David Cronenberg: Naked Lunch (1991)


In the abstract, there has rarely been a more perfect marriage of artist and source material than David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, an adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ most famous novel. Burroughs has long been Cronenberg’s favourite writer and Burroughs’ mixture of sexual depravity, bodily transformation, and sociological alienation has influenced much of Cronenberg’s work, especially his sexual epidemic films Shivers and Rabid and his psychological phantasmagoria, Videodrome. But Naked Lunch allows Cronenberg to go one step further than paying homage to his greatest literary influence; it allows him to explicitly explore Burroughs’ psychology and thematic preoccupations. The results, however, are not the dream marriage that you’d hope. Naked Lunch is intellectually stimulating and full of provocative imagery that externalizes the very uncinematic experiences of writing and addiction, but it’s also an alienating affair that refuses emotional engagement at every turn. Of David Cronenberg’s many bizarre works, it is likely his most disorienting.

Cronenberg had considered making an adaptation of Naked Lunch since the early 1980s and even went on a trip to Tangiers, the setting and inspiration for the novel, with Burroughs and producer Jeremy Thomas in 1985. He finally got his opportunity to adapt the novel after the release of Dead Ringers, gathering $17 million from international investors to fund his passion project. The novel Naked Lunch had long been thought unfilmable, but Cronenberg skirts the thorny prospect of faithful adaptation by combining elements of the book with biographical facts of Burroughs’ own life. The result is significantly different than Burroughs’ novel, but borrows significant elements from it, including the fictional North African region of Interzone—essentially a hallucinogenic version of Tangiers—and fantastical creatures like Mugwumps. It’s as much Cronenberg as Burroughs, a melding of the two, or, as Cronenberg puts it, “It’s like Burroughs and myself fusing in the telepod of The Fly.

In the film, William “Bill” Lee (Peter Weller) is an exterminator and former junkie working in New York City in 1953. After his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), gets addicted to his bug powder, Bill finds himself sucked back into dope habits and comes into contact with a giant bug that’s his case officer, who tasks him with killing his wife, who is targeted as an agent of a nefarious corporation known as Interzone, Inc. Soon enough, Bill accidentally kills his wife during a “William Tell Routine,” where he attempts to shoot a glass off the top of her head. He subsequently flees to Interzone and becomes embroiled in a conspiracy between two rival organizations comprised of talking bug typewriters, giant aquatic centipedes, and the alien-like Mugwumps, who task Bill with writing reports on the sale of the “Black Meat,” an addictive substance produced in Interzone that he’s become addicted to and that has been perverting the minds of men across the globe.

The plot has shades of Scanners and Videodrome in its incorporation of secret agents, government conspiracies, and rival cabals fighting for the control of a population, but unlike those films, where the validity of the conspiracy is unquestioned, Naked Lunch depicts the entire conflict as a manifestation of Bill’s addicted mind. Cronenberg doesn’t disguise this fact or fashion a late-film revelation about the reality of what Bill is experiencing; he’s forthright from the get-go, having Bill constantly question his experiences and comment that he must be hallucinating, although Bill never entirely rejects his fantastic experiences. As a junkie, his reality is altered, and, real or not, his subjective experiences affect him.

This hesitant acceptance of the fantastic is clear from the first hallucination. After Bill is arrested and placed in an interrogation room, the police officers leave him alone with a giant bug that proceeds to talk to him out of an anus-like hole on its back, beneath its wings. The bug identifies himself as Bill’s case officer and tells Bill that he must dispatch his wife to foil a plot by Interzone, Inc. Bill recognizes that the bug is a hallucination, but that doesn’t stop him from accomplishing the task it gives him—even in a roundabout way, if we believe that his wife’s death is truly accidental. By this point, Bill is fully embroiled in the conspiracy and has backslid into addiction. Thus, everything that comes after is a clinical depiction of a junkie’s subjective reality. It’s Cronenberg externalizing the cognitive imbalance of being a drug addict. But it’s also more than that.

There’s nothing particularly novel about cinematically externalizing the nightmares of a drug addict, letting the viewer see what the addict sees like in Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting. But Cronenberg’s unique take on Burroughs’ material doesn’t simply stop at visualizing the nightmarish life of a junkie; it goes beyond the subject of drug addiction to also depict the writing process, fusing its conspiracy plot with Burroughs’ own mental struggles around his writing. In so doing, it captures the way that drug addiction and writing were intimately joined in Burroughs life. This method also allows Naked Lunch to externalize and create conflict out of one of the most uncinematic subjects: the writing process.

As Cronenberg explains:

The act of writing is not very interesting cinematically. It’s a guy, sitting. Maybe he’s interesting, maybe he wears a hat, maybe he drinks and smokes. But basically he sits and types. It’s an interior act. In order to really convey the experience of writing to someone who hasn’t written, you have to be outrageous. You have to turn it inside out and make it physical and exterior. That’s what I’ve done with Naked Lunch.

Within Bill’s hallucinatory conspiracy he’s required to write reports on his typewriter, which happens to be his bug case officer. Bill’s reluctant to write the reports, but the urgency of the events unfolding around him force him to write, even though he claims that he “gave up on writing when [he] was 10” because it was “Too dangerous.” This allows Bill to justify his writing as something imposed upon him, capturing the way that writers often deny that they write out of pleasure, but instead write out of a vital urgency and perceived need to do so. Beyond this, it captures Burroughs’ own sensual relationship with his work, which recreates sexual scenarios, drug-addled euphoric states, and the sensual fantasies of his life and addiction.

By making Bill’s typewriter into a character (even if that character is a bug), Cronenberg transforms Bill’s relationship with the written word into a character relationship, making it physical and sensual. Thus, the act of writing is not isolated from Bill’s sensual experience; instead, it becomes another means of satisfying an urge, playing into the way that Burroughs’ writing could be seen as erotic fantasy. This is even further reinforced by the nature of the bug-typewriter, which talks out of its anus-like hole on the back, projecting an image of homosexual sensuality. Bill’s own erotic relationship to his writing comes to a head when he links up with Joan Frost (Judy Davis), the wife of a rival agent, Tom Frost (Ian Holm), who just so happens to look identical to his dead wife (and is played by the same actress). As Bill seduces Joan, Tom’s typewriter known as the Mujahideen (in reference to the Afghan freedom fighters that would become the Taliban) comes to life and sprouts a full male torso, complete with an elongated phallus. As Bill and Joan ravish each, the Mujahideen climbs on top of them and writhes in violent ecstasy. In one image, Cronenberg has captured the sensual yet perverse pleasure of Burroughs’ writing.

This preoccupation plays into the ultimate focus of Naked Lunch, which is the life and psychology of Burroughs himself. In the novel, Burroughs fashions Bill Lee as his alter-ego, but his examination of his own impulses is overwhelmingly subjective; Burroughs can’t escape his own experience and view what motivates him in any objective manner. But Cronenberg is not restricted by subjectivity the way Burroughs is. As a notoriously-clinical filmmaker, he dissects Burroughs’ mind and dispassionately analyzes the impulses, neuroses, and psychologies that motivate Burroughs’ life and art.

Cronenberg inserts aspects of Burroughs own life into the film to help reveal the truth of his character. For example, not only did Burroughs briefly work as an exterminator in New York City, but he did also kill his wife during a William Tell Routine, presumably by accident. There’s likely no better metaphorical manifestation of Burroughs’ homosexuality than this act, in both the film and his own life. By dispatching Joan, he makes room for himself to pursue other men. However, in Naked Lunch, Bill is not overzealously homosexual. Perhaps internalizing the homophobia of the culture around him, Bill displays self-hating tendencies and has to create the fantasy of the conspiracy in order to justify his own homosexual actions.

During a conversation with his typewriter-bug, the bug mentions that “Homosexuality is the best all around cover an agent ever had.” This allows Bill to pursue the young, handsome men that frequent the bars and cafes of Interzone without admitting to himself that he’s gay. During his early writing career, Burroughs was sickened by his own sexuality, blaming his addictions and neuroses for his homosexual impulses. It was only later in life that he embraced his homosexuality. However, along with his openness about his gay identity came a lingering misogyny. Cronenberg explores this misogyny throughout the film.

As the conspiracy progresses and Bill finds out more information about the Black Meat, he learns that a lesbian cabal is responsible for the production of the substance. This allows him to blame women for his addiction, thus making femaleness and the actions of women the source of his own homosexuality and substance abuse. Cronenberg is too intelligent a filmmaker to make grand proclamations about Burroughs’ misogyny, or make the film an easy condemnation of this one aspect of Burroughs’ life and writing, but he does often come back to Bill’s killing of his wife, questioning its accidental nature and showing how it’s the definitive moment of his life.

During one conversation with the bug, Bill pleads that his wife’s death “wasn’t murder. It was an accident.” The bug replies, “There are no accidents.” Later the bug says that “Women aren’t human, Bill,” before proceeding to reveal that Joan was in fact a giant centipede instead of a human woman, again justifying Bill’s hatred of women and killing of Joan. Understanding Bill’s relationship with women is key to understanding the way that Burroughs views himself, so Cronenberg makes it a major focus of the film. He also explores the Orientalism of Burroughs’ work, although Cronenberg doesn’t focus on this thorny aspect as much as Burroughs’ misogyny.

Perhaps most fascinatingly, Cronenberg explores the personal pain and cost that comes with the act of writing. In the final moments of the film, as Bill is about to enter the country of Annexia with Joan Frost in tow, the border guards ask him to prove that he’s a writer. He does so by repeating the William Tell Routine with Joan Frost, killing her in the same way he did his wife. This convinces the guards and they let him into the country. Through this ending, Cronenberg shows that the definitive quality of a writer is pain, sacrifice, and danger; that the act of writing itself can be dangerous and harm others, and that the unexpected negative consequences of an artistic pursuit are the validation that such a pursuit is genuine. It’s a bold statement about being an artist and an encapsulation of Cronenberg’s beliefs about the unpredictability of art and the ways that it’s a revolutionary act, one that works against the stability of society and the welfare of the individual.

So if Naked Lunch is such a perceptive look at William S. Burroughs as a artist, why don’t I hold the film in higher esteem? For one thing, while I admire Burroughs an an important stylist, I couldn’t be further detached from the actual content of his writings. Naked Lunch is a fascinating novel, but not one I’m at all eager to revisit. Furthermore, I find the film of Naked Lunch to be the sort of dispassionate, alienating narrative that many others accuse all Cronenberg’s films of being; it’s one of the few films where I feel his detractors are onto something.

Naked Lunch is profoundly disorienting and repulsive. While Cronenberg always has a purpose behind his vile imagery—he’s not a provocateur for its own sake, like John Waters—Naked Lunch has him taking such imagery to its boldest extreme. For instance, the anus-mouth of the bug is a grotesque sight, but it references the story of the “Man Who Taught His Asshole to Talk” from the novel, which is presented in the film word-for-word as it is in the novel. It’s amusing in a perverse sense, but deeply discomforting. This discomfort is only amplified when the bug asks Bill to “rub some of this powder on [his] lips,” writhing in ecstasy as Bill fingers the hole and rubs his green bug powder over it. Later in the film, we find several characters hostage to the Black Meat cabal and drinking Mugwump jizzum in a massive factory in Interzone’s medina. It’s grotesque and sexual, and an obvious fellatio fantasy, but it’s also excessive, with the jizzum dripping off characters’ lips as they speak and Cronenberg amplifying the slurping noise on the soundtrack. Again, Cronenberg is pushing his imagery to further extremes, but the commentary that accompanies such imagery doesn’t engage me in the way it does in his other films. It seems intended for a different audience.

The pinnacle  of this disgusting imagery comes when Bill visits the home of a wealthy Swiss man and discovers that he’s transformed into a monstrous, giant centipede sodomizing his friend in a cage. It’s a horrifying sight, but it almost goes uncommented upon, with Cronenberg allowing the explicitness of the imagery to drive his creative decisions in a way that is unusual in his film. It’s the closest he comes to pure provocation. Early in the film, Bill tells his friend to “Exterminate all rational thought.” He should’ve also told the viewer to “Exterminate all sense of taste” as a warning about what’s to come. The consequence of this extreme imagery is that the viewer has no choice but to disentangle him or herself emotionally from the proceedings in order to bear the discomfort. This doesn’t stop Naked Lunch from working as an intellectual exercise and biographical portrait, but it does stop it from having any emotional power over this viewer.

All of this makes Naked Lunch a film I respect, but one I can never love. It lacks the emotional power of The Fly or Dead Ringers and the hallucinatory prescience of Videodrome. It is intellectually stimulating and made with great craft—the special effects alone, however disgusting, are minor marvels of practical filmmaking—but unless you are a Burroughs obsessive, it proves to be a distancing, and potentially fatally-alienating, exercise. If you hold Naked Lunch as a sacred text of American literature, Cronenberg’s film will prove endlessly fascinating. But for those who find the Cronenbergesque preferable to Burroughs’ particular preoccupations, Naked Lunch will forever prove to be something more pleasurable to analyze than watch.

6 out of 10

Naked Lunch (1991, Canada)

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by David Cronenberg, based on the novel by William S. Burroughs; starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider.