Naked Lunch (1991) writ. and dir. David Cronenberg (based on the novel by William Burroughs) cine. Peter Suschitzksy music Howard Shore (Ornette Coleman et. al.) prod. Gabriela Martinelli and Jeremy Thomas star. Peter Weller (Bill Lee), Judy Davis (Joan Lee/Joan Frost), Ian Holm (Tom Frost), Roy Scheider (Dr. Benway), Julian Sands (Yves Cloutier), Monique Mecure (Fedela), Nicholas Campbell (Hank), Michaelm Zelniker (Martin), Robert Silverman (Hans), Joseph Scorsiani (Niki)
As students of Beat Literature know, William Burroughs killed his wife in New Orleans or Mexico City when doing his William Tell routine. That he shot her between the eyes is passed off as an accident, a sort of ultra cool artistic act typical of the hip Mr. Burroughs, that agent provocateur in the face of human decency and the profession of writing. Central to the Burroughs mythology is that he's the most famous American writer nobody reads. Or if they do read him, they never read to the finish. His culture is drugs, a constituency that is mostly illiterate -- after all, literature is by the bourgeois for the bourgeois.
"Homosexuality is a political crime in a matriarchy" (Burroughs)
For years his autobiographical expressionism was considered pornography, the fragmented narratives mere infantile codings for drug abuse and bisexual depravity. Burroughs was his own experiment. While some people use rats, he used himself, although on occasion others -- such as his wife -- became part of the experiment. The drug experience is intrinsically non-linear, its expression fragmentary, its morality tactile ("if it feels good, it must be good"), its politics paranoia, its method dream, its result stasis. The novel Naked Lunch is all of this, with a good deal of voyeurism concealed within its metaphors and monologues.
There are some places in the Burroughs Interzone that Cronenberg doesn't visit -- such as A.J.'s Annual Party where Mary and Mark lynch their sex trophy Johnny and have intercourse with his dangling body as it goes through its death spasms, or the "snuff theatre" of Hassan's Rumpus Room where the Mugwump snaps a boy's neck at the moment of orgasm. He does attempt the latter incident by removing the anal intercourse and making it an Outer Limits bug feast, so it becomes a simile for a live meat sandwich. This sexual fascism has its literary origins in the Marquis de Sade and in the homosexual underground, although in recent times this imagery has been expropriated by the heterosexual snuff-movie culture.
Can Burroughs' avant-garde witticism translate into film? Even on the dawn of the Post-Gender Age, does anyone care?
While Cronenberg's film moves the mainstream feature into the taboo territory of drug abuse and experimental sexuality, he conceals the vicious nature of this world by cleverly using cinematic morphing to create visual metaphors that soften the depravity while enhancing the horror. Typewriters become bugs and alien entities, copulators slimy foetal centipedes. His script is really created from the Burrough's myth rather than the text of the Naked Lunch. You see fellow Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg appear as "Hank" and "Martin" while "Tom Frost" looks suspiciously like a fictionalized version of that other Tangier expatriate, Paul Bowles.
"William Lee" -- the name under which Burroughs published his first autobiographical book, Junky -- is groomed to look like the old shooter himself, just the way you'd see him around Tangier in the late fifties and early sixties, a walking cadaver in a gray raincoat and fedora, an American zombie stoned on his own voodoo. The complete urban myth, who knows what to believe about this man whose life-style was his expression? Always part of his own publicity, Burroughs exists as gossip, a reprobate whose confessions include beastiality and blasphemy, and locking young Arab boys in a Reichian orgone generator in order to suck up their fear bions when he takes shots at them with his pistol. True? Who cares. Good theatre? Absolutely. And Cronenberg -- disciple of Artaud that he is -- knows a good subject when he sees one. The avant-garde of the fifties is ready for the mainstream of the nineties.
Bill Lee (Weller) is working as a bug exterminator in New York. His wife Joan (Judy Davis) uses the yellow Bug Juice to shoot up, gets really weird. "It's a very literary high," she says. "A Kafka high... I feel like a bug." Two narcs visit Bill, tell him Joan is an agent of InterZone Inc, and unveil a large bug which they use to test the pile of yellow roach exterminator powder. When the bug suggests that Joan has to die, Bill smashes it with his shoe. But when Bill finds Joan having sex on the couch with Hank, he tells her it's time for their William Tell routine. She willingly balances an empty glass on her head. Bill takes aim, shoots her in the forehead... before the eyes of the stunned poet, Martin.
It's this homicide that drives the psychology of the film, more than the drugs and the sexual politics. When Bill trades in his automatic for a typewriter (a Martinelli) and escapes to the InterZone, a labyrinthine Arab city where anything goes, he encounters Joan Frost, a dead ringer for his deceased wife. On the instructions of the Mugwump, he seduces this Joan in an act of ectoplasmic necrophilia which posits this coincidence of identity between the polarities of guilt and dependency. Her arabic typewriter opens like a bloody vagina, a maw of forbidden pleasure... but she's caught by her bondage mistress, a German bitch with a riding crop... who later turns out to be Fedela... who later turns out to be Dr. Benway, the drug maestro who plays both sides of psychosis. Politics, games, transmorgrifications -- all delivered in various mise en scenes of hypnogogic imagery that dresses up the decadence and makes a joke out of the profession of writing. Imagine, say, Alien crossed with Solaris, and you have the tone and plot of Cronenberg's version of Naked Lunch.
The similarities between this film and Tarkovsky's Solaris are remarkable. Both deal with an altered reality in a symbolic world where the protagonist encounters his dead wife. Both narratives are circular, both are based on novels. Solaris starts as science fiction, Naked Lunch ends as science fiction. But Solaris has what Naked Lunch doesn't -- bonafide mysticism. Cronenberg creates an ending that certainly moves in that direction when Bill tries to escape into Anexia with Joan Frost and is forced to repeat the William Tell routine in order to satisfy the border guards, but despite his best intentions it remains a circularity rather than a closure.
"All is lost... all is lost -- it's all I've ever written" (Joan Frost)
Burroughs is utterly secular, almost to the point of being inhuman. Love is non-existent, eradicated by the politics of addiction. His relationship with Joan remains just another bizarre encounter in a series of bizarre encounters. You can see the familiar American political paranoia which places institutions in a conspiracy against the individual. His world-view is the classic junky view of the straight-world, a fear of totalitarian conformity, pain without pleasure. Officials become aliens while humans act as their sexual puppets in a bizarre Cold War game which has no discernible purpose. You wonder how much Burroughs was influenced by the America of Senator McCarthy and the concealed Godfather, J. Edgar Hoover.
Cronenberg's artistic empathy is very accurate. The entire movie is interior, even when it appears to be exterior. By removing the documentary effect of location shooting, and using sets, he manages to create a completely integrated atmosphere, where New York is no less hallucinatory than the InterZone, that Tangier of the mind. The alleys of the Medina are a natural zone of intrigue just as they were in the movies of past about double-agents and their ideological masters.
A psychodrama... about a writer in search of his dead muse, searching inner-space like an astronaut, who ends up on the Planet of Lost Souls as an unconscious agent for an alien entity. Emotion is replaced by phobia, a metaphor for the sickness. Once marked, the sickness is forever.
© LR 91/99
Fcourt archive | e-mail LR | Culture Court
Film Court | copyright 2000 | Lawrence Russell