"Naked Lunch" Still Has Two Things Wrong With Its Title Review

How did they ever make a film out of Naked Lunch? In the most literal form, they didn’t; few who’ve ever read William S. Burroughs’s novel-length paean to drug addiction really even know what they’ve read, and those who did certainly wouldn’t argue that its strength comes from its narrative cohesion. It is, more than anything, a novel of rich visuals and beautiful language that manages to evoke the hallucinatory life and times of a junky in the same roundabout way that “American Pie” does the 1960s. As talented a director as he’s always been, David Cronenberg probably knew that he could only do so much to evoke the novel, and so instead sifts through it as one might a plane crash, picking up remnants and fusing them to some of Burroughs’s other work and the notorious life of the author himself. The result may not tell you anything about Naked Lunch that you didn’t already know, but it comes as close to matching its desperate power as anything you’re likely to see.

Bill Lee (Peter Weller) ekes out a humble living as an exterminator, while trying his hand at prose with his friends Hank and Martin, obvious stand-ins for Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He and his wife Joan (Judy Davis) have a nasty addiction to roach powder, which just so happens to be a hallucinogen. In the first of its visions, he is directed by a large cockroach to kill his wife, as she is an agent for a shadowy organization called Interzone. Reluctantly, he does in a re-enactment of the William Tell routine in which Burroughs killed his own wife. Things only go downhill from there, as he travels to Interzone (a stand-in for Tangiers) and meets the Frosts (Ian Holm and Davis, in a dual role), not to mention the Mugwumps, a race of alien creatures that squirt jissom from their heads. All of the while, he works on Naked Lunch, producing pages and pages of work that are unrecognizable to him once he’s released from his high.

Lee greets the film’s many strange visions (insect typewriters with speaking anuses, bodies ripped in half to reveal others; they are perhaps the strangest images that Cronenberg ever produced) with plain-spoken, square-jawed bemusement, making his own Robocop seem like the height of expression. He takes exposition like that above very much in stride, going along with a game that seems to change its rules every time he makes a move (even during brief furloughs when he comes up for air). For the uninitiated (such as this author), it is as convincing a descent into drug hell as has ever been put on film, in which our fair hero perceives only changes in the rest of the world, but none within himself.

That the process of descending is inextricable from that of writing his novel is never really up for debate. When Hank and Martin send him back on the bus to Interzone, they tell him to finish the book and then come back to them; seeing as they found him asleep with a pillowcase full of syringes, there's little doubt but that they know exactly what they're telling him. There is, of course, no actual bus from New York to Tangiers; no sooner has he considered relapsing than the hallucination takes hold again. Certainly, many writers have become successful without substance abuse, but Burroughs is not among them; he's even admitted that he probably wouldn't have taken up writing were it not for the death of his wife. As an audience, it's not for us to determine if it was in any way worth it, but thanks to Naked Lunch, we can know what it is to lose yourself in pursuit of a high, be that of creative ectasy or black centipede meat.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The disc contains an audio commentary featuring Cronenberg and actor Peter Weller, the documentary Naked Making Lunch, about the making of the film, a special effects gallery, featuring artwork and photos alongside an essay by film writer Jody Duncan, a collection of original marketing materials, an audio recording of William S. Burroughs reading from his novel Naked Lunch and a gallery of photos taken by poet Allen Ginsberg of Burroughs. The usual Criterion booklet is also unusually dense, featuring pieces by film critic Janet Maslin, critic and novelist Gary Indiana, filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley, and Burroughs himself.

"Naked Lunch (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale April 9, 2013 and is rated R. Drama. Written and directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Ian Holm, Judy Davis, Julian Sands, Peter Weller, Roy Scheider, Joseph Scoren.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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