David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is not William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” and god only knows what the old gentlemen junkie made of this grotesquerie where reptiles spill glycerin gel from the hollow tips of their vestigial head-tendrils and where fact and fiction recombine like RNA mixed in some unholy juice machine filled with the temptations of the flesh stretches and screams through the smokey nights of Vancouver in the sky pink shale colors tonight we find David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. No more feeling than a crab’s eye on a stalk.
This is a conscious pastiche, a love note to the dead. Dead and gone is Bill Burroughs (1914-1997), fellow veteran of Missouri—graduate, Harvard, Class of ’36—migrant to New York City, 1943. There he met a pair of Columbia University students named Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac through their mutual friend, Lucien Carr—Carr went on to stab a man to death and dump his body in the Hudson River, gray flannel suit floating downstream to wash up on a toxic New Jersey shore amidst Devils and the Smog Monsters—And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks—Kerouac and Ginsberg enjoyed better fates, dying young but famous, their names written across the sky—generations of hobos, tramps, beatniks and hipsterfucks following in their suede shoe footsteps.
Kerouac first suggested Burroughs write—William detested the practice, having given it up after a bad experience working for the St. Louis Post Dispatch—Kerouac also suggested “Naked Lunch” as “the only title” for the great textual insanity hammered out in his Tangier apartment over four years, beginning in 1954…the First Year of Gojira. Ginsberg and Kerouac helped Burroughs edit these texts into a semblance of readability. The result is a Beatific Experiment in literary surrealism, a great middle finger raised at the stifling formalism of “good” books at the time time.
It’s what Burroughs rightly called the Word Hoard: choking sound of mind and image—red fire lines dancing, sigh across skies—towers open fire—image and freezing cold idea, isolated, alone, one idea at a time you scoot your way into the book like up to a classy dame at the Wet Bar and—Bang—smacks you like a bad date—No means “No”—the book smacks you like six bad dates all strung together, a pearl necklace of offended womanhood—scatological and insensate—not for children or the faint of heart—Abandon All Hope—All is Lost, is Lost—You are an Alice and the book is your Wonderland—the slick, sick shifting Underland of one sad, St. Louis junky’s heart—Stream-of-consciousness cut-up prose is excised, whirling across the vale of consciousness. Rightly considered unfilmable… until a cold wind blue from the frozen North.
Fresh from the horror “Renaissance” of the ’80s, the Canadian wunderkind David Cronenberg decided to film the unfilmable. Forget “Naked Lunch” the book. Its red, dripping heart lies in its ability to completely subsume the consciousness of its readers with the vivid imagery of Burroughs’ imagination and the strange ability of the human mind to read meaning into almost anything, no matter how grammatically incorrect it might be.
This effect cannot be duplicated in moving pictures. It is entirely dependent upon Words. Words force thought to happen. They force the interior voice of the reader to sound them out, drowning out whatever inane chatter might otherwise be ringing around in there. Words are “there” in a way film cannot be. For what is film but twenty-four frames a second, whizzing by you at the speed of light? Now you see it, now you ___’_.
Meet Bill Lee (Peter “Somewhere, there is a crime happening” Weller), an exterminator in New York City, 1954. One day, Bill runs out of “bug powder” in the middle of a job. Thorough investigation (i.e. listening to his best friends make snide remarks) reveals that Bill’s wife, Joan (Judy Davis), is the culprit. She’s started shooting the stuff. Not only does it kill roaches, it apparently bequeaths a very “literary high” to humans. Intrigued, Bill tries it out.
Jump cut to an indeterminate number of days later. Bill’s cornered by two plain-clothes, noir cops. “You know,” one cop says during the ensuing interrogation, “I think we got a bug around here somewhere.” From a box he pulls out a fist-sized, rod-puppet beetle with dull emerald eyes and a yawning orifice ‘twixt its wings.
“William Lee,” the bug’s orifice intones, “I have arranged all this just so I can have a moment alone with you. I am your case officer… you are my agent. Come, come, Mr. Lee. You don’t have to play dumb with me… Say, Bill, do you think you could rub some of this powder on my lips?”
Bill inexplicably agrees. The bug goes on to tell him Joan is “not really your wife. She is an agent of Interzone Incorporated.” Interzone being “a notorious free port on the North African coast, a haven for the mongrel scum of the Earth, an engorged parasite on the belly of the West”. Bill questions why Joan would work for such a “two-bit” outfit? “But who says Joan Lee is a woman? In fact, who says she’s human at all?” Bill must “kill her… . And it must be done real tasty. ”
Offended by the suggestion, Bill flattens the bug with his shoe-heel and flees. Back home, during foreplay, Joan makes the mistake of asking, “Say, Bill, would you rub some of this powder on my lips?” Sure, honey.
But first Bill must lose his job and get caught trying to lift the gear off a fellow exterminator, so desperate is he for a last little taste. His potential mark directs him to the kindly Dr. Benway (Roy “Sheriff Brody” Scheider, obviously having more fun than he’s had in years). Dr. Benway sends Bill home with a vial’s worth of powdered flesh from “an aquatic, Brazilian centipede… it shuts down the brain’s response to the bug powder, that’s all.” Rii-iiight. Dr. Benway demonstrates, providing unintended insight into just what might be going on here. “It’s like an agent. An agent who’s come to believe his own cover story. But he’s there. Waiting. In a larval state.”
Back at the apartment, Bill finds Joan and their Kerouacian friend Hank (Nicholas Campbell) fucking on the couch as Allen—I mean, Martin (Michael Zelniker)—reads poetry over them. Unperturbed, Bill goes into the next room, shoots up some bug powder, fixes Joan, and announces, “I think it’s time for our William Tell routine”. Joan obediently recreates a scene from the life of William S. Burroughs, placing an empty glass on her head. Bill shoots. The glass hits the floor whole and healthy. Bill’s wife, decidedly less so.
Fleeing the crime scene, Bill drifts into a seedy, waterfront dive where a criminally good looking man asks him if he’s a “fagot.” Bill’s introduced to a six-foot tall, green-skinned, three-fingered creature called “Mugwump,” who provides Bill passage to Interzone and suggests he buy a Clark Nova typewriter: “it has mythic resonance.” Bill will need the writing machine for his reports from the ‘zone. “Don’t leave out any of the tasty details… the little round hole in the forehead, the surprised look in her eyes…”
Off Bill goes to the Interzone, where Arab coffee houses overflow with stuffy men in business suits who pound away at typewriters, glaring at each other over the rims of their cups. Where Bill, working through several degrees of separation, eventually falls in with a dapper American named Tom Frost (played by a dapper Englishman named Ian Holm) and Tom’s wife… Joan (Judy Davis, again).
Bill’s continued use of bug powder, mixed with the true black meat, complicates things mightily, and I’ll give the movie this: it does a great job of never drawing a fine line between Bill’s “real” life and his hallucinations. He, and we, are forced to accept or reject what his Clark Nova typewriter tells him when it comes to life and explains his mission as an agent… of what, exactly? We’re never told. (The Nova Police, perhaps? Would’ve been cool, but they never arrive… and that’s my biggest fan boy nit-pick with this whole road show.)
At any rate, Bill’s meant to infiltrate Interzone Inc. and somehow confirm the identity of its shadowy supervillain leader. Bill takes all this as a license to hang out with the Frosts, seduce Joan (with the aid of a little powder) and fall even further into the pit of debauchery and sin that is the North African coast of the mid-‘50s. A place where too-handsome, too-clean Arabic youths with burnished rows of Hollywood-good teeth cavort and frolic amongst the rich detritus of Western “civilization.” A world of hustlers, gangsters and “fagitos,” closeted or not. A world where typewriters shaped like Mugwump heads secrete hallucinogenic compounds when they like what you’ve written. A world where humanity is (at best) a deceptive shell, hiding the vicious, insect-like nature of apparently-harmless rich folk. A world where, as one of the movie’s epigrams (attributed to half-legendary founder of the Hashshashin, Hassan I Sabbah) puts it, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted”.
That is, everything you can sneak past the MPAA and still receive an ‘R’ rating. And for all the hype and prestige that surrounds this picture, for all the love and craft and special attention paid to it, I can’t help but feel disappointed. First and foremost, the movie’s too tame, especially given its subject matter. Trailers for this picture made much to-do over the fact that Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” was originally banned in this country, even put on trial for obscenity in Boston in 1962. (The Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned the ruling four years later, ending one of the last major censorship battles in the history of the United States.) How ironic, the trailers mused, that such a book was now a movie, made to play in every public house from sea to shining sea.
Yes, and how unfortunate that the tenants of movie-making (particularly Hollywood movie making, circa 1991) required Cronenberg throw so much of the novel away, importing incidents from Burroughs’ life in order to give the film some semblance of (Itzama help us) structure. Burroughs did indeed shoot his wife in a drunken game of William Tell. (Luckily, if that’s the word, he did so in Mexico City, where the law at the time allowing him to go free only thirteen days in prison…and paying a hefty brace of bribes.) He did indeed flee the Western Hemisphere for the “International Zone,” of Tangier, Morocco. And while there, Burroughs did indeed sustain an affair with a Arabic boy named Kiki (which might or might not be the boy’s real name) whilst enjoying the live-and-let-die attitude of his new home. A city now vacant, vanished, where corruption flowered like crocuses in a forgotten camel dung heaps. Reports of Kiki being eaten alive by a giant bug (disguised as a poncy English fop) are not as greatly exaggerated as one might think.
The point is, Cronenberg set out to make a movie “based on the novel, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.” Finding this impossible, he broke the novel down into its component parts and sowed true-life and half-true events into the bookscript. This creates a genre unto himself: the Science Fiction-Bio-Drug Picture, complete with secret agent insect typewriters.
To my mind, this inspires two questions: if you wanted to make a bio-pic why not make a fucking bio-pic? Even a cursory glance at Burroughs’ life provides more than enough material for several. There’s also plenty of out-and-proud sci-fi/horror scattered through the text. Why not tease those together and drag your audience into Interzone’s real Heart of Darkness? You’re already cherry-picking from the book as it is—why not go the full nine? Why pussy out when it comes to Middle America’s (or the Canadian equivalent thereof) need for a definite protagonist, or a linear narrative? There’s no monolithic criminal organization in Burrough’s Interzone (at least, not to the degree presented in the film). Rather Interzone is a stage, set to stand for the modern world—a world torn by racism, sexism and totalitarian dreaming, where evil is everywhere and there are no heroes left to save us—a world where, at best, we can only hope to expose Evil for what and who it is, and expose the Apocalyptic projects all extremists cradle to their breasts… and do it all without selling out, as frail, fallible human beings are wont to do… whether they admit it or not.
The movie mentions none of this, content to limit itself. This is Bill Lee’s story, and Bill is little more than a David Cronenberg protagonist—the director’s spy, temporarily inhabiting Peter Weller’s body (which turned down RoboCop 3 to do this—more’s the pity for RoboCop 3). All of Cronenberg’s usual themes poke their heads up at some point—confused whack-a-mole concepts, no longer shocking because they’re instantly recognizable: the plastic nature of reality, the mingling of organic and technological material, an almost-Victorian distrust of women (which, when combined with the movie’s ambivalence toward homosexuality, appears to amount to a complete distrust of sex—which, like all physical processes, when you get right down to them, is pretty fucking gross). There’s even the standard Cronenbergian moral ambivalence to all that goes on, always careful to pass no judgments.
All of which is fascinating in other contexts (The Fly, Videodrome; good movies with stories arising organically out of Cronenberg’s pet themes). In Naked Lunch, Cronenberg crudely grafts these onto a narrative structure that is not his. The story rejects them like donated livers, as Bill eventually rejects both of the movie’s shadowy organizations, talking insects and Interzone Inc. alike. Fuck ‘em both, he figures.
Unfortunately, this is a Hollywood movie. So it’s True Love that moves Bill to reject outside Authority in favor of his dead wife’s doppelganger, Joan Frost. I admit, I’d do the same. Doesn’t make Bill any more likable. (Consistency is nice!) Peter Weller’s likable enough, but as with Leviathan, I can’t help but be distracted by the fact that I’m watching Officer Alex Murphy, Detroit Police Department, tying off and shooting bug powder up his arm. What would your partner, Lewis, think if she could see you now, Robo? The script does nothing to help. Throughout the film, Bill swings from gibbering horror movie protagonist to a blithe acceptance of his hallucinations (if that’s what they are) that’s almost Shatnerian.
This is disconcerting given Cronenberg’s usual aplomb at showing ordinary people’s (often gross over-)reactions to absolutely insane situations. Unfortunately for Cronenberg, there are no ordinary people in William S. Burroughs’ work, and what would seem like a logical wedding of director and subject becomes a crass, clanging, clunking, cacophonous mush of a film that leaves you wondering, “What are all the things I could be doing instead of watching this?” I could be writing a novel, you know?
At least the cast looks like they’re having fun. Ian Holm is sufficiently creepy, if criminally underused. The Kerouac and Ginsberg figures are fun to see—its nice to see the Beats assembled like the superhero team they were. (Now, there’s a movie I’d enjoy…) Judy Davis has little to do in either of her roles—because Cronenberg hates women!–oh, wait, sorry, no, I mean—because the lack of active female protagonists is another unfortunate commonality of Cronenberg’s films. The characters of Interzone are all well played even if virtually irrelevant to the plot. This is all about Bill Lee and his unfortunate drug habit. Cronenberg insists we watch an hour and fifty minutes of that and, by-God, like it.
Little possibility of that. This is one writer-director’s cheap bastardization of another writer’s work, as repulsive as a love note written in blood. Like its source material, the movie makes no objective sense, decaying like radioactive ore into eventual incoherence. All of this is written in the style of the Beats, the first thought, the most primal, written first with minimal revisions (yeah, right). The final word: Naked Lunch is a boorish, incoherent waste that takes a long, lugubrious road to a very pedestrian place. With a Twilight Zone twist-ending tacked on as a final surreal summation.
In that spirit, Bill was dead the whole time, Keyser Söze, a sled and a guy pretending to be a girl. Hope I didn’t spoil it for you.
[Originally published @ And You Thought It Was Safe? on 04/13/08.]