Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: Peter Weller (Bill Lee), Judy Davis (Joan Frost / Joan Lee), Ian Holm (Tom Frost), Julian Sands (Yves Cloquet), Roy Scheider (Dr. Benway), Nicholas Campell (Hank), Michael Zelniker (Martin), Monique Mercure (Fadela)
Genre: Drama / Literary Adaptation
You couldn’t make a direct text-to-screen adaptation of Naked Lunch. It would be, as the book is, madness. It would cost a fortune. And it would be banned everywhere. Burroughs’ seminal novel of beat-era stream-of-consciousness fantasy and nightmares is not even a novel in the conventional sense. Discovering a narrative through-line within it is like trying to remember a dream on waking; you’ve got most of it, but some vital element – the bit that makes it pure and coherent – is missing. This is not a slight on Burroughs’ writing at all. I love it, but it overwhelms me.
If anyone were suitable to making the attempt circa 1991 it was David Cronenberg, whose intellectual cinema was already in the process of making an already evident change from the body horror sci-fi which had wooed a cult audience to the work of a truly literary director. Cronenberg writes the screenplays for his own films, and his later career has been predominantly populated with a range of far-flung and ambitious adaptations.
This evolution in the auteur’s interest could easily have been predicted. David Cronenberg’s cinema has long been about adaptation and transmutation, long before he came to tackle William Burroughs’ notorious and supposedly unfilmable tome. The likes of Rabid, The Fly and Videodrome were all preoccupied with transformation. It was only a matter of time, one feels, before he started looking out instead of in, reshaping the tales of fact and fiction around him.
So Cronenberg was suited to the task, but more than that (and as much as with his mid-90’s masterpiece Crash), Cronenberg seemed especially suited to Naked Lunch. The book and film are preoccupied with the fluidity of sexuality and sexual orientation; a topic oft regarded as taboo even as recently as 1991. Burroughs’ text is filled with pages of homosexual orgies and even inter-species forays. Lesser minds might have blanched at such content, but Cronenberg has always approached such biological urges from a more sanguine mindset. I wouldn’t presume to guess as to how the man defines himself, but you can sense a fascination with such fluidity in some of this earliest works such as Stereo and Crimes Of The Future; films which are unabashedly enamoured with their androgynous-seeming lead Ronald Mlodnik.
So a ‘straight’ adaptation of Naked Lunch was a logistical no-go. Fine. Instead, Cronenberg, wise to the inherent differences in the mediums, makes literal the autobiographical signposts knitted into Burroughs’ text. Naked Lunch mixes elements of the source novel with elements of Burroughs’ own life, creating a kind of biopic imported from a parallel universe. If you were to look for this lunch on a menu, it might be labelled porno soup.
Burroughs was all in favour of Cronenberg mixing together his life and fiction, considering them one and the same anyway; one body of work, not separate entities, and inseparable from himself. So Cronenberg’s film is, more than any conventional adaptation, an attempt to adapt an entire psyche to the screen. It feels personal to both men. Cronenberg freely adds his own fascinations into the mix (chiefly with insects at this juncture), but blurs himself with Burroughs (the recurrence of the ‘talking asshole’ for instance). It’s a character study in the same way that an Escher painting is a blueprint; fascinating, filled with delicious impossibilities, without comfortable limits.
Peter Weller’s performance as Burroughs’ alter-ego Bill Lee is arguably his best; he is world-weary, louche yet droll and, in his own junkie way, mapped by his own integrity. As the world around him dissolves into that of Interzone – as he becomes more and more a slave to his bugpowder addiction – Weller approaches the mutating world with only a mild sense of surprise. As though this were all in some way inevitable. One might argue that this is entirely fitting; that as contorted as things become, a junkie is always the most significant architect of his or her own downfall.
But while the process by which Burroughs and Cronenberg fuse here and the performance by Weller are evidently notable highs, the reasons my love for this film has grown and endured mainly lays in the peripheries, in the very mechanics of filmmaking as a collaborative medium.
This piece very nearly took a completely different approach as an article in praise of the cinematography of Peter Suschitsky. Cronenberg and Suschitsky first worked together in 1988 on Dead Ringers. As with many notable auteur filmmakers, Cronenberg is incredibly loyal to the people he works with when the relationship solidifies (more on that later), and Suschitsky has since shot every one of Cronenberg’s films. They have a clear shorthand that yields dynamic results. In the case of Naked Lunch, the lighting is exquisitely controlled and really rather unique. There’s a lurid richness to the worlds presented – both New York and the North African haze of Interzone. Browns, yellows and greens collide prominently. The film feels over-exposed almost, matching the self-prioritising excesses of its characters. It’s a little sickly, and it yields something uniquely vivid.
This is prefigured in the deliberately Saul Bass-esque opening titles in which rectangular shapes drift and intersect, preparing the viewer for the colour palette to come. Almost as though Cronenberg is teasing the audience by exposing said palette like some kind of in-the-moment spoiler. At this juncture the other most striking element is foregrounded; the film’s heady jazz score.
Music for Naked Lunch was provided by another of Cronenberg’s longtime collaborators, Howard Shore, but in this instance Shore worked in conjuncture with noted jazz musician and maverick Ornette Coleman. While Burroughs’ work has never been overtly musical in its reference points, the beat movement as a whole riffed on the ideas at work in jazz (the film itself takes time to address such methods as Bill Lee discusses the issue of self-censorship through re-writing at a New York greasy spoon;,a scene only too likely to have come directly from Burroughs’ experiences with the likes of Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg).
Thus the cacophanous, risky, sexy, rambling blurts from Coleman’s horn compliment the film exceedingly well. Behind him, Howard Shore gently pushes more sombre notes, indicating that, beneath the fiery fantasy of Interzone, darker home truths await Bill Lee. Shore takes over as the film reaches it’s relatively grim and open-ended finale in which Lee reenacts the shooting of his wife Joan as a quixotic act of validation when border guards question his claims of being a writer.
Cronenberg here suggests that the act of writing is as potentially violent and destructive as it is a creative expression. Words have power. Their power sometimes cannot be estimated. This scene, along with the one earlier in which Lee does shoot his wife performing the same ‘trick’ is again a refraction of Burroughs’ personal experience. Burroughs did famously kill his wife while performing a William Tell routine which brought him a manslaughter conviction. Here such recurring acts feel emblematic of Bill Lee’s disconnection from a world of genuine consequence. His addictions have removed relevance from his mind; at least, in the moment.
Responsibility is an idea played with here. If words are dangerous, and they certainly seem to be – typewriters are venerated instruments in Naked Lunch, like guns in American culture; the reports written on them acts of political violence in themselves – then where is the responsibility in being a writer? Cronenberg has adapted many source texts, but none seem to autopsy themselves as critically as Naked Lunch. One senses that the ultimate conclusion is that Burroughs and Cronenberg are both condemned as criminals for concocting this heady suggestion that the written word is man’s most self-destructive tool; an addiction in itself as much as heroin or bugpowder might ever be. Burroughs and Cronenberg are junkies both, in this case.
The world is a better place for their wise, cerebral addictions. I for one would argue the artistic benefits of creation far outstrip their destructive capabilities when minds like these forge and fuse ideas. Naked Lunch, along with other key titles in both of these men’s careers, is a confrontation of uncomfortable social norms that reflect poorly on society as a tolerant system. In this instance, it is the perceived unacceptable nature of homosexuality. Bill Lee’s descent into addiction is presented quite openly as an escape route from admitting his own nature. He has grown accustom to homosexuality being conjoined in social terms with freakdom; something monstrous or inherently perverse. Cronenberg’s film is a surreal expression of a man at war with his own nature. Grotesque and bizarre as its imagery can be, there’s something very sad in that struggle. Something we can all to some degree appreciate.
For all it’s madness and mutation, Naked Lunch is a very human experience.