BLOGGER'S NOTE: Naked Lunch was released 20 years ago today. Spoilers start in this essay’s first 25 words, so beware.
By Jeff Ignatius
When a rubbery former typewriter humps two lovers in David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, and when a grinning Roy Scheider emerges from his woman suit and shouts, “Benway!” near the film’s end, it’s so excessive that the movie seems to jump the rails. Of course, that must be impossible, because the tracks don’t exist, and if there aren’t at least a few Dada moments, something has gone awry. I haven’t read William Burroughs’ 1959 classic, but I imagine one of the great appeals of attempting any adaptation is that it offers a really long leash — just make sure it isn’t conventional, comfortable, boring, straightforward, or coherent.
Cronenberg seems incapable of making conventional or comfortable films, and Naked Lunch is in no way boring or straightforward. It is, however, coherent. The rails do exist — often to the movie’s benefit but finally to its detriment.
The writer/director genetically combined elements of the seminal book with people and events from its author’s life — Burroughslunch instead of Brundlefly — and the result is an uneasy fusion; the chaos of id has been organized and annotated, and the central character has been reduced to a pawn of his addictions and his unconscious mind. The movie is, on reflection, significantly more ambiguous and textured than that, but it’s hard to escape its central contradiction: One of the 20th century’s most important and innovative writers has bizarrely been stripped of ownership.
Burroughs is presented in Cronenberg’s movie as William/Bill Lee (Peter Weller), whose drug use leads to the accidental shooting death of his wife Joan (Judy Davis) and then escalates, sending him fleeing into the fantasy world of Interzone — a place of exotic hallucinogens and fluid sexuality and ever-shifting corporate intrigue and living typewriters and…. Bill’s “reports” as an agent become the novel Naked Lunch, and as he shifts from the roach powder stolen from his exterminator job to “black meat” to alien semen, he drifts further from recognizable reality. “I feel so — oh — severed,” he says at his most wretched. At heart, Cronenberg’s adaptation riffs on the idea of the artist as vessel — a mere conduit for the work. Lee’s art here bursts from a potent potion of drugs, grief, drugs, paranoia, drugs, buried desires, drugs and guilt — although any regret he feels has to be inferred from the convoluted conspiracy built to explain his wife’s death. This conceptual choice — more about the book and author than a presentation of the novel itself — gives the film its structure and narrative resonance. William Lee sheds tears twice, recognizing what he’s done to become and later prove he’s a writer, and it’s a solid story. Yet it’s far too neat and easy, especially for this movie.
Lest it sound as if I don’t like or admire Naked Lunch, let me be clear on a few points.
First, the movie is as repulsively, giddily transgressive as one could hope for from these idiosyncratic artists. Somewhat shockingly, the most obvious barrier to bringing the script to the screen was apparently not much of a problem. Despite unmistakable erections and orifices, blowjobs and cum shots, the damned thing got financed, made, and released — with an R rating, no less. (In the MPAA’s eyes, penises and anuses aren’t penises and anuses if they belong to bugs, typewriters or Mugwumps.)
Second (and largely given), the production design — by longtime Cronenberg collaborator Carol Spier — is sharp and lovingly realized, from the mid-20th century detail to the tactile creature effects to the slightly fake/unreal look of Interzone.
Third, the movie’s eccentricity is balanced by masterful restraint of tone; the strangeness mostly just exists. Howard Shore’s score feels too ripe — the aggressive, digressive jazz sax highlights the oddness — but Naked Lunch’s otherwise-matter-of-fact presentation of outré material reflects William’s accepting mind.
So does Weller’s focused deadpan. The actor creates an aloofness that situates him as both pliant participant and hungry observer — detached but never blank, alternating between downcast eyes and keen attention. Some might see it as a one-note lead performance, but watch each of Weller’s smiles and you’ll begin to see the shadings. And notice the moment he fully surrenders to his hallucinations, when he sells his homosexual “cover” after saying the word “queer” aloud several times — trying it on — before launching into a bravura bit of storytelling. He has become an agent.
Fourth, the movie is surprisingly funny, loaded with perfect touches: the sound of a carriage-return bell when Bill’s scurrying typewriter runs into a door; the casual way a cigarette-smoking Mugwump in a bar is plainly visible but goes unnoticed by William (and likely the audience); the cheeky foreshadowing of Scheider’s reveal — “And he’s obviously got sensational cover,” “She and Benway are…intimates.”
Other humor is dark and pathetic. Bill is fully aware of and barely trying to conceal his true self, for instance offering a lame but clever excuse to an exterminator colleague whose bug powder he tried to steal: “The centipedes are getting downright arrogant.” After Scheider’s Benway suggests that Lee came to him to score dope instead of treatment, Weller fills his response to the doctor with arch insincerity: “I came here for help.” And William downplays his months-long binge and ragged mental state to friends (“Naturally, I’ve had a few odd moments”) and another Joan, also played by Judy Davis (“I suffer from, um, sporadic hallucinations”).
Then there are the careful phrases lightly reinforcing the grip of drugs. Benway describes the side effects of a roach-powder-habit treatment as “nothing that will surprise the addict”; what goes unsaid is that nothing can surprise a roach-powder junkie. A sleazy operator offers “rare services to the arts,” adding: “I have found that writers are a particularly needy group.”
Another strain of humor subtly reflects characters’ acquiescence to the ridiculousness of what’s happening — full submission to the drugs. Early in the movie, a giant bug says, “Say, Bill, do you think you could rub some of this powder on my lips?” Bill replies: “Uh, yeah. Sure.” (You can luxuriate in Peter Boretski’s bug/typewriter/Mugwump line readings. In the example above, just listen to the word “pow-der.”) When Lee’s typewriter attacks a borrowed one, he only considers the awkward social situation this puts him in: “Holy shit! That machine doesn’t belong to me.” Cronenberg’s characters assign great personality to those machines, with language more appropriate to sexual partners. “I wouldn’t use a Clark Nova myself,” says Interzone acquaintance Tom Frost (Ian Holm), the husband of the second Joan. “Too demanding.” He then suggests that William borrow his Martinelli: “Her inventiveness will surprise you.” And it would be impossible not to smile at both the writing and delivery when Bill offers an exchange of writing machines. “I’ve brought you a new typewriter which conveniently dispenses two types of intoxicating fluids when it likes what you’ve written,” he says brightly and casually.
Despite these abundant strengths, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch feels too processed and too sane.
Least damaging is the tidy, linear progression of Bill’s visions, with each successive drug creating stronger hallucinations. Similarly, periods of lucidity are explicitly marked by the absence or scarcity of narcotics, and trips are immediately preceded by drug use. As weird as the movie is, it clings too tightly to logic, refusing to ever give itself over chaos, depravity, or even narrative messiness. This is obvious in the way the conspiracy finally comes together — in Lee’s dope-dictated universe, it makes sense — and in a pair of related over-expository bits. What William thinks is his ticket to Interzone is shown to be drugs (a touch that just barely works), and a bag that Bill thinks holds the remains of a ruined typewriter is shown to be full of spent drug paraphernalia (too much). These two disclosures serve a secondary purpose through the character of Martin (which I’ll address later in this section), but they’re primarily blunt and unnecessary reminders that drugs are transporting and expressive tools.
Where Cronenberg’s typically thoughtful and rigorous approach really fails him, though, is in his conceit. In fairness, he made a choice between two inherently problematic formulations. He could have been more faithful to the by-all-accounts fragmentary source (“with apparently no cinematic structure,” Burroughs wrote), and he would have likely ended up with something bordering on unwatchable. (I imagine this is the tack a filmmaker such as Terry Gilliam would have taken.) He instead chose to contextualize the book with Burroughs’ life, and in so doing he forces a facile reading of both the man and his novel.
It works on a basic story level, and it can be interpreted several ways — as buying into the Burroughs mythology or as undermining it (the latter requiring a little excavation). Still, it is undoubtedly an imposition, one that makes it nearly impossible to either feel the movie or empathize with Lee/Burroughs. The audience is always outside, and always mindful of Cronenberg’s presence.
Oh, he tries to have it both ways. The movie’s first epigraph promises: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Early in the movie, Bill utters the movie’s tagline: “Exterminate all rational thought.”
And yet…Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch offers a clear narrative “truth,” and — despite all its drug-induced imagery — it is unabashedly rational. This is a partly a result of the essential conflict between an art that can be and often is spontaneous (writing, in this case) and an art that cannot be except in minute details (commercial filmmaking). But it’s also a function of the essential conflict between the brains and methods of Burroughs and Cronenberg, despite their clear artistic kinship.
The writer/director tackles this issue directly in an early exchange between Hank (based on Jack Kerouac) and Martin (based on Allen Ginsberg). “To rewrite is to deceive and lie and you betray your own thoughts,” Hank (Nicholas Campbell) asserts, by extension damning movies. Martin (Michael Zelniker) counters by arguing for refinement, saying that revision allows for “writing the best that I can…considering everything from every possible angle. Balancing everything.” Hank says that level of conscious analysis amounts to “censoring your best thoughts. Your most honest, primitive, real thoughts.” This exchange sounds like the movie’s built-in defense mechanism. It’s as if Cronenberg is saying that he understands the objections to his structural and thematic choices — that they’re “censoring” and confining Burroughs — but that his heart and brain are more in line with Martin’s philosophy.
Martin stands as the movie’s ineffectual moral center; he’s the only person who questions, however gently and tentatively, Bill’s increasing disconnection. When Lee claims that somebody else must be writing Naked Lunch under his name, Martin jokingly replies, “For God’s sake, Bill, play ball with this conspiracy!” But other times he speaks seriously and sincerely, and it’s only when he’s present that Bill’s hallucinations are peeled away to allow glimpses of concrete reality. “I think it’s time to discuss your, uh, philosophy of drug use as it relates to artistic endeavor,” Martin says, quickly rebuffed. And as he and Hank are preparing to leave Interzone for the real world, he implores Bill: “Stay until you finish the book. But then come back to us.” Most tellingly, when Bill is adamant that he’s never before heard the words being read to him from his in-progress novel, Martin’s face falls; he’s clearly heartbroken.
Martin’s presence and singularity — he’s the only clear-eyed person in the picture — and how he seems to stand in for Cronenberg make me skeptical that the movie accepts that Bill is only the nominal author of Naked Lunch. It appears to be saying that he’s not responsible, deserving neither credit (for his novel) nor blame (for killing his wife).
The talking, bossy, drug-taking, orgasmic, violent typewriters are this artist’s excuse made literal. Writing tools are, of course, important, but William’s Clark Nova gives him orders and composes all by itself. An Interzone companion hopefully tells Bill, “If we fix the typing machine, we also fix the life”; he turns out to be right. And after both of his typewriters are destroyed, Tom Frost warns Lee: “A lot of people have tried to silence me. All have failed.” It’s a funny line, and almost a joke: How could one possibly write without a typewriter?
The opening credits reinforce the central concept: The artists (the names in the credits) are defined by circumstances (moving color blocks) and don’t otherwise exist.
Yet I think it’s a mistake to take all of this at face value. One could reasonably say, for example, that the movie is aping Bill’s denials without lending them credence. And digging deeper reveals tantalizing nuance.
The movie opens with a shot of a red door, then darkened by William’s shadow. “Exterminator,” he says. The character’s entrance is not as a human being — what we see initially is the result of him blocking light — and his introduction is as a killer, somebody who takes life rather than a creator. And the movie underscores that a killer he remains, with the shooting of his wife ending the first act and of her replacement closing the movie. There’s subtle judgment here, a refusal to let William off the hook. Perhaps, then, the film is not denying Bill as the author so much as a person. Lee wrote the novel but he lacks a certain moral validity. His tears — over what he has lost or sacrificed for art — represent the cost, and that price negates (or maybe offsets) the work. What the movie bleakly posits — literally and hyperbolically, yes, but I think truthfully — is that the writing life feeds off death; art requires suicide and murder.
That basic idea is echoed by Burroughs himself, who of course accidentally shot and killed his common-law wife Joan in 1951. “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death,” he wrote in 1985, mimicking the movie’s surface argument but with a welcome sense of repulsion. That death “brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”
The movie is open to other possibilities that probably feel more natural. Maybe Naked Lunch is a portrait more of an addict than an artist, saying that Bill’s substance abuse rules his writing and his life, and that he therefore has little control over either of them.
The film also makes sense in the context of Cronenberg’s other work, particularly the consumption of identity that recurs in nearly all of his movies, most obviously the physical transformation in The Fly. Bill’s mesmerizing talking-asshole routine articulates the idea that an artist might birth and nurture something that eventually becomes fully independent: “After a while, the ass started talking on its own. He would go in without anything prepared and his ass would ad-lib and toss the gags back at him every time.” The asshole finally became parasitic, and then stronger than its host; the art can eventually devour the artist.
Or Cronenberg might be purposefully taking the construct of the absent artist to an extreme. Most of us understand that there are unconscious and subconscious aspects to art — that things beyond intent seep in — and Beats such as Burroughs not only embraced these but sought to give voice to them above all else. Cronenberg carries that to its logical conclusion.
While there’s no doubt that, on a superficial textual level, the movie casts its central character as a mere tool, it’s crucial that Bill rejects that easy defense, or perhaps just the relevance of the concept of accountability. The Clark Nova explains to Lee that he wasn’t responsible for his wife’s death: “It was not an act of free will on your part.” William brushes him off: “Who the fuck asked you?” Then he adds, to the typewriter (and Cronenberg and me), “Save the psychoanalysis for your grasshopper friends.”
Lee would certainly agree that parsing the film and the character like this is beside the point. But it also proves the point, that Cronenberg’s dense, multifaceted treatment ultimately is constricting and reductive. However you choose to read it, it’s for good and ill a cerebral text with a narrow scope, irreconcilable with Naked Lunch’s raw material.
Jeff Ignatius is a writer and editor who runs CultureSnob.net, which he has steadfastly neglected for 15 months.