real, what’s imagined, and what’s a combination of the two? Buckle your seatbelts, and fire up your grey matter—it’s a helluva ride.
It’s almost silly for me at this point in the Chronicle(the official halfway point of DC’s 18-film oeuvre, for those keeping track at home!), to sing the praises of Cronenberg’s collaborating group that I’ve dubbed the “S” team(editor Ronald Sanders, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, art director Carol Spier, composer Howard Shore, along with real-life SISTER, Denise Cronenberg(not too much of a stretch for the “S” there–agree?), and oft-used character actor, Robert A. Silverman(as Hans). Their work is all exemplary. But special mention must be made of the “enhancing” of Howard Shore’s typically excellent score, with the inclusion of the free-jazz work of musician Ornette Coleman. His influence perfects an already stellar musical base. How much of the film “Naked Lunch” is preoccupied with the denial of, struggle with, and the eventual acceptance of Bill Lee’s homosexuality? An awful lot. You can be certain that this is Cronenberg’s representation of Burrough’s own struggles with his sexuality. But probably only David C would bring you a world view of this that includes talking anuses. Newsflash—this ain’t mainstream filmmaking, folks. But this film is a mesmerizing and well-respected work(the aficionado-attuned DVD distribution company Criterion, gave “Naked Lunch” an essential, extras-loaded, 2-disc release a few years ago—it’s how I completed my most recent viewing). And the “disturbing” imagery that I’ve listened to so many carp about over the decades, is simply mother’s milk to us lovers of all things Cronenberg. Not only is the grotesquery a fitting representation of the workings of a drug-addled mind, but it is remarkably cohesive when considering not only the theme and plot track of the movie—but of Burrough’s own life. It was a maverick choice to film it this way in 1991, and there’s no way to deny that it stands as any thing other than that to this day. The film was ahead of its time. It was reportedly met with the approval of the now-deceased William S. Burroughs himself, whose voice you can hear in the highly unorthodox trailer for the film(you can view it above). It was the previous cinematic entry to this(something that “Chronicle” readers can look forward to in January)that put Cronenberg on the map officially as serious artiste(only in retrospect were some of his earlier works recognized as more than they at first appeared). But “Naked Lunch” was the challenging motion picture that cemented that reputation. A Kafka-high, indeed. You may never look at an exterminator(author?)the same way again. Grade: with David firmly in his wheelhouse, a most definite A