Movie Review: The Merging of David Cronenberg with William Burroughs in NAKED LUNCH
I’m over the moon for David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, but ‘twas not always so. Until recently, I had tried – and failed – to make it through the movie. Twice, no less.
The first time, I barely got ten minutes in. Exterminator William Lee (Peter Weller, in a brave, fearlessly unsympathetic performance) has been shooting up his anti-bug powder with his wife Joan (Judy Davis), though it’s hard to tell if the “drug” is having any effect on him; whether stoned to the gills on exterminating powder (or worse) or trying to evade the grasp of shadowy, interdimensional monsters, William’s response remains flat, almost catatonic. His motto is “Exterminate all rational thought,” and his demeanor certainly suggests a man who has hollowed away at his psyche until nothing remains.
However, it only becomes clear how damaged William is when, apropos of nothing, he tells Joan, “Well, I suppose it’s time for our William Tell routine.” Joan puts a glass cup on top of her head, William produces an automatic pistol, aims…
And shoots Joan right in the forehead. Do not collect $200, do not pass Go; the force with which I ejected the Naked Lunch VHS damn near embedded the cassette in the wall behind me.
Cut to three years later. I gave the film a second try, this time in a shiny new Criterion DVD edition (much harder to projectile-eject these). I survived Joan’s murder, followed William as he retreats into the Casablanca-meets-Tangiers-meets-Mos Eisley fantasia that is Interzone, where he enters a tortured relationship with Joan Frost (Davis, again). So far, so good, save for the presence of Clark Nova, William’s insectile typewriter: William stimulates Clark Nova by rubbing bug powder on a suspiciously anus-like orifice behind Nova’s keys. Disgusting, I know, but no less vile than Interzone’s Mugwumps, alien creatures that secrete a powerful narcotic liquid through phallic tubes on their skin. For a brief, shining moment, I thought I’d finally built up a tolerance to this most provocative of movies.
But I had yet to watch William and Joan #2 consummate their love, which would have been fine, except for the fact that during their love, Clark Nova becomes aroused, grows a fleshy appendage that I can see when I close my eyes, and leaps on top of William and Joan, thrusting madly as they embrace. Stop DVD; set fire to DVD player.
Eventually, I was able to watch Naked Lunch all the way through, and now it’s one of my favorite Cronenberg features. Those two scenes still give me pause, though I think it’s for a more specific reason than mere revulsion. What Cronenberg has achieved here is quite remarkable. Most film adaptations of novels either try to replicate the page experience or they jettison the novel in favor of a more cinematic journey. Cronenberg pitches Naked Lunch right down the middle; it’s a perfect synthesis between himself and author William S. Burroughs, and each of these aforementioned scenes represents one of the two creative artists responsible for the picture.
The shooting of Joan Lee: Cronenberg would have been mad to mount a letter-perfect screen version of Naked Lunch (the book is beyond explicit – the oddities I described earlier are the tip of the iceberg – its scope is too grand, and its structure lacks a traditional narrative form), so he compensated by bringing in big chunks from other Burroughs texts like Junky and Queer to create a through-line for Naked Lunch and by infusing the screenplay with Burroughs’ own life. The most notorious incident to befall this most notorious of men? In 1951, Burroughs shot and killed his wife Joan Vollmer during a botched “William Tell” act. The scene plays like the nightmare it was for Burroughs: Cronenberg keeps things as muted as his protagonist, and that restraint adds a certain nightmare logic to the moment.
Clark Nova, Your Body, and You: David Cronenberg is no stranger to the horrible, though his experience comes through creative means. Before 2005’s austere, chilling A History of Violence, Cronenberg made a name for himself by merging psychological and philosophical discourse with graphic body horror. Think The Fly; think Scanners; think Videodrome, which previsioned the ways people would insist on merging their bodies to technology. The Clark Nova three-way is perfect Cronenberg, in that regard. Thematically, it represents the turmoil William Lee feels in trying to resolve his inner urges; Lee wants to live a normal life with normal relationships, but his perversions and creative fancies are anything but normal, and they threaten to unsettle his “acceptable” life. Viscerally, Cronenberg wants to get under the viewer’s skin with an image of a living typewriter trying to sexually violate a human being. The metaphor is as powerful as the urge to vomit is.
Together, Cronenberg and Burroughs come up with something that is simultaneously reverent, appalling, and original. If you’ve never entered the world of Naked Lunch before, you’re in for a treat. Just be prepared to work, if only a little.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray upgrades on its already-impressive DVD iteration; the picture is sharp and detailed, and the 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track creates an ambience of aural dread.
The features are the same as on the DVD, but that isn’t a problem, considering how detailed they are. We get a great commentary with Cronenberg and Peter Weller; the making-of documentary “Naked Making Lunch”; a seven-minute EPK featurette; four minutes of B-roll footage; three picture galleries – one for special effects, one for film and design stills, and one that consists of pictures of Burroughs that Allen Ginsberg took; over an hour of audio recordings featuring Burroughs reading Naked Lunch; the theatrical trailer and two TV spots; and a booklet with articles from film critic Janet Maslin, director Chris Rodley, critic Gary Indiana, and Burroughs.
Naked Lunch is now available on Blu-ray. Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.
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