Naked Lunch
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   J O E   P E T T I T   J R .

William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch long resisted translation to the cinema, in large part due to its hallucinogenic imagery, its stark depiction of the nature of addiction, its frank portrayal of homosexual sex, and its large cast of surreal and unseemly characters. Despite those hindrances, several attempts were made in the 1970s. Antony Balch and Brion Gysin, longtime friends of Burroughs, admirably rose to the challenge, but their production fell through due to lack of funding. Frank Zappa approached Burroughs about composing a musical version, but that came to naught. Eventually, in the mid-'80s, director David Cronenberg queried Burroughs about translating the film to the screen. Burroughs gave his approval, and after nearly a decade of wrangling with finances and wrestling with the material, Naked Lunch finally went into production in January 1991.

You would be hard pressed to come up with a director more sympathetic to Burroughs' nightmarish and blackly comic vision than David Cronenberg. Cronenberg has often stated that his influences are literary, not cinematic, but that he never became a novelist because he couldn't escape the towering influence of Burroughs and Vladimir Nabokov. So he turned to writing and directing films. Both Burroughs and Cronenberg share a fascination with the body in revolt, with the idea of flesh metamorphosing or evolving in new and often disgusting ways. Orifices and superfluous sexual organs sprout unbidden all over the body (think of Nola Carveth and her sprouting children in The Brood and the vaginal-like orifice that blooms on James Woods' stomach in Videodrome). Telepathic communication features in both their works (as in Cronenberg's Scanners). They share a fascination with cabals and individuals thirsty for power who prey on weaker members of the species (Darryl Revok in Scanners and Brian O'Blivion in Videodrome). Because of the strong spiritual kinship that exists between Burroughs and Cronenberg, it seems only natural that Cronenberg would successfully translate the novel to the screen, albeit in a somewhat altered form.

The major obstacle to filming Naked Lunch was the development of a storyline: the novel is primarily a collection of routines and episodes that take place inside an imaginary Middle Eastern city called Interzone. Of course, remaining faithful to the pornographic imagery would most likely have guaranteed the banning of the film in every country in the world. Cronenberg chose to limit the novel's epic scope by focusing on fewer characters. He converted the sexuality and drug usage into metaphors. While borrowing elements from several other novels, namely Exterminator! and Queer to fill out the narrative, the most significant change Cronenberg incorporated into the script was to add autobiographical elements from Burroughs' life, mainly those involving the accidental shooting death of his wife Joan Burroughs and the almost mythical events surrounding the writing of Naked Lunch. The result proved to be an inspired amalgam of the best of both artists.

Exterminator Bill Lee (Peter Weller, in a hilariously deadpan interpretation) runs out of yellow bug powder on a job, incurring the wrath of his boss. His friends Martin (Michael Zelniker) and Hank (Nicholas Campbell), surrogates for Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac respectively, suggest it might be a domestic problem that he ought to look into. Lee discovers his wife Joan (a remarkable Judy Davis) has become addicted to the Kafka-esque literary high brought on by injecting the yellow powder. Taking up her invitation to experiment with its pleasures, Lee plunges into a bizarre world populated by insectoid typewriters with talking anuses and sinister reptilian creatures called Mugwumps. A large bug claiming to be Lee's contact informs the bewildered exterminator that he is a deep cover agent. His first assignment: to murder Joan Lee, who the bug claims is a rival agent for Interzone, Inc. After Joan's death, Lee buys a Clark Nova typewriter to compose his reports to the agency and receives a passage to Interzone -- a city of the mind that blends elements of New York and Tangiers. While there, he strikes up a relationship with the icy Tom and Joan Frost (Ian Holm and Judy Davis), a writer couple loosely based on Paul and Jane Bowles. Joan, the spitting image of Lee's dead wife, has fallen under the control of Fadela (Monique Mercure), a native of Interzone purported to have supernatural powers. Lee falls deeper into addiction and Interzone. He hears rumors of how the baleful Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider) is ruthlessly seizing control of the many drug-oriented industries inside the territory. As events conspire to bring him within the sphere of Benway, Lee uncovers a surprising and ugly truth about the cost he must pay to become a writer.

At its core, the film Naked Lunch stands as a metaphorical examination of the creative process, exploring the perils and costs of writing truthfully. The bug typewriters with the talking anuses represent the dirty, unseemly facets of Lee's self that he doesn't want brought to light. Of course, a writer such as Burroughs, existing on the outskirts of society, couldn't resist the metaphorical comparison of a writer to a secret agent, and in particular, a double agent. He watches, or spies, on others to gather his materials and ruthlessly refuses allegiance to any one side in order to get at the truth. The film Naked Lunch ultimately seems to say that truthful writing of any merit is a dangerous business and demands sacrifice. In the case of Bill Lee (and by extension, William S. Burroughs), the sacrifice requested is something he dearly loves. He must murder his muse. Enhanced by powerhouse performances from Holm, Davis, and Weller, and underscored with a potent soundtrack that melds compositions by Howard Shore (which are reminiscent of Bernard Hermann's work with Alfred Hitchcock) with the free jazz wailings of Ornette Coleman, Naked Lunch is probably the hippest ride to Hell you'll ever take.

The two-disc special edition of Naked Lunch, released by The Criterion Collection, is a boon for fans of both William S. Burroughs and David Cronenberg. The high-definition transfer is a marked improvement over Fox's earlier video release, bringing out the brown color scheme and showcasing Cronenberg's polished sets. An audio commentary with Cronenberg and Weller reveals that both artists had quite a profound understanding of the themes that permeate Burroughs' work and of his influence on the underground artistic community. It's also a rare treat to hear Cronenberg discuss the metaphorical aspects of his work. The DVD's special features also include an illustrated essay by Jody Duncan, editor of Cinefax magazine, on the film's special effects; promotional materials, such as the film's original theatrical trailer, which displays a surprising sensitivity to Burroughs' work; and B-roll footage left over from the filming of the movie. Archival stills from Allan Ginsberg's private collection candidly capture William S. Burroughs and friends in Tangiers and New York. The DVD set also provides an hour's worth of Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch in his characteristically dry delivery. Probably the most exciting extra is the documentary Naked Making Lunch, originally broadcast on the always fascinating South Bank show. The documentary contains extensive interviews with Burroughs and Cronenberg and features a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. Rounding out the extras is a 32-page booklet featuring insightful musings by Janet Maslin, Chris Radley, Gary Indiana and Burroughs himself. Highly recommended for Cronenberg and Burroughs enthusiasts.

Naked Lunch is now available on DVD in a new high-definition digital transfer, approved by director David Cronenberg and enhanced for widescreen televisions. This double-disc set from The Criterion Collection includes several special features: audio commentary by Cronenberg and actor Peter Weller; a special effects stills gallery; a production stills gallery; examples of the marketing campaign, including a featurette, B-roll montage, TV spots, and a theatrical trailer; and excerpts from the novel Naked Lunch as read by author William S. Burroughs. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.