Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Cronenberg Blogathon: The Business of Junk - Naked Lunch

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cronenberg Blogathon: The Business of Junk - Naked Lunch

by Ryan Kelly

[The eloquent Ryan Kelly fashions some great, thought-provoking pieces at Medfly Quarantine. I seldom agree with his opinions on specific films these days, a sure sign that the reason I return to his blog again and again is his potent, concise writing.]

Junk is the mold of monopoly and possession. The addict stands by while his junk legs carry him straight in on the junk beam to relapse. Junk is quantitative and accurately measurable. The more junk you use the less you have and the more you have the more you use. All the hallucinogen drugs are considered sacred by those who use them—there are Peyote Cults and Bannisteria Cults, Hashish Cults and Mushroom Cults—"the Scared Mushrooms of Mexico enable a man to see God''—but no one ever suggested that junk is sacred. There are no opium cults. Opium is profane and quantitative like money. I have heard that there was once a beneficent non-habit-forming junk in India. It was called *soma* and is pictured as a beautiful blue tide. If *soma* ever existed the Pusher was there to bottle it and monopolize it and sell it and it turned into plain old time JUNK.

David Cronenberg's adaptation of William S. Burroughs' junkie manifesto Naked Lunch surely ranks as one of the great film adaptations of all time—as much a biography of the novel's troubled author as an adaptation of his most well known work, which Cronenberg has cited as his favorite book of all time. Since the novel only barely has a plot, Cronenberg was forced to improvise much of the content of the picture, and the result is an often hilarious, occasionally tragic, perpetually surreal film—one that dramatizes Burroughs' psychological state at the time he wrote the famed novel. In spite of the numerous alterations to the text, this is a surprisingly faithful adaptation, as Cronenberg's film is a scathing satire that attacks Capitalism, drug culture, Corporate America, even the creative process—ultimately, it's as true to Burroughs' novel as any adaptation could possibly be, while also a new dimension to the text: an extremely moving portrait of its author.

I must confess that I did not care for Burroughs' novel, though I've had trouble deciding if I find it bad or simply disturbing, as Naked Lunch reflects a particularly tumultuous time in its authors life. Burroughs further wrote in "Deposition" that he had "no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch", which certainly explains the novel's lack of grammatical and narrative structure, as well as the often repulsive imagery that Burroughs employs (it's the only book I've ever read to make me physically ill). Cronenberg's aesthetic is a good match for Burroughs', creating similarly revolting depictions of flesh on the screen. By merging biography with fiction, Cronenberg dramatizes Burroughs' subjective reality; in spite of the numerous artistic liberties he takes with the book and Burroughs' life, Cronenberg beautifully dramatizes the state of mind of the author at the time of writing Naked Lunch, creating an extraordinarily rich and moving allegory for the creative process.

Peter Weller plays William Lee, an exterminator working in 1950s New York, and the film evokes the period before it properly begins with stunning opening credits in the style of the great Saul Bass. The film opens with Lee performing an extermination job and running out of bug spray in the middle of it, and he realizes that his wife has been lifting his bug powder for her personal use—the film uses bug spray as a representation of heroin—and the very beginning of the picture details her descent from user to all out junkie. Burroughs later states in "Deposition" that "[he] could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours. I was only roused to action when the hourglass of junk ran out. If a friend came to visit—and they rarely did since who or what was left to visit—I sat there not caring that he had entered my field of vision—a grey screen always blanker and fainter—and not caring when he walked out of it. If he had died on the spot I would have sat there looking at my shoe waiting to go through his pockets. Wouldn't you? Because I never had enough junk —no one ever does," and we gradually see Lee's wife, Joan (Judy Davis), slipping into this barely cognizant state. When Lee walks in on one of his friends casually fucking his wife on his living room couch, she urges him not to be jealous—she assures him that his friend can't come, because of the spray, and she doesn't need to. Though the film never deals with Burroughs' actual drug use (the film only shows him drunk, in one scene), it nevertheless portrays the drug culture that Burroughs' art was a result of.

Naked Lunch also details the paranoid mind of a drug addict—though Lee is never depicted using drugs recreationally, he nevertheless confesses that he experiences "severe hallucinations," presumably a side effect of being in constant contact with the spray. After being apprehended by police for misappropriation of his insecticide, he has a vision of a large bug that speaks out of its asshole telling him that he must kill his wife because she works for Interzone Inc., and, moreover, isn't even human. He winds up inadvertently completing his "mission" when he suggests that he and his wife do their William Tell routine, misses, and shoots her in the head. This is a key moment, both in Burroughs' life and in Cronenberg's film, an event that fueled Burroughs' writing. "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death," the author wrote, and the film examines the profound effect that him killing his wife had on his life and his work.

The inclusion of the death of Burroughs' wife is part of the genius of Cronenberg's film; Cronenberg sprinkles in details of Burroughs' personal life to at once make Naked Lunch a cohesive narrative and an expansion of the text upon which it is based. Rather than treating the man's work and his life like they are two separate entities, Cronenberg suggests that the two are intimately related—that understanding the man is key to understanding the art, and vice versa. After shooting his wife, Lee flees to Interzone to complete his mission, and it is here that that the picture details the writing of the novel, which it imagines as Lee's reports from Interzone.

Perhaps the most inspired detail in the picture is the way it transforms the character of Doctor Benway—a crazy, corrupt surgeon in the book—to a pharmaceutical doctor, a daring connection of illegal drugs to legal drugs. Lee visits him early in the film to receive a substance that will get his wife off the spray, called The Black Meat, though in fact it's a more dangerous drug than the drug spray; Benway is the most successful pusher of them all. Lee finds Benway's factory in Interzone at the end of the film and witnesses a few barely conscious human beings feasting on the insides of Centipedes, high out of their minds, highlighting that pharmaceuticals—abused as frequently, if not more frequently, than illegal substances—can produce the most strung out junkies of them all.

This discovery prompts Lee to leave Interzone for Annexia, accompanied by Joan Frost—also played by Judy Davis—and when he arrives at the border he is ordered to "prove" that he is the writer he claims be. He turns around to see his wife in the back of his car, and suggests that they do their William Tell routine. Once again, Lee shoots Joan dead, and this is the point when Cronenberg's approach towards translating the novel to the screen takes on truly tragic ramifications. As Burroughs wrote, he would not have become a writer were it not for the death of his wife, and the film pays homage to the fact that this event is part of Burroughs' artistic identity—there is no getting around it, he did a terrible thing, but it was an event that formulated his art (though it's worth noting that, while Burroughs expressed profound guilt over shooting his wife, he didn't feel bad enough to serve any kind of punishment for it). Cronenberg takes a senseless tragedy and ingrains in into the fabric of William Lee's very existence, and the implications of a never ending cycle of guilt and regret—yet Burroughs' necessity for it—are truly heartbreaking.


Unknown said...

What an excellent analysis of this film! I also like how you mentioned where Cronenberg deviated from the novel. I haven't read it in ages and it took me several tries before I was able to get all the way through it. It certainly is a tough but, I felt, rewarding read and I can see why Cronenberg took the approach that he did.

Ryan Kelly said...

Thank you very much, J.D., though obviously your piece on the film was a tough act to follow. "Tough but rewarding" is a good way to put the experience of reading the book - rewarding not only in the sense that it's amongst the more noteworthy novels of the last half century, but also because in reading it you get a portrait of a psyche and world that obviously most of us know nothing about. I don't know what edition you had, but the edition I bought came with a few essays by Burroughs (including "Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness") which I thought to be even more rewarding than the book itself.

Chris said...

Ryan - agree completely with J.D.'s assessment, and with your comment about the book's "portrait of a psyche and world that obviously most of us know nothing about". It's been years since I've read the book (I own the yellow Grove Press trade) and I think it has the "Desposition" essay you're referring to - I recall the introduction/afterward to my edition being essential to me understanding what I was getting into the first time I picked up the book.

Adam Zanzie said...

Sadly, my library doesn't carry Burrough's novel so I'm probably the only one here not cultured in the Burroughs tongue... the film is terrific, however. It may be Cronenberg's greatest film, I don't know. But after listening to his and Peter Weller's commentary track and their own agreements about how Burroughs would not have become a writer had he not accidentally shot his wife I think your observation regarding the wisdom of Cronenberg's decision to weave the novel with Burrough's real life is pretty dead-on, Ryan. I only wish I myself were more familiar with Burroughs so that I could understand exactly what you guys are talking about, though I've got a good grasp on it, I hope...

It's funny how when Dr. Benway first appears, a Burroughs novice such as myself wouldn't realize right away that he's supposed to be the villain. And yet he's played by Chief Brody himself, which should have been a real giveaway.

Ryan Kelly said...

Chris, those essays absolutely enrich the novel, because they give you an insight into his frame of mind (or lack thereof) at the time he wrote it. They are literally painful to read - did you read the essay where he documents every drug he ever did, was addicted to, and every treatment for addiction he tried? It's insane to think what this man put himself through for so many years. Anyone who doubts that addiction is a legitimate disease would do well to read the essays by Burroughs.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, I do recommend reading the book if you ever get a chance, even if only to deepen your understanding of the movie, which I think is a true masterpiece. Again, it's a tough read, between the disturbing subject matter and the grotesque prose - the "Talking Asshole" bit at the end is word for word from the book, so that could give you a good idea of the style of writing in the book.

Unknown said...


I have the yellow Grove Press trade and I believe it has that "Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness" essay in it and you're right, it is an invaluable resource in not only understanding the book but where Burroughs is coming from with all this. I would like to pick up the new restored text version that I've seen out there, if it is all like the fine "Original Scroll" version of Kerouac's ON THE ROAD, it should provide additional insight into the novel.