Naked Lunch (1991)

*. In my notes on Burroughs: The Movie I mentioned how I really don’t care for the writing of William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch is by most accounts his best known work and I’ve made two determined efforts to get through it, both of which failed. In fact, they failed very quickly, which is really out of character for me. I can stick with a bad book for quite a while. I never came close to finishing Naked Lunch.
*. Is that a barrier to my enjoying Naked Lunch, the movie? Not at all. In the first place, it’s not really an adaptation of the book at all, but in David Cronenberg’s words an “amalgam of many writings of Burroughs” fused with biographical material. This was an approach Burroughs himself approved of, claiming that “all of his work was one work” anyway.
*. But even more than just a Burroughs mix-tape, it’s an amalgam of Burroughs and Cronenberg. The bug-typewriter that talks through it’s (human) anus? I think that’s all Cronenberg. Or take this bit from the DVD commentary track he did: “Joan was a junky, whether she shot up in her breasts or not I don’t know. But . . . the strange drug, the sexual, perverse, sadistic, masochism of it appealed to me so that’s why I wrote the scene this way.”

*. Not saying that Burroughs was uninterested in strange drugs and perversity, but this was definitely a meeting of kindred spirits, at least in terms of some of their obsessions. So when Cronenberg goes off on his own, like inventing the character of Cloquet (Julian Sands) he could do so with the assurance that while Cloquet was “not a character I think that appears directly in Burroughs [he was] very much a Burroughsian type character.”
*. In short, I think this film version is a triumph in taking unfilmable material and making it over into something both entirely new and at the same time true to the spirit of the original. And if I came away from it thinking it was maybe a bit more Cronenberg than it was Burroughs, then that’s all to the good.
*. If anything, I think Cronenberg was too deferential in some ways. He met Burroughs before filming and clearly admired him, even saying he found him sweet and vulnerable. On the commentary track he glides over the question of what sort of culpability Burroughs had in killing his wife. Maybe it was an accident. Who knows.
*. I did, however draw a line at what he says during the scene where Bill Lee (Peter Weller) gifts Cloquet the boy Kiki. “I suppose now this scene would be seen something along the lines of two sexual predators and their prey, but of course times have changed and in Tangier in the ’50s the relationship of the locals and the boys and the gay men who tried to seduce them, I think it was a very complex, intricate relationship and set of dynamics amongst them.” Oh, David. It’s really not complicated at all. They were sexual predators in the 1950s too.

*. Another pleasant trip back to that wonderful time before CGI (for some of Cronenberg’s thoughts on CGI, see my notes on The Fly). I think the puppets here — the typewriter-bug and the Mugwumps — still look terrific thirty years later. The only scene I don’t like is Cloquet and Kiki in the bird cage. On the commentary track Cronenberg admits it’s “the weakest scene in the movie in terms of effects” but that they ran out of time and money and couldn’t do it right. Which really is too bad because visually this is a movie that hardly ever puts a foot wrong.
*. I was surprised to find out that they were actually intending to go to Tangiers to shoot the Interzone stuff (the trip got called off because of the First Gulf War). I think having it look like a studio makes more sense, and visually it’s more of a piece with the rest of the film. But the disjunction of making Interzone more documentary in style might have been fascinating too.
*. Outstanding casting. Peter Weller nails Burroughs, the man as the mask. Judy Davis manages to avoid being just a victim, despite getting killed twice. Ian Holm is surprisingly sinister as Paul Bowles (or Tom Frost, as he’s called here). I thought Roy Scheider may have been enjoying himself a bit too much as Dr. Benway, but it’s a movie that was aiming for black comedy and he plays well off Weller’s dryness.
*. I’m a bit surprised Cronenberg got away with the Mugwump jism-milking scene. That’s pretty explicit fellatio. But I guess the Mugwumps were weird enough to let it get through.
*. Nice credits, made to mimic the style of Saul Bass. Which means they aren’t all that original, but they do fit the period. Naked Lunch was published in 1959 which was also the year of North by Northwest.
*. The DVD box says it’s “from the director of Crash and eXistenZ.” Both of which were still to come. I would have played up Cronenberg’s previous two films, The Fly and Dead Ringers, both of which were commercially successful at the time and have better name recognition today. Along with Naked Lunch I think it’s these three movies that mark a middle peak in Cronenberg’s career. I still might enjoy the early horror flicks like The Brood and Scanners more, but after this film I found him getting a lot less interesting. Still, he has more good movies to his credit than any other Canadian director I can think of. And I give him high marks for making something this good out of Burroughs’s mess.

9 thoughts on “Naked Lunch (1991)

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