by J.D. Lafrance
[J.D. Lafrance is a wonderful Canadian writer who presides over the blog, Radiator Heaven. There, he usually provides thorough overviews of all the films he surveys. Today, he brings us a typically comprehensive look at one of Cronenberg's more surreal films.]
Widely regarded as unfilmable because it defied normal narrative logic and for containing some of the most perverse, often disturbing passages of sex and violence ever committed to the page, William S. Burroughs seminal novel Naked Lunch was the ideal project for filmmaker David Cronenberg. In many respects, the themes and subject matter the book explores parallel many of the preoccupations of his films: the merging of flesh with machines, human transformation, and secret societies. One only has to look at an early film like Videodrome (1983) to see Burroughs’ influence—the mix of pulpy exploitation with high concept ideas. The characters in Cronenberg’s films—like the characters in Burroughs’ fiction—are morally ambiguous. It is not as easy to identify with them as it is with characters in more mainstream entertainment.
As Cronenberg was the first to admit, a conventional adaptation of Naked Lunch is impossible as it would be banned in every country. So, he wisely merged key elements from the book along with bits and pieces from the author’s early novels—chief among them Junky and Exterminator!—with aspects of Burroughs’ life, tempered with black humor as we are taken to surreal places. The end result is a fascinating collaboration between two like-minded artists and a film that is ultimately about the writing process as it defines the film’s protagonists much as it does Burroughs—writing acts as a catharsis, a way of dealing with guilt.
Ornette Coleman’s freaky, free-form jazz complements Howard Shore’s ominous score to create a film noir vibe right from the start, keeping in tone with Burroughs’ early work that often parodied badly written pulp crime novels. When he’s not spraying for bugs at people’s homes to pay the bills, Bill Lee (Peter Weller) hangs out with his friends and fellow writers, Martin (Michael Zelniker) and Hank (Nicholas Campbell), who are introduced arguing about the writing process. Hank (a thinly-veiled riff on Jack Kerouac) argues that to rewrite is to betray ones own thoughts as it disrupts the flow of words while Martin (a stand-in for Allen Ginsberg) counters by saying that one should rewrite so that they consider everything from every possible angle in order to produce the best work possible. Hank sees this as censorship and a betrayal of one’s own best, honest and most primitive thoughts. When asked for his opinion, Bill simply replies, “exterminate all rational thought.”
Bill is in danger of losing his job because he keeps running out of bug powder. It seems that his wife Joan (Judy Davis) is shooting it up. When he confronts her about it, she deadpans, “It’s a Kafka high. You feel like a bug.” Pretty soon she’s doing so much of it that all she has to do is breathe on a cockroach, and it dies. Bill soon starts shooting up bug powder too and begins to imagine giant talking insects that tell him he’s actually a secret agent. He’s instructed to kill his wife who happens to be a rival agent for Interzone Incorporated, a shadowy organization. The boundaries between what are real and what are Bill’s elaborate hallucinations become blurred, leading him into the mysterious realm of Interzone where everyday objects like his typewriter transform into mechanized insects that talk to him. The line between what he is writing and what he is living becomes blurred beyond recognition, much like Max and his relationship to television in Videodrome.
In real life, Burroughs accidentally shot his wife in 1951 while they were living in Mexico City, and it was this tragic incident that motivated him to become a writer as a way of dealing with the guilt over what he had done. He said, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death.” Cronenberg understands what a pivotal part this played in Burroughs’ life and incorporates it into his film. In a nice touch, there is a scene where Bill goes to a pawnshop and trades in the gun he shot Joan with for a typewriter. It’s a symbolic transition from one phase of his life to another.
Bill uses drugs to escape the horror of what he has done, and his mind creates an elaborate alternate reality known as Interzone, where he is a secret agent that writes reports (a.k.a. his book) about his “mission” on a creepy bug/typewriter hybrid that gets aroused by his forceful typing. He travels through a shadowy world where he is reunited with Joan (this time around a femme fatale type); Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands), a suave businessman who sexually preys on young men; and the notorious Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), who initially seems to want to help Bill but turns out to be the powerful puppetmaster of Interzone.
Thankfully, Cronenberg retains Burroughs’ dry, sardonic sense of humor as well as touching upon his self-loathing about being homosexual. He’s aided in these endeavors by Peter Weller’s excellent performance as Burroughs surrogate Bill Lee. No stranger to fantastical genre films (see RoboCop and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai), the actor nails Burroughs’ unique cadence—the lazy drawl and the dry wit. Hearing him recite several amusing stories right out of Naked Lunch—coupled with his tall, gaunt appearance—only reinforces how well cast he was in this role. Weller also does a good job conveying the lonely desperation of a strung-out junkie and the almost zombie-like state he achieves when zonked out of his head on junk. Like her role in Barton Fink (1991), Judy Davis again plays the doomed muse of a writer consumed by his obsessions. As Joan Lee, Davis is quite good as an almost vampiric drug addict complete with sallow complexion and haunted look. As Joan Frost, Bill’s Interzone version of his wife, she’s healthier and more confident, but the end result is still the same.
In 1984, producer Jeremy Thomas met David Cronenberg at the Toronto Film Festival, where he had bought the rights to Stephen Frears’ film The Hit (1984). Thomas had heard that Cronenberg wanted to do a film adaptation of Naked Lunch, and he wanted to produce it. This wasn’t the first time someone expressed an interest in turning the book into a film. In 1971, longtime friend of William S. Burroughs and painter and writer, Brion Gysin wrote a screenplay. Antony Balch was going to direct, and Mick Jagger was going to star in it; but the project never got past the planning stages. Burroughs said of this version that the script was “long burlesque and includes a series of music-hall comedy songs.” In 1972, television producer Chuck Barris, of all people, gave it a go with writer Terry Southern as the proposed screenwriter, but it, too, went nowhere (the mind boggles at what those two would’ve come up with!). In 1979, Frank Zappa approached Burroughs with the notion of doing Naked Lunch as an off-Broadway musical, but again, this never materialized.
After Cronenberg and Thomas met, the producer optioned Burroughs’ novel. That same year, Cronenberg met the legendary author at his 70th birthday party at the Limelight Night Club in New York City. He had seen and admired several of Cronenberg’s films and also had an affinity for many of the themes they explored. Burroughs said, “when I heard that David was interested in doing the film I thought … he’s the one that can do it if anyone can.” The next year, Cronenberg, Burroughs, and Thomas traveled to Tangier, the city where the book was written, in order to retrace its creation.
Cronenberg and Thomas began the process of adapting the book into a film in 1985. Not surprisingly, they had a difficult time getting financing for the film because of the book’s notorious reputation of being unfilmable. Cronenberg said, “a literal translation just wouldn’t work. It would cost $400 million to make and would be banned in every country in the world.” During the five years of the film’s development, Cronenberg kept in contact with Burroughs and explained that the film would be about the act of writing Naked Lunch. He finished the first draft of the script in 1989 while on location in England, acting in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990).
He gave the book’s fragmented collection of set pieces a more traditional narrative structure. While the Mugwump creatures are a Burroughs invention from the book, the insect typewriters were created by Cronenberg to bring to “the screen things that can’t be shown in a mainstream movie.” In addition to drawing from Naked Lunch, he also incorporated elements from other books by Burroughs, like Exterminator!, Queer, and Letters to Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs read the script around the Christmas of 1989. He called Cronenberg and told him how much he liked it. The filmmaker finished the script in June 1990 and then scouted locations in Tangier with Thomas, production designer Carol Spier, and director of photography Peter Suschitzky.
While working on the script, Cronenberg received a letter from actor Peter Weller. He had heard about the project while making RoboCop 2 (1990). Weller was a big fan of both Burroughs’ books and Cronenberg’s films. In his letter, he inquired about any involvement with the project. The two men met in New York City nine months later, and the actor landed the lead role. To prepare for the film, Weller met Burroughs several times in the fall of 1990. When Judy Davis read the script, she was so horrified by it that she threw it against the wall. She ended up reading it eight times and talked to Cronenberg on the phone before she agreed to do the film. She said, “I felt there was something I could learn as an actress through doing it, through facing my fears.” She did not read the novel but did read a lot about expatriate American writers and perfected an American accent.
One week before principal photography was to begin, the Persian Gulf War started, and the three-week shoot in Tangier was canceled. Cronenberg rewrote the script over the weekend and decided to shoot the film entirely in Toronto over three months in 1991. According to the director, the film became “more internalized and hallucinatory, so that one understands by the end of the film that Lee never really leaves New York City.”
For the film’s special effects, Cronenberg reunited with Chris Walas and his company, responsible for the gruesome effects on the remake of The Fly (1986). Cronenberg met with Walas nine months before principal photography to discuss his ideas for the film. Three months later, Walas and his team submitted their designs to the director. When Peter Suschitzky first read the script, he felt that it should have an expressionistic look reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but Cronenberg wanted his film to look normal because the “craziness is interior.” To reflect the film’s dark subject matter, Suschitzky suffused the film with shadows and gave it a “sense of romanticism … a slight sickness that you find in late Romanticism in German literature and art between 1900 and 1930.”
Before the film came out, Cronenberg was misquoted in The Advocate as saying that Burroughs was not a homosexual, and the magazine told its readers not to expect much from the film. The director tried unsuccessfully to contact the article’s author. Naked Lunch received predictably mixed reviews from critics. Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “Obviously this is not everybody's cup of weird tea: you must have a taste for the esthetics of disgust. For those up to the dare, it's one clammily compelling movie.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating, and Owen Gleiberman praised Peter Weller’s performance: “Peter Weller, the poker-faced star of Robocop, greets all of the hallucinogenic weirdness with a doleful, matter-of-fact deadpan that grows more likable as the movie goes on. The actor's steely robostare has never been more compelling. By the end, he has turned Burroughs' stone-cold protagonist — a man with no feelings — into a mordantly touching hero.” In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “Cronenberg has done a remarkable thing. He hasn't just created a mainstream Burroughs on something approximating Burroughs's terms, he's made a portrait of an American writer.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “David Cronenberg’s highly transgressive and subjective film adaptation of Naked Lunch ... may well be the most troubling and ravishing head movie since Eraserhead. It is also fundamentally a film about writing—even the film about writing.”
However, Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "While I admired it in an abstract way, I felt repelled by the material on a visceral level. There is so much dryness, death and despair here, in a life spinning itself out with no joy". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “for the most part this is a coolly riveting film and even a darkly entertaining one, at least for audiences with steel nerves, a predisposition toward Mr. Burroughs and a willingness to meet Mr. Cronenberg halfway", but she did praise Peter Weller's performance: "The gaunt, unsmiling Mr. Weller looks exactly right and brings a perfect offhandedness to his disarming dialogue.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss called the film, “tame compared with its source.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe criticized what he felt to be a “lack of conviction.”
Burroughs saw the film and liked it, saying, “of course, it’s a Cronenberg film. I think he’s done a great job. Nothing at all what I would’ve done, but that’s as it should be.”
Ultimately, Naked Lunch is a hallucinatory nightmare with no escape for its protagonist. Try as he might, Bill cannot escape what he did to his wife as much as he can escape who he is—a junkie and a homosexual. There is some sense that by the film’s conclusion he has come to terms with what he’s done and who he is. Everything else—Interzone, etc.—is just window-dressing, or rather, Bill trying to work things out. Writing provides a way for him to come to terms with the guilt he feels. Think of it as writing as a form of catharsis and finishing Naked Lunch offered some kind of closure on a painful part of his life. Cronenberg’s film—along with Barton Fink—are two of the most fascinating films about writers and writing as they explore what motivates one to write. In those two cases it comes out of a great pain and an inner turmoil that, at least in Burroughs’ case, leads to some kind of redemption.