"Hustlers of the world, there is one mark you cannot beat: the mark
Preliminary Report: William Lee
In 1956, William S. Burroughs returned to Tangier, Morocco, a divided city where hashish and beautiful boys were plentiful. He had lived there a few years before, hanging out with Paul Bowles and sending his close friend Allen Ginsberg rambling letters filled with surreal visions. But now he was off the junk, feeling healthy, and ready to focus his attention on a major work. Over the course of the next few years, Burroughs would compose, in Tangier and Paris, a work that would stun even his friends among the Beats.
Naked Lunch is less a novel in the traditional sense than a series of "routines," individual sketches that rarely connect apart from their recurring motifs. A Grand Guignol orgy of homosexuality, drug use, and sexual violence, Burroughs' work is a frightening and funny assault on propriety, both public and personal. My favorite routine is the one about Bradley the Buyer, a "grey and spectral" narcotics agent who becomes so addicted that his body begins producing its own junk. As "the only complete man in the industry," Bradley soon transforms into a jelly that consumes whole junkies—and his own supervisor. He runs riot, eating people on both sides of the narcotics industry. Clearly, this is upsetting the natural order of things, so the police put him down with a flamethrower.
And this is one of the milder routines, not half as horrific or vicious in its satire as other parts of the book. Could you imagine filming such a thing?
Apparently David Cronenberg could. In an interview published in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, he remarks, "As an artist, one is not a citizen of society. An artist is bound to explore every aspect of human experience, the darkest corners—not necessarily—but if that is where one is led, that's where one must go." And no artist quite explored those darkest corners like William S. Burroughs. Toying with the notion of adapting Naked Lunch for nearly six years, Cronenberg found himself stuck with an insurmountable problem. As he puts it, "It's the mother of all epics. It would cost $400-500 million if you were to film it literally, and of course it would be banned in every country in the world. There would be no culture that could withstand that film."
In my book, Future Present, I describe David Cronenberg as a cyborg filmmaker, with his recurring themes of transformation, the chance collisions that constantly reconfigure our identities. His films are always about the loss of self, the collapse of the unified self (the traditional Cartesian ego) into fusions of competing elements. The real horror in Cronenberg's films "is the horror of me being the monster." From Seth Brundle in The Fly to Max Renn in Videodrome to Rene Gallimard in M. Butterfly, the greatest fear is self-betrayal. Characters in his films often try to ground their identities through control of technology, but ultimately fail as that technology reveals the real agent underneath it all: chance. Thus, Burroughs' themes, in which both individuals and systems of power betray themselves and, for all their good intentions (or more often, very bad intentions), degenerate into glorious chaos—well, it seems like a match made in heaven, right?
Cronenberg's attempt to shape Naked Lunch into a linear plot shreds Burroughs' book, almost like one of Burroughs' own cut-up experiments, and reassembles the best bits (okay, the best bits that can be shown in a public movie house) into an actual story of sorts. Exterminator Bill Lee (Peter Weller) is dispatched to Interzone following the violent death of his wife (Judy Davis) after a drug-induced game of "William Tell" (based on the bizarre death of Burroughs' real wife in 1951; Cronenberg incorporates elements from the author's life and several of his books into the screenplay). He sends reports through an insectoid typewriter and maintains a cover story that he is homosexual and in search of a new drug called "black meat," introduced to him by the sinister Dr. Benway (gleefully played by the underused Roy Scheider).
But Lee gets double-crossed, tries a few double-crosses himself, and no one can tell what side anyone is on. Worse, his best friends, Martin and Hank (Michael Zelniker and Nicholas Campbell, standing in here for Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac), have been receiving Lee's letters and assuming they are pieces of a novel he is writing called Naked Lunch. So is Lee being duped, or is he merely duping himself?
And so Cronenberg's film is not really an adaptation of Burroughs' novel but an attempt to write around the novel, to frame it with a fictional account of its composition—and thus to explore the artistic process. Writing as addiction, writing as sexual release, writing as betrayal—Cronenberg's version of Naked Lunch may be the ultimate expression of the artist's plight ever captured on film. But David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, for better or worse, does not function without Burroughs' book. This is unusual for a literary adaptation, even from Cronenberg. For example, you could watch M. Butterfly without familiarity with the Puccini opera that David Henry Hwang twists into his postcolonial tale of sexual politics, but it certainly helps. And you could remove any reference in the credits to The Dead Zone or Spider or Crash to their original authors and the films would still be characteristically Cronenberg in theme and tone.
Naked Lunch, however, is really a supplement to the novel, rather than a film that operates on its own. Because Naked Lunch is about Naked Lunch, like a cinematic Ouroborous, it comments on the novel, and reference to the novel is almost necessary to make any sense of what it all means. This, in spite of the fact that Cronenberg plays fast and loose with the actual routines of the novel. Familiar characters float through—Benway, the Mugwumps—but they seem, well, exactly as the "real" counterparts of a hallucinatory collection of dispatches might be, rather than as the forms they take in the book. Imagine if we spent an entire movie with Dorothy Gale's friends and family in Kansas, watching them do things almost like their counterparts in Oz, just enough to understand how much Dorothy's dream distorted them.
But Naked Lunch is also a betrayal of Burroughs' novel, as Hank (echoing Kerouac's thoughts about writing style) suggests in the film: "To rewrite is to deceive and lie, and you betray your own thoughts. To rethink the flow and the rhythm and the tumbling out of the words is a betrayal." Thus, it is possible to think of Naked Lunch as a story that takes place entirely inside Bill Lee's head as he is writing—or, more accurately, inside David Cronenberg's head as he tries to think like William S. Burroughs. In characteristic Cronenberg fashion, all of Lee's attempts at control through technology—drugs, typewriters, the brutal exploitation of the Mugwumps that prowl Interzone—fail as Lee's own acts of self-denial are overwhelmed by his addictions, what Burroughs calls "the algebra of need." The only predictable force is the unpredictable. In this sense, Clark Nova, the insect typewriter with a talking anus whom Lee believes is ordering him around, is really Lee's conscience, like a disgusting Jiminy Cricket for this perverse boy who secretly longs to become chaotic flesh. And Cronenberg's own attempts to self-censor his screenplay, to control the obsessions with transformation, polymorphous sexuality, and addiction that swim through Burroughs' work, are destined to fail—and he knows it. This is as much David Cronenberg's dream as it is Burroughs' or Bill Lee's.
The performances in Naked Lunch, particularly Peter Weller's thoughtful turn as Bill Lee (channeling as much of Cronenberg's quiet nature as Burroughs' acerbic wit), are not naturalistic, but stylized by virtue of the dreamlike tone of the script. Because this is partly Burroughs' dream, racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny all bubble under the surface of a fractured psyche. Cronenberg tries to work his way around some of this. For instance, he tries to avoid direct confrontation of Lee's homosexuality by having this a "cover story" concocted by Lee's insect case worker. Later, however, Lee is told that his marriage to Joan was a trick and that women are not human. So is Lee really a homosexual programmed to be straight, then told to pretend to be gay? Worse still, Clark Nova tells him to pretend to be straight to seduce Joan Frost (Judy Davis), wife of his friend Tom (Ian Holm) and dead ringer for Lee's murdered wife. So is Lee gay pretending to be straight pretending to be gay pretending to be straight? No wonder, as Clark Nova puts it, "the opposition will be thrown into total confusion!"
This sexual ambivalence is characteristic of the double-cross the film plays with itself. Of course, Burroughs' own views about his sexuality (more fully explored in books like Queer and The Wild Boys) suggest that homosexuality was for him as much an act of resistance as a fact of desire, so perhaps Cronenberg's approach is warranted. Other elements in the film reinforce our sense that Naked Lunch is a cyborg of a film. Burroughs was famously frightened of insects, using them as a key image to depict inhuman evil. But in the film, humanity itself may be the problem, and the insects may have the right idea. Lee's adventures in Interzone might be real, or they might be hallucinations shaping themselves into the pages of a book he does not even know he is writing. The film strains against its own penchant for chaos, like the Ornette Coleman solos that punctuate the opening credits. The film is always just about to fly apart—exactly as Cronenberg wants it.
But if Naked Lunch has a flaw, it is perhaps Cronenberg himself. The film does not balance itself quite as successfully as some of his other work, perhaps Cronenberg's own resistance to the material (especially its sexual politics) keeps him from pushing too far. Is there a sense here that Cronenberg, in rooting around in the Interzone of Burroughs' brain, may be a little frightened of what he might find in his own? He would make the breakthrough a few years later in Crash, still his definitive artistic statement. Naked Lunch is still, as far as it is willing to go, an amazing achievement: a hallucinatory journey through the mind of an artist struggling with his own sense of identity.
David Cronenberg has to date been a woefully neglected director when it comes to DVD. He may have one of the most amazing and unique bodies of work in cinema, but so many of his films are out of print or available only in mediocre editions. Criterion tries to do justice to the sprawling, messy epic that is Naked Lunch with a two-disc edition full of tasty treats. The film has been remastered and looks marvelous, highlighting Cronenberg's rich and earthy color palette. Cronenberg proves on his commentary track (with intelligent input from Peter Weller) that he is, unlike most contemporary directors, adept at understanding the philosophical ideas in his own work. Of course, he and Weller dodge some of the really radical ideas, but that is mostly out of modesty.
Disc two packs in all the supplements. At a press conference promoting the film, Cronenberg admits his own skewed perspective on the material—"You really can't second guess the mind of a censor"—while Burroughs wryly says only a "tiny fraction" of his book made it on screen. But the two men have more in common than you might expect. In Chris Rodley's documentary for British television, "Naked Making Lunch," we examine Cronenberg's polymorphous film in relation to Burroughs' montage writing technique (the "cut-up"), both men's obsessions with mutation and disease, drugs as burden and release (the "pharmakon" we have talked about in other reviews here at DVD Verdict), and Cronenberg's attempts to make interior activity (the artistic process) into something visually powerful.
Criterion also includes an essay by Jody Duncan to accompany a collection of special effects stills, set designs by art director James McAteer, materials from the film's marketing campaign (including a witty trailer with a Burroughs impersonator), photos by Allen Ginsberg of Burroughs and other Beat figures, and an hour's worth of excerpts from the original book read by Burroughs. Anyone who has heard Burroughs read his own work knows these are a lot of fun.
Can an agent's cover be his true nature, and his "original" identity a fake? Wouldn't the sign of a perfect agent actually be to betray himself? And wouldn't an artist's greatest success be to create a work that exceeds even his ability to control it?
Oh well, we could go on like this all day. In any case, Criterion does not betray Cronenberg's wild ride through the human psyche—and that is good enough for me. Naked Lunch is film that is likely to make you dizzy, but no one else could have ever tackled this challenge as successfully as David Cronenberg. William S. Burroughs' novel was clearly impossible to adapt to film, so Cronenberg's choice to make his version an adaptation about adaptation—both in literary sense and in the sense of physical and psychic transformation—was inspired. We can only guess however exactly whom or what inspired it…
Since Burroughs himself wrote that "all agents defect, and all resistors sell out," this court cannot punish what was inevitable. Unless, of course, Burroughs was lying. David Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs are hereby deported to Interzone, where they can follow their desires without interference from the system. Case dismissed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Commentary by David Cronenberg and Peter Weller
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.