-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
copyright © 2001 - 2004 VideoVista
cast: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider, and Julian Sands
director: David Cronenberg
110 minutes (18) 1991
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Roger Keen
When David Cronenberg's film version of William Burroughs' cult novel appeared in 1991,
it divided opinion in the way it treated the material, offering up a montage of fragments
from several Burroughs' novels plus biographical elements, all composited together in
Cronenberg's own distinctive style, but losing much of the meaning of the sources in the
process. Cronenberg's core fans and connoisseurs of weird movies approved, but Burroughs
purists considered it a travesty of the original novel. I certainly found myself in the
latter camp, and wrote indignantly about it at the time, but what I found subsequently
was that the novel is hardly read anymore, belonging in the category of those difficult
experimental works of the 1950s and 1960s; and for those who don't know or care what's
in the novel, Naked Lunch is just another weird film to be judged on its own merits.
So, 13 years on, with its release on DVD for the first time, I will look at it again in
Bill Lee (Peter Weller), a conventionally dressed exterminator in 1950s'
America, finds that the bug powder he uses for his work is in short supply, and this is
because his wife Joan (Judy Davis) has been stealing it to feed her addiction. When challenged
she declares it to be "A literary high... A Kafka high... It makes you feel like a
bug." Lee is then arrested by two narcotics' detectives, Hauser and O'Brien, and
interrogated over his possession of the bug powder - peculiar since it is one of the tools
of his trade. When left alone Lee perceives a giant cockroach hop onto the bug powder and
commence a conversation by means of a 'talking asshole' on its back, under the wings. The
cockroach claims to be Lee's case officer within some spy network, and tells Lee that his
wife is an agent of Interzone Incorporated, and he must kill her. Lee reacts as though the
experience is some kind of schizoid hallucination, though he physically destroys the cockroach
by battering it with his shoe. Later he invites Jean to play a game of 'William Tell', which
involves shooting a glass off her head. He aims low and kills her.
Lee then flees to Interzone, a fantasyland in the novel, but represented
in the film as Tangiers, a favourite Burroughs' haunt. Here Lee meets the writer Paul Frost
(Ian Holm) and his wife Joan (also played by Judy Davis). Frost is meant to represent the
real life writer Paul Bowles, and earlier on we saw Lee's friends Hank and Martin, who in
turn represent fellow beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. In Interzone, Lee writes
agent-style reports on his portable Clark Nova typewriter, which turn out to be parts of the
actual Burroughs' novel. But there is more to the Clark Nova than meets the eye, for it is
subject to transmogrify into a hybrid of typewriter and the giant talking cockroach Lee
encountered earlier. Again the cockroach feeds Lee with instructions and paranoid-type
interpretations of what is going on. Lee has encounters with other typewriters belonging
to Frost, which also have insect identities, and he meets the Mugwump, a large green
reptilian creature that secretes a potent fluid from penis-like extrusions on its head.
Weird sex and drugs abound in Interzone. Lee befriends suave homosexual
Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands) and local boy Kiki, as well as commencing an insectoid affair
with Joan Frost. Lee has also started using the black meat of the giant aquatic Brazilian
centipede, after obtaining a sample Stateside from the dubious Dr Benway (Roy Scheider);
but the real drug action in Interzone lies in Mugwump fluid, and Benway re-emerges as the
mastermind behind the Mugwump operation. Lee's 'reports' are accumulating into The Naked
Lunch, and Martin offers to find him a publisher, but nonetheless Lee decamps to the
Soviet-like Annexia, another Burroughs' territory, where the film ends on a note that is
off-key even by the standards of what has gone on before.
"Exterminate all rational thought" is the film's catchphrase,
and that is right. Not much of what happens makes narrative sense, for Cronenberg is
creating a mutant narrative that involves fact, fiction, fantasy and so on, but doesn't
preserve the interfaces between those modes or conform to any accepted rules about how
those modes react together. The result is a melange; a pot pourri; a smorgasbord of the
source material that has something of the quality of a dream or a drug trip, but which
finally defies categorisation. Like a Rorschach test you can read into it what you like,
and you might find it anything from extremely profound to complete gobbledegook. As an
experiment in film it is certainly innovative and captivating, and fits in with what
Cronenberg has been doing other works such as Videodrome and Dead Ringers.
To understand it better, one needs to have information about the sources - the Burroughs'
novels Queer and Exterminator!, as well as The Naked Lunch, and Ted
Morgan's extensive biography of Burroughs, which provides the actual life details in and
around the fiction.
Along with Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary, William Burroughs
ranks as a major figure in American counter-culture, though his contribution is perhaps
less obvious. And Naked Lunch does capture the flavour of 1950s' social and artistic
experimentation, the strangeness of Burroughs' imagination, and something of the bizarre
interior world of drug-induced states, all of which is valuable. The performances are
uniformly first class - especially Weller and Davis - and the ambience created by the
superb photography, the authentically yellowing interiors of the sets, and the soundtrack
with its swooping Ornette Coleman saxophone, is just about perfect.
Included in the DVD package is the excellent full-length documentary
Naked Making Lunch that answers many of the questions the film poses. There are
some insightful and amusing cast and crew interviews, and also Burroughs himself, reading
from the novel in his hypnotic, drawling voice, and attending a press conference with
Cronenberg. This is intercut with archive footage of Burroughs and the beats, and a picture
is established of what the novel is about and how it came to be written. Beat commentator
Barry Miles is also interviewed, and his insights are most illuminating. Ultimately it is
Cronenberg himself who gets the film in perspective, saying it was as if he and Burroughs
fused in the telepod like Brundle and the Fly, merging their DNA - and that is the best
description we'll ever get of this peculiar and intriguing piece of cinema. A detailed
audio commentary by the director backs up the documentary in deciphering what's on the
screen, and a zappy trailer completes the extras package.
The film together with the disc extras makes a cohesive and worthwhile
package, both didactic and off-the-wall weird, which isn't at all a bad combination!