By Chaz Lipp
Have you ever really liked a movie, but found yourself at a loss to explain exactly why? That’s the job of a film critic, something I’ve never claimed to be. But that doesn’t let me off the hook entirely, since I do post these articles in hopes that people will read them and take something away from them. But I struggled, quite frankly, to organize my thoughts about David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch when reviewing it over on The Morton Report. And the struggle continues here.
So here’s the easy part. The Criterion Collection has recently issued Naked Lunch on Blu-ray and it easily lives up to their lofty standards. The transfer is quite a treat. With all the puppets and animatronics – old school effects all the way, since this is a 1991 film after all – it’s vital to see Cronenberg’s vision in high definition. The bug typewriters and mugwumps truly have never looked more disgustingly, disturbingly vivid. The DTS-HD MA mix is 2.0 only, which may be disappointing for those expecting a full surround remix. This 24-bit remaster comes from the original 35mm magnetic print masters. It sounds great, especially the Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman score.
As for the movie, this is going to sound incredibly shallow, but the coolest thing about Naked Lunch is how weird it is. Not just weird, but absolutely fully-realized weirdness. Based on the non-linear novel of the same name by William S. Burroughs (which I’ve never read, by the way), the movie evokes the general ambiance of a dream as well as any I’ve seen. The story of Bill Lee (Peter Weller) takes us on a psychologically complex ride. He’s an exterminator who uses a poisonous powder to rid homes and businesses of cockroaches. But his wife Joan (Judy Davis) has discovered that cooking and shooting up this substance results in a powerfully hallucinogenic trip. It’s also quite addictive.
As seriously as he takes his job, Bill winds up using the drug and soon becomes hooked. Cronenberg mixes in events taken from Burroughs’ actual life story, bits from some of his other books, as well as elements of the director’s own invention. The result is a narrative that blurs the line between reality and drug-induced psychosis as Bill believes he is in the rather exotic Interzone, where his talking Clark Nova typewriter (in the form of a bug) is his best friend and confidant. He’s been told that part of his “mission” is posing as a homosexual, even though he rather adamantly declares himself hetero. There’s a great deal of sexual ambiguity amongst Bill’s Interzone contacts, including Tom Frost (Ian Holm) and Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands). Burroughs himself was apparently gay (or bisexual, at least in practice, given that he fathered a child with his wife) and expressed confusion over why Bill (his alter ego) is, in the film, portrayed as rather resistant to homosexuality.
The turning point in the film (and, it would seem, in Burroughs’ own life) is the inadvertent murder Bill commits while performing a “William Tell routine” with his wife. Under the influence of the bug powder, Bill tries to shoot a glass off Joan’s head, accidently shooting her in the head instead. Driven deeper into addiction, branching out to the similarly mind-altering “black meat” of venomous centipedes, Bill meets another version of his wife in Interzone, the wife of Tom Frost (also named Joan, and also portrayed by Judy Davis). In the audio commentary, director Cronenberg speaks of how Burroughs never seemed to have gotten over the fact that he killed his own wife (I don’t imagine it would be an easy thing to come to terms with). In the film, Bill never seems able to shake the memory of Joan, manifesting itself as her doppelgänger.
Speaking of that audio commentary, the one included here is actually ten years old. It features Cronenberg and actor Peter Weller (recorded separately) and originally appeared on a previous DVD edition. It’s an excellent, engaging, and well planned-out track that sheds a ton of light on Cronenberg’s creative process as he interpreted a book that was largely considered unadaptable. Burroughs was not only still alive when the film was made, he was involved in the production. Both Cronenberg and Weller spent time with him and that familiarity comes through in the commentary. As I mentioned, Burroughs’ own reaction to the film is included in the booklet (along with several other essays). The Blu-ray includes an hours’ worth of Burroughs reading his own novel (taken from an audiobook recording), a 50-minute documentary (Naked Making Lunch) from 1992, several still galleries, and a number of marketing materials.
I find Naked Lunch fascinating but frustratingly difficult to hold onto. Whether Cronenberg’s intention or not, the film (at least in part) is the story of a man who is repulsed by his own sexual identity and desires. More obviously, it’s a film about the power and pitfalls of addiction. None of its themes are tied up in a neat little bow. It’s an ambiguous, challenging film that is open to multiple interpretations (frankly, I haven’t arrived at any conclusions as to what it all means). But for those with a taste for the bizzare, Criterion has put together an enticing package.