Title: Naked Lunch (1991)
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: David Cronenberg (script) and William S. Burroughs (novel)
Cast: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider, Joseph Scoren, Monique Mercure
Naked Lunch is a film that many consider to be incomprehensible, the kind of film that some will watch and inevitably reach a point where they’ll think “what the hell is going on here?” I can understand anyone who ends up feeling this way while watching Naked Lunch because it certainly has various levels of bizarreness going for it, but in my opinion the film is not the unintelligible mess that some make it out to be. Personally I think you can watch Naked Lunch as a comment on drug addiction and nothing more and you’ll be fine, but you’d understand the movie on a whole other level if you go in knowing and understanding the films background, where it’s coming from and how it came to be. So with this review my dear readers I offer you a small glimpse of the tale that comes before the movie, so it’ll help you understand it just a little better. But going into Naked Lunch what you must first keep in mind is that it’s a film about writers and writing. It’s a film that explores that whole world of literary guys and gals who live, breath and die for writing. As one of the characters says in the film: "It's a literary high, a Kafka high"
Naked Lunch the film, is based on William S. Burroughs novel of the same name. Now Naked Lunch isn’t any old novel, it was written by Burroughs in 1959 and it is based on Burroughs own experiences with various forms of drug addiction. Upon it’s first release the book was considered highly controversial, it was banned in many states and countries because it was considered too vulgar. Burroughs was a Junkie in the worst sense of the word. He was not only addicted to Heroin, he also dabbled in all sorts of drugs. He got into all sorts of legal troubles throughout his life because of his drug addiction, he even did some jail time. In a way, I’d compare him with Hunter S. Thompson; both of their writings where based on their own personal experiences with drugs. It’s like they went into this crazy drug addled trip and then came back and reported everything they saw in their hallucinatory states. This is why in the film; the main character takes a drug that takes him to an “alternate universe” called ‘Interzone’. Being “in the zone” is a term often times used to refer to being under the influence, so in the film, whenever the main character says he’s in Interzone, he’s in a drug trip. In the same way that Dorothy visited the magical Land of Oz when she got hit in the head, William Lee, the films main character visits Interzone when he takes the drug called ‘Black Meat’. So you have to pay attention to the moments when we are in Interzone, and the moments when we are in the real world.
I saw Interzone as Burroughs own literary fantasy land, where everyone is a writer, everyone has their own living typewriters; that’s right, on Interzone typewriters are alive (actually they resemble giant insects!) and they also speak. The typewriters in Interzone are sexually excited when they like what you type into them. Of course, this is a metaphor for a writers own desire to write things that are worth a damn. In Interzone, if your writing is good, maybe your typewriter will have an orgasm. The theme of writing and the things that writers care about permeates the whole film. In this film characters talk about things like the validity of stream of consciousness writing vs. a more coherent form of writing. They talk about writing what comes out of your brain, vs. constant rewriting and so forth. So if you’re not into writing, then don’t bother with this film! If on the other hand you like to explore the nature of writing, and the crazy world of writers, then indulge, this movie was made for you.
Now something that we need to keep in mind when watching Naked Lunch is that it’s more of a Cronenberg film then an actual adaptation of William Burrough’s novel, so don’t expect a literal translation of the book. Cronenberg himself has gone down as saying that this film functions more as an amalgamation of many of Burroughs novels, including Junkie, which is also one of his most famous ones. Cronenberg explains that Naked Lunch the film, captures a lot of who Burrough’s was as a human being, it tries to capture the kind of life he lived, which is probably why the film dives deep into the life of a man who struggles with his own homosexual desires. Other similarities with Burroughs life include, same as the main character in the film, working as an exterminator, being addicted to various drugs and accidentally killing his wife, an event that marked Burrough’s life and writing till the end of his days. In fact, he said on one occasion that it was her death that pushed him to become an accomplished writer. So do not expect an exact literal translation of the book, rather, expect a mix up of events and elements from Burroughs life, elements from various Burroughs novels and Cronenberg’s own visual perks as a director and storyteller, for example, the insect typewriters are all Cronenberg, who admits to having something of an obsession with insects, what can you expect from the guy who directed The Fly (1986)? In my opinion, this melding of two genius minds makes for an extremely interesting and unique film, one that you won’t soon forget.
Naked Lunch cost something from 16 to 18 million dollars, but only made about 2.6 in theaters, something to be expected from a film that’s so offbeat. I sometimes wonder how David Cronenberg continues to make movies! Sure he has a hit every now and then, like The Fly (1986) and A History of Violence (2005), but a lot of his films don’t make their budget back or don’t make enough to be considered a success, so how does he do it? He makes flops yet always finds someone to finance his next one. Take for example Cosmopolis (2012), a film that cost 20 million to make yet only made 6! It flopped because it was so dense, so stale, 90% of the film takes place inside of a limo! I’m not saying I didn’t like Cosmopolis (I actually enjoyed the themes) but I will say that it’s not an easy film to see on one sitting because everything happens inside of a car and there comes a point where you can’t avoid thinking it’s monotonous; a fact that ensured its failure even though it starred current ‘it’ boy Robert Pattinson. And yet there’s Cronenberg, slated to direct yet another film called Maps to the Stars (2014). But who cares if they make money or not as long as he keeps making his movies. I’ve always admired Cronenberg as a director, in my opinion, he has never sold out. He refuses to make stupid cinema, and for that I respect the guy immensely. Cronenberg caters to those that like brainy films, films with meat to them, this of course does not sit well with the masses who love only explosions and special effects. Cronenberg aims to feed your mind, his films always have a philosophical angle to them, which is what attracts me to them.
Cronenberg (right) next to Burroughs
Naked Lunch is a film that speaks in symbolisms, so when you see something terribly strange like a person who kills bugs with his breath, well, you just gotta ask yourself what the filmmakers are trying to say with these visuals. Same goes for all the bizarre things you’ll see in this movie which range from giant half caterpillar, half human creatures, to alien like beings known as ‘Mugwumps’. But when we look at it from a Cronenberg perspective, and the kind of films that Cronenberg makes, all this weirdness fits in perfectly, after all, we’re talking here about the guy who made films like Videodrome (1983) and eXistenZ (1999)! Bottom line with this movie is that you must strap yourself tight for one bizarre trip. It’s not a film for everyone. This is a film for those who have a resistance to the bizarre, the dark, the depressive, if you can take a trip to the dark side of the moon, then go for it. Otherwise you’ll just be weirded out.
Rating: 5 out of 5