Naked Lunch was David Cronenberg’s passion project for much of the ’80s. Cronenberg met William S. Burroughs at some point, and with producer Jeremy Thomas he optioned the novel year after year as the director attempted to figure out how to adapt perhaps the most unfilmable of unfilmable books. For those who haven’t read the book (and you should!), it’s a loosely connected and increasingly surreal collection of vignettes or “routines” (as Burroughs always called them) which are somewhat narrated by the junkie William Lee. It’s a deeply satirical book that tackles every taboo known to man, including paedophilia, homosexuality, drug use etc. Burroughs’s friend the poet Allen Ginsberg edited and sculpted Burrough’s routines into what would become Naked Lunch, and then the two of them caused two of the most important obscenity trials of the 20th century, Ginsberg with his poem Howl.
Cronenberg knew that making a straight adaptation of the book was impossible, except maybe in the realm of animation, and also understood the fact that it would be banned pretty much everywhere. Therefore he decided to make the film about the creation of Naked Lunch. The fictionalised biopic of the writer on screen was somewhat in vogue at the time, with Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Dreamchild, Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka and, slightly later on, Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas all coming out in a 13-year time frame. All of these films interweave elements of the writer’s fictional, journalistic or film work in storylines that often invade the writer’s real-life world in a surrealistic fashion.
In Naked Lunch, Peter Weller plays William Lee, a role that he lobbied hard for. Weller was already a Burroughs fan and, perhaps most importantly, did have a fair amount of drug experience under his belt from his younger days, which if you’re playing Burroughs is probably required. He was inspired casting: Weller looks close enough to Burroughs (who said on meeting him the first time “You don’t have my lips”) and does a pretty spot-on impression, but it’s never overdone.
The film quite brilliantly parallels some of the loose narrative of the novel, with William Lee being on the run as a kind of secret agent for Interzone Incorporated, with elements from Burroughs’s own life. Cronenberg uses Burroughs’s run from the law after he accidentally killed his wife Joan Vollmer (Judy Davis) as the main crux of the film. If you know the true story, it’s not hugely accurate as portrayed here: her death happened in Mexico, not the US, and his time in Tangiers (Interzone) came considerably later, but for the film Cronenberg was all about making it work. If you know Burroughs, you would also know that Joan’s death was the catalyst for him becoming a writer: he famously wrote in the introduction of his second novel, Queer (which was only published many years after it was written) “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death.” Ironically, Cronenberg adapts much more of Junkie and Queer, his short story The Exterminator, and some of his stories from Interzone, including leftover material from the time when Burroughs was writing Naked Lunch, than of Naked Lunch itself. The film, however, is full of imagery and characters from the book, such as Dr. Benway—but when anything is directly lifted from the book, it is mostly through spoken dialogue.
Along with Weller’s performance, the rest of the cast is exceptional. Judy Davis completely embodies Joan Vollmer and her later doppelgänger. Davis is always a force of nature, and if you read anything about the real-life Joan, that’s what’s completely required. Interestingly enough, she has been later portrayed by equally strong personalities, like Courtney Love in the underrated Beat and Amy Adams in the long-planned On The Road adaptation that finally came out in 2012. I hate to say it, given the fact that his body hasn’t been found after a hiking trip went horribly wrong in January, but Julian Sands is an actor I’ve never liked much—however, here he gave one of his better performances as the mysterious figure of Yves Cloquet. Ian Holm plays Tom, a hodge-podge of dodgy ex-pats who Burroughs met in Tangiers: there is a lot of Paul Bowles and dash of Brion Gysin in his character, and as always Holm is great.
As is typical with Cronenberg’s films, especially at this point of his career, there is some outstanding special effects work. I’ve even had the rare opportunity to hold one of the bug typewriters from the film: I interviewed the film’s producer, Jeremy Thomas, and he has one in his office! I’ve also seen one of the mugwumps in Portland, Oregon’s still-open video-rental store Movie Madness. My mother visited there recently and found that it was off the display floor for repairs. Both creations are extraordinary pieces of work, and show the utter genius of Chris Walas, who occasionally gets forgotten in the wake of bigger-name special effects guys like Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. Long-term Cronenberg collaborator Carol Spier also contributed some Herculean production design work, trying to make Toronto look like Tangiers after they couldn’t film in Morocco due to the first Gulf War.
Naked Lunch is one of Cronenberg’s best films, and is a benchmark in his career because it marks the point where he tapped into his literary impulses: he always thought he would be a novelist, and finally became one with his 2014 novel Consumed. It started Cronenberg on the path of mainly adapting other authors’ work going forward. Since then, eXistenZ and his most recent film, Crimes of the Future, have been the only Cronenberg films that weren’t by another screenwriter or based on pre-existing source material. Peter Weller also gives hands-down his best performance here. It would be nice to see other actors use their success in a big-budget smash hit like Robocop, which would be the equivalent of a Marvel film today, go out of their way to star in a very risky film like Naked Lunch.
The disc contains an archival commentary track from Cronenberg and newly recorded commentary from film historian Jack Sargeant and screenwriter Graham Duff. New interviews with Weller, Thomas, cinematographer Peter Suschitzk, special effects artist Chris Walas and composer Howard Shore are included. David Huckvale does an interview on the score which mixes Shore and free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. David Cairns does a video essay on the influence of Burroughs on Cronenberg’s earliest films. Chris Rodley’s excellent making-of documentary Making Naked Lunch gets a new scan, and Rodley also supplies an audio interview about the film. Concept art galleries and image galleries and the film’s theatrical trailer finish off the disc. The release also includes a poster and reproduction lobby cards. The booklet features new writing by critics Vanessa Morgan and Jack Sargeant, plus select archival material—including David Cronenberg’s introduction to Everything is Permitted: The Making of Naked Lunch, and a chapter from Cronenberg on Cronenberg.
I generally don’t single out extras, but there is an extremely poor-quality extra included featuring Tony Rayns, who does a basic biographical piece on Burroughs. Shamefully, Rayns claims that Burroughs “became quite right-wing in his old age,” which is a complete misunderstanding of who Burroughs was and his beliefs—he liked guns and was “anti-government,” this doesn’t equate with being “right-wing.” He also doesn’t seem to even know that Burroughs was a Scientologist through much of the ’60s, hence his interest in Hubbard. Rayns seems to be getting almost all of his information from the Ted Morgan biography Literary Outlaw, which came out in 1988, while Barry Miles’ more recent biography has eclipsed it as the definitive word and there have been decades of academic research on the Beats and Burroughs since then. Rayns did know Antony Balch, who tried to make an adaptation of Naked Lunch in the ’60s: a short history of Balch’s attempt to make Naked Lunch would’ve been a decent feature with Rayns, but when it comes to Burroughs’ life and ideas he is utterly hopeless and far from qualified to be an expert on the subject. James Grauerholz, the literary executive of Burroughs’ estate, would’ve been great in that role. If Arrow couldn’t be fucked to fly out to Lawrence, Kansas, Barry Miles lives in London and I’m sure he would’ve been happy to be interviewed instead as well. Being experts on Burroughs is literally these guys’ jobs.