Today I watched David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991)
The writings of beat poets and novelists do not lend themselves well for the more literal world of film; so in this adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ seminal novel, Cronenberg instead takes events from the writers own life and fuses them with repeated motifs used by Burroughs to create something wholly unique. The film follows William Lee, an exterminator played by Peter Weller, whose classic deadpan delivery suits the film immensely. After discovering his wife getting high off of his bug killing powder, his world begins devolving into a psychedelic nightmare. Secret agents an international intrigue are thrown into the mix as Lee flees America for Interzone, where he pursues a career as a writer (a much more dangerous profession here than one might think.)
Naked Lunch draws parallels between drug addiction, the psychedelic experience, espionage, and the drive of creativity. What William Lee writes is always ambiguous, whether it is fact or fiction is irrelevant. The way this writing is portrayed is as a strange form of espionage, full of danger and suspense. This is amplified by a Lovecraftian strangeness, as sentient insectoid typewriters, and other alien beings punctuate the film and add a sense of unknowable malevolence to the plot. It is as though the film celebrates the dangers of obsession while still maintaining full awareness of the dark side, really the film is about this dark side and it’s analogues.
Most of this film takes place within Interzone, a fictional international zone somewhere in North Africa. It serves the film well that this location was obviously shot in an indoor set as there is always the sense of interior spaces. But this enhances the claustrophobic and unreal elements, as though William Lee were trapped within his own, limited mindscape. The control interior spaces allow over lighting and colour is also on full display here as Cronenberg uses subtle atmospheric effects to breathe life into the otherwise artificial spaces in a dreamlike manner. To accentuate all of this there is an incredible score from award winning soundtrack composer Howard Shore who has paired with Jazz master Ornette Coleman to create a truly unique audio experience that fits the film wonderfully.
Naked Lunch delivers a tightly paced mind bender of a film. This may be one of the stranger attempts to represent the creative process in art but as such it feels like one of the most honest and self aware. It is certainly not afraid of plumbing the depths of human experience to look for the source of our creative drive. Naked lunch is an incredible, visceral, and dreamlike experience that uses the medium of film with similar creative daring to that which Burroughs had in his writings and as such it is a great adaptation, even if it does not attempt a literal interpretation of the source material. 5/5