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Exterminate all rational thought: not so much Brundle-fly as Burroughs-berg
An Exploration of the film NAKED LUNCH and the Criterion DVD by Lord Summerisle
 

If there is any influence to film that is appropriate for exploration on this site it is William S. Burroughs. An outsider to popular culture and counter-culture alike, Burroughs held a unique position on the periphery of the post-war Beat movement, influencing it yet not assimilated by it. His literature difficult and fragmented, his film experiments unusual even to the 1960's New York avant-garde of the time. The small collective of himself, Anthony Balch, Ian Sommerville and Brion Gysin was shunned by co-op leaders Jonas Mekas and Adams-Sitney as a step too far. Even his sexuality served to distance himself from others; too dignified to experiment in ambivalence to the level of Ginsberg and Kerouac yet too obviously gay to be accepted by mainstream heterosexual society. He struggled with this outsider status all his life, and there is nothing that shows it better than David Cronenberg's movie.

The key to fundamentally appreciating Naked Lunch is in understanding the primary narrative drive that Cronenberg uses as a vehicle to explore Burroughs' life and work, his psyche and status, and all that lies between. It is the same incident that propelled Burroughs himself into writing, and thus the creation of his legacy; the controversial shooting of his second wife Joan Vollmer.

Before this point in the film Cronenberg has already set up an introductory collection of Burroughs paradigms and motifs, not only from the book Naked Lunch but also from some of his other works. For example, our protagonist from the pages of Naked Lunch and others in his canon, is the exterminator, Bill Lee, played to perfection by Peter Weller. Lee himself is an autobiographical character, the pseudonym Lee was Burroughs mother's maiden name. Burroughs himself spent time in the extermination business, so already we're being set up with an autobiographical picture. This time in Burroughs' life was detailed in his distinctive abstract fashion in the piece Exterminator. Cronenberg takes this as a brilliant starting point to explore Burroughs' mind, as well as injecting his own creative elements with the motif of the insect, a David Cronenberg favourite. Although it has been documented that Burroughs did not really have much time for insects, nor did he find them a creative inspiration, I find this goes out the window when delving into The Soft Machine to find a collective known as the ‘Insect Trust' and a lot of centipede symbolism. Burroughs' use of insects in his literature was to connote something distrustful or inhuman in a character or situation, Cronenberg has an altogether more positive view of them, and this becomes clear as their roles in the movie progress. The act of writing itself is a major concern in Cronenberg's film, and this is shown via insect typewriters, creating a fusion of form and content connoting in physical form the organic nature of Burroughs' writing.

So, Bill Lee is an exterminator. His wife Joan (based on Vollmer and is one of the two roles played by Judy Davis) is a junkie, as is he. She becomes addicted to his bug powder. This is another of the many well-placed fictional deviations from Burroughs' own writing. Using an imagined drug frees the film from cliché or any other stigma attached to drug based fiction, as Cronenberg himself mentions on the excellent commentary track (detailed later). Also, it is in itself organic and bears allusions to Burroughs themes of addiction and control, as well as remaining in keeping with the bug motif.

Entering the set-up we also have Lee's two male writer friends, Hank and Martin, heavily based on Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, first introduced in a New York coffee house, discussing the fundamental nature of the Beat movements approach to literature. This immediately places Burroughs (Lee) as an outsider in the topic, and a radical mind, as he comments "Exterminate all rational thought: that is the conclusion I have come to." The scene is now set for the shooting, which propels Lee from New York to Interzone, the fictional setting of the novel Naked Lunch and the metaphorical retreat for Bill Lee's troubled and drugged psyche in the movie.

He is lead into Interzone by a couple of Naked Lunch's main thematic characters: Dr Benway (Roy Scheider), who gives him ‘The Black Meat' to curb his increasing bug powder addiction, and a smoking Mugwump who backs up an earlier incident with a giant beetle who uses his talking arsehole to inform Lee he is embroiled in a conspiracy. All this is not directly lifted from the pages of Naked Lunch but expertly arranged to include the meat of the novel's themes, routines and characters, as well as a biographical thrust showing the metaphorical battle Burroughs went through in his own mind. For example, ‘the talking asshole' routine from the book features in two separate incarnations in Cronenberg's film. Firstly in physical form as the mouthpiece on the back of an Interzone agent beetle, the later in the form of a Beat style ‘routine' by Bill Lee, recited directly from the novel. This serves to amalgamate the original concepts Burroughs was dealing with of an inherently undesirable voice that must be heard (ie his voice as a writer) with that of the physical iconography Cronenberg is known for, as well as assimilating it into the biographical narrative.

It is important to note that Naked Lunch was in reality Burrough's third novel and when he came to write it he had already enjoyed an amount of success with the publishing of his first book, Junkie. Although he was somewhat down hearted at the publishers rejection of his second book Queer, which was an autobiographical look at primarily his sexuality that much of the movie's biographical elements draw from. Yet it is undeniable that he was still reeling form Joan's death when he came to write Naked Lunch, and it is widely regarded as his main cathartic piece on the matter, so with this in mind Cronenberg merged the Bill Lee from the book and his entry to Interzone with Burroughs' absorption into drugs and his writing to flee from the reality of Joan's death. He did literally flee though, to Tangiers in Morroco, and conveniently for Cronenberg there is more than a hint of those surroundings bled into the world of Interzone. So what we have in Cronenberg's Interzone is yet another fusion (no doubt the main tool in the thematic construction of this film), this time with the setting; an Interzone combining New York with Tangiers. Paraphrasing Cronenberg himself, "in the movie Bill Lee never actually leaves New York". So a kind of Moroccan-American alien world is created, populated by Mugwumps and talking insect typewriters. It is here that Bill Lee's sexuality is questioned by these creatures, physical manifestations of his inner turmoil.

It is also here Bill Lee encounters the couple Tom and Joan Frost (Ian Holm and Judy Davis) the fictional counterparts of real life American ex-patriot writers, Paul and Jane Bowles. The character of Joan not only having the same Christian name as Lee's (and Burroughs') wife but also the same psychical form, serves well to show the duality between reality and Interzone, and his affair with the character, though contentious with hardcore Burroughs fans due to its fictionality, shows his continual connection with Joan's memory. The enigma of Tom Frost, a brilliantly cast Holm, brings a creative tension and competition for Lee and connotes the real life rivalry between Burroughs and Bowles during his time in Tangiers. Kiki is present here as well, an autobiographical part of many of Burroughs works as he was somewhat infatuated by the Moroccan boy, Kiki appears to encompass all of Burroughs' affairs with young men in Tangiers and works as both a companion for Lee as well as a figure of confusion and eventual acceptance of his sexuality (here Lee is truly bisexual, in life Burroughs did have sexual relations with women, but after Joan's death he was completely gay, and could never again accept women being close to him). There is also another character who is not from the novel, an Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands), but he embodies Burroughsian characteristics; a homosexual predator who is observed by Lee in a grotesque form of lovemaking with Kiki, Cloquet transformed into a giant centipede.

There is a visit from Lee's New York friends, symbolising the visit paid to Burroughs by Kerouac and Gindsberg during his time in Morocco. They examine and take away the many pages of prose named Naked Lunch Lee has feveredly written during his time in Interzone, similar to how Gindsberg collated the pages of the real Naked Lunch during Burroughs smacked out time in Tangiers. Of course, in the reality of the movie they have just come to his apartment in New York, but Lee sees it as a visit to a foreign land, trying to convince them to stay.

Eventually Lee finds Joan, who has been abducted by the evil Benway, after he has shared incidents with Tom Frost and the swapping, kidnapping and torture of various organic writing machines. Lee finally comes to terms with the accidental murder of his wife in the final scene. Here he proves to some Border Guards he is a writer by re-writing the memory of Joan's shooting, and thus being allowed access into Annexia, the metaphoric acceptance of his role in Joan's death and the beginning of Burroughs life as a writer. Cronenbergs word, ‘Annexia', means becoming allowed into a realm of ‘annexing' his life, and to some extent other people's, with his writing. It is a collective moment that depicts Burroughs' state of mind as he began his writing career as a means of catharsis, in reality a move backward in time to the Junkie period, finishing the movie in as enigmatic and encoded a manner as Burroughs' own literature.

The whole film is set to the backdrop of a great Howard Shore jazz fused score, with a blend of saxophone (courtesy of Ornette Coleman and The Ornette Coleman Trio) and experimental Moroccan music that adds perfectly to the heady, surreal, drug-fuelled imagery and is flawlessly in keeping with the content of the narrative.

There are a couple of scenes that don't quite work, like the Cloquet/Kiki sex scene, which Cronenberg himself comments on its ineffectiveness on the commentary track. This comes down to the staging of special effects, and its impact is slightly dulled by the puppets unconvincing appearance. Although, there certainly isn't enough to warrant any major misgivings on the overall execution of the mise en scene. In the most part the puppet and animatronic element of the film makes for a more real, tangible experience than it would have been if made today with CGI, which this thankfully predates.

The script is also compound with the dark, deadpan-though-absurd, humour of the Burroughs books it is inspired by, and Peter Weller does some superb turns in understating the sheer strangeness that he is often faced with as the character Bill Lee.

Overall, I believe this to be one of the greatest of Cronenberg's canon. A movie that really no other director could have made, it also has the benefit of the author of which the film is based being alive at the time to oversee proceedings. But to fully appreciate the subtleties (and, lets face it, the not so subtle parts), one must be familiar with Burroughs' life and works, and to a lesser degree, the Beat movement. When I first saw this film a few years back, before I was acquainted with the works of William S. Burroughs, I merely saw it as a Cronenberg movie with biographical elements, but once exposed to the world of Burroughs I realised how much of an influence he had been in all Cronenberg's work, and obviously this was the chance to showcase it explicitly. So, read some Burroughs and be blown away by that before you can really be blown away by this movie. Or it'll just seem like a big budget art-house film, which in many ways it is!

sound and vision

Framed 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a gorgeous transfer, beautifully film-like with fine detail and contrast but no obvioius signs of enhancement. there is a slight reddish hue to much of the film which is deliberate and accurately reflects how the film looked in the cinema.

There is not 5.1 remix here, but the included Dolby surround track is very nice, boasting crystal clarity, a decent dynamic range and effective use of the rears for music and background sounds.

extra features

Disk One

I am one of those sad people (hopefully like anyone reading this) who loves a good commentary track. I have listened to my fair share of bad ones too. But I am glad to say this is not the case here. David Cronenberg dispenses with all the Hollywood arse-kissing that mars many more mainstream commentaries and just talks about the really interesting elements of the film. Peter Weller is a fountain of knowledge with regards to Burroughs and proves himself to be an authority on the man and the Beat movement, which justifies him as an actor who is capable of putting a lot more thought into a role than he did for Robocop! He does slur and mumble on a little in parts, but his drooly voice adds that smoky Beat style to the atmosphere of the commentary. Cronenberg speaks of many fascinating elements of the film, from the script, to Burroughs and his meetings with him, to the problems and benefits of using puppets and the Toronto sets used as they were not able to fly to Tangiers to shoot on location as originally planned. This is ideal for anyone who is not all that familiar with Burroughs as it details many of the key concepts of his that Cronenberg translated to film. It is also nice to hear them talk about William Burroughs a lot without over the top praise. It is obvious that they greatly admire his work, but there is none of the silly embellishment that often happens with industry lovies.

Being primarily interested in writing and directing, I found the commentary just right for my tastes, but you might find it lacking if you are interested in lighting or production design, as these areas are covered rather briefly. All in all though, very satisfactory.

Disk Two

Making Naked Lunch: This is a making-of documentary originally made for ITV's The South Bank Show by Chris Rodley, so I thought immediately it must be in safe hands, as I have read some of his probing books. I was not disappointed. Greeted by the man himself, William Seward Burroughs, reading from Naked Lunch, it opens well. There are many bespectacled talking heads, and not much in the way of livening it up, but all that is said is informative and gives a good insight into the making of the film as well as Burroughs' life. As a bit of a Burroughs nut, I knew most of what was mentioned in the documentary, but it's a great way to learn about the man in a short space of time. The best thing about it is seeing Burroughs himself. The man, even at that great age, exudes such a powerful presence you can feel it through the screen like a scene from Videodrome! And there are some great responses he comes out with at a press conference with David Cronenberg, nice to see he was still sharp as an old man.

Special Effects Stills Gallery: I must confess that I am not really a big effects man, but I did find this fascinating. One is faced with a staggeringly comprehensive collection of material on the effects used, all prefaced with a short essay detailing the content of each section. There are illustrations, sketches, storyboards and photos of prototype models as well as the finished mugwumps, bugwriters etc. If you like your design, puppetry and all that creature shop malarkey, then this will be of great interest to you.

Film Stills Gallery: Another exhaustingly comprehensive set of photographic stills taken on set by production photographer Attila Dory. From portraits of the cast and some crew to pre-production drawings by art director James McAteer and comparative on-set photos of some of the wonderful sets created for the movie. I find much of this a slightly useless and perfunctory addition, most of these pictures are somewhat of novelty value, although the illustrations to photos of the real sets are definitely of interest to anyone with production design or art direction leanings.

Marketting: Here we have a good trailer and a couple of TV spots, involving clips from Burroughs' 1960's film experiment Towers Open Fire, and a voice-over by a Burroughs impersonator (a shame they couldn't use the real man, as he was around at the time). There is also a promotional featurette that uses much of the same footage as the Chris Rodley documentary, and really gives you nothing that Rodley's more in-depth film does not detail. There is also a B-roll montage; a collection of on set jiggery-pokery with the Ornette Coleman music over the top, nothing to get too excited about, but nice to see how the dynamics of the set atmosphere worked; Peter Weller reading passages of the book Naked Lunch, Judy Davis standing about, Cronenberg sitting about and lots of focus-pulling, clapperboard slamming and monitor gazing. Oh, and the odd bit of a mugwump.

William Burroughs reads Naked Lunch: This does exactly what is says on the tin. Burroughs circa 1995, reading popular and relevant passages of his book. It is just audio and was originally recorded for an audio book. It also features music by Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and Eyvind Kang. To be honest I'm not familiar with these musicians so that means nothing to me, but it is great to here that trademark voice uttering words from with trademark novel. Pick up your copy of Naked Lunch and read along!

Allen Ginsberg Photographs: William Burroughs: Yet another set of pictures, this time from the old Beat days. Photographed by Ginsberg, there are pictures of Burroughs with Ginsberg himself, Kerouac, Paul Bowles and others from the Beat generation, in New York and Tangiers, across the timespan of Burroughs' Naked Lunch writing days, all with transcribed captions that Ginsberg handwrote on many of the photos.
Now these I find interesting. This is raw, real, Beat generation life captured by one of its pioneers in celebration of another, as many of the poetic captions detail. It is great to see Burroughs in his own environment, yet still nearly always looking the outsider. There are also some shocking pictures of him obviously at the height of his junk days, looking gaunt and twice his age. Yet, all of it serves to remind you that if it wasn't for him and the men captured with him in many of these pictures, the movie this feature is allied to would not exist.

Booklet: At 32 pages, this little supplement with the set is packed with great little essays. Ranging from the relatively simplistic to the more academic, these writings provide insight into the film's themes with regards to Burroughs life and works as well as Cronenberg's back catalogue. Chris Rodley's contribution is as solidly informative as I have come to expect, and Burrough's own short essay on his acceptance and praise of David Cronenbergs interpretation of his work is interesting; I wonder in a couple of areas, if Burroughs totally understood what Cronenberg was doing with his material. For example it is interesting to learn about his attitude towards the depiction of Bill Lee's sexuality in the film. A very worthwhile addition to this release, no doubt.

summary

There isn't much more for me to say on the film itself – it remains one of my all-time favourites. As a great Cronenberg and Burroughs fan, it would have had to be pretty terrible for me not to love it! But with regards to the DVD, it is an excellent special edition set from Criterion, peppered with many features, some more worthy than others, and featuring a standard-setting anamorphic transfer. I would gladly substitute some of those picture galleries for another commentary track, maybe by the director of photography and/or production designer, but this is coming from a man spoilt by the likes of David Fincher DVD sets, with anything up to four commentaries. For me, the real winning extras are the audio commentary, the Rodley documentary, the Burroughs readings and the Ginsberg stills. The set is worth it on these alone, not to mention the stunning work on sound and picture quality on the main feature. But remember; "Nothing is true; everything is permitted."

Naked Lunch

Canada/UK/Japan . 1991
115 mins
director
David Cronenberg
starring
Peter Weller
Judy Davis
Ian Holm
Julian Sands
Roy Scheider
Monique Mercure
Nicholas Campbell

DVD details
region 0
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Suround 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras
Director and actor commentary
Making Naked Lunch documentary
Special effects stills gallery
Film stills gallery
Marketing gallery
William Burroughs reads Naked Lunch
Allen Ginsberg photographs
Booklet
distributor
Criterion
review posted
28 September 2005

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See all of Lords Summerisle's reviews