David Cronenberg’s interpretation of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is the kind of transgressive and absurd thing it has to be. The 1991 film is kind of an adaptation of the 1959 book of the same name, with a screenplay by Cronenberg and Bill Strait. This is wild-ass, severed stuff. It’s weird, gloriously so.
With its Howard Shore score oozing Ornette Coleman and its Peter Suschitzky cinematography declaring shards of colour and darkness against all wasted common sense, Naked Lunch is a druggy and acidic experience. It’s not for everyone, thankfully, and its appeal is in the density and imminence of its material. It also may well be the finest movie about writing ever made.
Peter Weller is William Lee, an exterminator who uses bug powder to knock out some serious insects. His wife Joan (Judy Davis) gets hooked on the stuff. She gets her husband hooked on the stuff too and another world opens before him. Soon, a bug is giving him a mission and he has to kill his wife. He doesn’t want to, but he does and it looks like a distorted accident.
Lee is on the run and he goes to Interzone, which is somewhere down North Africa way. In Tangier, he visits his handler and fraternizes with talking, skittering typewriters. They resemble insects. There’s also the Mugwump, which doesn’t resemble any damn thing. The typewriters and the Mugwump lead Lee right to Joan Frost (Davis), who looks kind of familiar.
Explaining the plot of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is ridiculous. Explaining the plot of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is asinine. Someway, both aren’t anywhere near as impermeable as their reputations may suggest and there are many rewards.
Cronenberg’s interpretation of Naked Lunch is much more plotted than Burroughs’ novel, which really is a disconnected series of disconnections. The director’s desire to film the unfilmable bleeds through every frame and he’s able to convey a clammy, offset pseudo-noir satire of itself.
The absurdity sings. Weller, good old Robocop himself, is as straight-laced as can be and yet he’s labouring under the distinctions of multiple realities. His worlds blend as warped, mind-blowing asides. Nothing makes sense, yet everything makes sense to him. He pilots the Mugwumps on his way to Annexia and never loses a drop.
Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, like other works from the Beat generation, stands in defiance of what could be described as normalcy. Sexuality and gender and any other identifiers are liquid, pointless addendums; needless strokes of category that require livid, toothy repudiation. Rationality is direct, the uncalled-for straight line.
It stands to reason that Cronenberg would fashion Naked Lunch as more than an adaptation of the book. He assimilates pieces of biography, pieces of other works, and constructs an idiosyncratic world that feels as real as anything and as fake as anything. The film is weightless, senseless and pointless and yet altogether enthralling and wild.
And then there is the sadness, a prevailing factor of Cronenberg’s work. As with Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch reminds the audience of what Burroughs would call the “ugly spirit.” Cronenberg, like Burroughs, understands that art is the way to defeat the ugly spirit. And what about those who would control art, control that vibrant thrashing compulsion? There’s a place in the Interzone for them.