Sight and Sound, May 1992

Naked Lunch


New York, 1953. Bill Lee, employed as a bug exterminator, runs out of powder on a job, and finds his wife injecting it as a narcotic. Believing it might help his writing, Lee tries the powder on himself. He is picked up by two narcotic cops, who  mock him by leaving him alone with a pile of the powder and a giant beetle. To the horrified Bill, this reveals a talking anus, which tells him that Joan is an alien agent from Interzone, a free port on the North African coast. A fellow exterminator suggests that Bill consult a drug specialist. Dr Benway, who gives him some black powder made from giant centipede meat as a potential antidote.

Stoned on a combination of these drugs, Bill returns home to find Joan in company with two aspiring writer friends, Hank and Martin. Barely noticing that Hank is attempting sex with Joan, Bill suggests he and his wife perform their "William Tell routine". Joan places a glass on her head, Bill shoots at it and (apparently accidentally) kills her. Taking refuge in a bar frequented by homosexuals, Bill is introduced by Kiki, a seductive young man, to a repulsive creature known as a Mugwump. The latter suggests that Bill head for Interzone where he should compose his reports on a Clark-Nova typewriter, and hands him his travel ticket. Bill finds himself in an exotic city where he is approached by a German, Hans, who wants to sell him the black meat drug. In his room, the Clark-Nova mutates into another talking beetle, which urges Bill to employ homosexuality as a cover.

Kiki reappears and takes him to a party to meet an American literary couple, Tom and Joan Frost. Tom offers to loan Bill his Martinelli typewriter, and tells him that he knows Bill killed his wife (who is identical to Mrs Frost). In Bill´s room, his Clark-Nova physically attacks the Martinelli for being an enemy agent, and then tells Bill to seduce Joan and find the source of the black meat production. Bill visits Joan, and they begin to make love while creating erotic literature on an Arabic typewriter, but the sinister housekeeper Fadela intervenes and destroys the machine. Joan vanishes, and Bill´s Clark-Nova tells him that his wife was transformed from a centipede into an agent working for Fadela. Hank and Martin pay a visit, revealing to Bill his true junkie life style, and urge him to finish the book called Naked Lunch that he has, unbeknownst to himself, been sending to them. Kiki takes pity on Bill and introduces him to the pleasures of the juice secreted by Mugwumps.

Bill begins writing again on a Mug-writer typewriter, which tells him to seduce a decadent European, Cloquet, in order to reach Benway. Kiki arranges a meeting, and Bill sacrifices the boy to Cloquet´s consuming embrace as possible bait. Bill then visits Tom and exchanges the Mugwriter for his old Clark-Nova, which tells him that Fadela is based at Hans´ old factory, which is a warehouse filled wioth chained-up Mugwumps. Bill finds Joan captive there as part of Fadela´s lesbian work force, but Fadela herself turns out to be Dr Benway in disguise. He asks Bill to help him work the drug racket in the state of Annexia. Bill agrees if he can take Joan, whom he says he needs in order to write. Bill arrives at the border of Annexia, and is asked for proof of his profession as a writer. He tells Joan to perform the "William Tell routine", and again the shot proves fatal.

David Cronenberg has described his 'adaptation of Burroughs' book as if he and the author had ventured into The Fly´s telepod together and produced an unexpected hybrid. This is not any kind of direct transposition of an intangible and hallucinatory text, but a film on the act of writing itself, with fictional narcotics as a guiding factor and the biography of Burroghs as an anecdotal reference point. Interzone is no longer the junkies´ haven of Tangiers - location filming was prevented at the last moment by the Gulf War - but a studio creation of an interior world, sliding from Moroccan markets stalls to hotel rooms looking surrealistically out to views of Central Park. Aside from a few absurd monologues - regarding an Isadora Duncan-style death by a scarf of trailing haenorrhoids and a man blessed with a talking asshole - there is little in the script that is recognisably drawn from Burroughs´ text, and the explosive comic creation Dr Benway (enacted by Burroughs himself in a memorable BBC Arena programme) has been transformed into the cameo role of another sinister, power-crazed scientist from the Cronenberg universe.

Homosexuality has never been to the fore in Cronenberg´s cinema (the lesbian Barbara Steele character in Shivers a notable exception), and the outrageous homoerotic elements in Burroughs have been awkwardly muted. Peter Weller´s intensely internalised performance, while maintaining a drolly stoned tone, barely registers any impact of the 'gayness within' stimulated by the unrepressed environment of Interzone. Instead, the figure of Joan, played with a disturbing edge of self-destruction by Judy Davis, fulfils the Romantic role of literary muse. The 'William Tell routine' that did in fact cause the death of Burroughs´ wife is used by Cronenberg to send his hero more on a guilt trip than a drug-induced one.

Bringing in with the Frost couple the parallel destructive relationship between Paul and Jane Bowles (with Judy Davis double cast, and even suggesting a more identifiable Kit Moresby than Debra Winger in The Sheltering Sky), Cronenberg is far more interested in obsessive replaying his favourite theme on the irreconcilable difference between man and woman. The only homosexual act directly visualised is the shock of the oily Cloquet (Julian Sands finally finding his true niche) becoming one with the fey Kiki amid a  welter of Chris Walas gunk. This is probably the most extreme image Cronenberg has yet given us of the physicality of sexual union. The fact that it plays a fearful warning to Lee only emphasises the distancing from Burroughs´ warped hedonism.

Where the film is both successful and frustrating is in its parallels with Videodrome, with the most dangerously repressed of our impulses again confronted through hallucination. In place of the physically alive videocassettes and television sets of the earlier film are the talking typewriters - the means to creating our fantasies that become ends in themselves. Where Videodrome was so fruitful and disturbing was in the way it played with voyeurism in a voyeuristic medium. In Naked Lunch, Cronenberg has wisely rejected any clichéd attempt to show the creative process directly (no screwed-up paper in the wastebasket à la Zimmerman´s Julia), and through the narcotic state fused all of human, animal and mechanical life. But the problem also arises of maintaining narrative coherence when a base reality is lost.

While the studio sets are consistently stylised, some of the effects work is not as persuasive as in, say, The Fly, and the Mugwumps look perilously close to the intergalactic extras from The Empire Strikes Back. In particular, the crafted visual surface characteristic of Cronenberg´s work is disrupted about half-way through when a very artificial sex-blob (a kind of giant centipede) falls on the adulterous Bill and Joan Frost. The effect is unhelpfully comic rather than alarmingly cosmic. Naked Lunch is unquestionably a brave and ingenious solution to an impossible task of adaptation, and its surface fascinations and weird humour mainly compensate for the lack of narrative drive. If its virtues lie in its vices, then the dangerous liason between Cronenberg´s vices and Burroughs´ was simply too much for any one feature film to contain.


David Thompson