Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 115 min
Recorded Picture Co.,
Naked Lunch Productions Ltd.
More an elegant juncture between authors David Cronenberg and William Burroughs than a straight adaptation, Naked Lunch reconstitutes Burroughs’ “unfilmable” novel as a potent effluent infecting its creator.
William Lee (Weller), a hipster insect exterminator and Burroughs' surrogate, deadpans bewilderment as his wife Joan (Davis) mainlines his yellow bug powder. Looking to save his job and help Joan kick the habit, Lee scores a substitute that's even more vile when the elusive and creepy Dr. Benway (Scheider) introduces him to Black Meat, a powder extracted from giant Brazilian centipedes. Things start to get weird. Lee, high on Black Meat, accidentally kills Joan while attempting their “William Tell routine.” Joan’s death hastens Lee's journey to Interzone, depicted as a hallucinatory version of Tangiers, where Lee is sent on assignment by an editor to write a report.
“Exterminate all rational thought,” drones Lee, in one of the film’s myriad echoes of Burroughs’ life and work. Yet, contrary to the novel’s randy disorder, the film leans toward narrative cohesion and tidy conceits, and congeals into a lucid exploration of the danger zone which is the human imagination. Joan’s appreciative assessment of the bug powder — “It’s more of a literary high” — could just as easily be applied to the film. What would happen, Cronenberg seems to ask, if Burroughs was physically confronted by a manifestation of the squishy, toxic, surreal world he has created? Well, it would be both frightening and insidiously funny. Indeed, the humour here — an element that is often neglected in discussions of Cronenberg’s work — often one-ups the horror.
Less certain and often less satisfying than the film’s considerable insights and evocations of the writer’s world is its treatment of the novel’s sexuality. This is where the Cronenberg gene asserts some dominance — the imagery conjures up a sexuality that's rabidly morphing, ambivalent and opaque. Perhaps that’s the point, but the effect is mostly a muddle. Still, with its noir riffs and jazzy dread, its orgasmic typewriters and other appropriately low-fi creations, Cronenberg more than compensates.
Having launched his career with a series of films that seemed so autonomous (particularly Shivers, 1975; Rabid, 1977; Scanners, 1981; and Videodrome, 1983) who knew that Cronenberg’s next phase would include masterful literary adaptations such as Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996) and Spider (2002).