#302 Naked Lunch
(1991, David Cronenberg)
“Exterminate all rational thought”
David Cronenberg has built a career out of gross, weird films filled with things that shouldn’t be. But the quality can go either way. Way, way back, I reviewed The Fly and thought it was an excellent piece of tense sci-fi horror with a believable romance that left a huge impression on me. Shortly after, I reviewed Videodrome, which was a nonsensical piece of crap that existed solely to test effects artists’ skills and the viewer’s patience. But which side of the fence does Naked Lunch fall?
Based on the “unpublishable” book by Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch is a mixture of passages from the non-linear narrative text mixed with elements of the author’s own life. It focuses on William Lee (Peter Weller), an exterminator who is approached by a talking bug and tasked with killing his wife, which will lead him to a job writing reports for Interzone Incorporated, a company that does…something. There’s also stuff about drugs and homosexuality in there too.
There’s a lot to be said about the phrase “it must have been made on drugs”, and I have to say, it’s not a phrase I particularly like. Claiming that something mind-bending and surreal and not of this world could only be written by someone who’s taken one too many mind-altering substances merely exposes the lack of imagination in whoever expresses that phrase.
In order to make a film or a piece of literature, you do need to have your wits about you in order to maintain a coherent narrative, even if your intention is to make it seem like there isn’t one. In reality, a movie made on drugs would be an unwatchable mess. It would be full of plot holes, things would happen for no reason, the editing would be shoddy and generally you would feel confused and annoyed by everything that happens in it.
Naked Lunch is that movie. This is your movie made on drugs. Well, I can’t vouch for Cronenberg’s state of mind, but it’s definitely a reflection on Burroughs. The original book was often claimed to be impossible to adapt into a movie due to its rambling passages about nothing, its non-linear narrative and the fact that seemingly none of the chapters have anything to do with each other. In other words, it sounds like a complete mess, and if this movie is any indication, it definitely is.
This is very much the Videodrome side of Cronenberg’s work. Nothing makes sense in this trainwreck. We start with a movie about an exterminator whose wife is stealing his bug powder so she can get some kind of high off it, then moves to something about how he’s hiding away from the world in “Interzone” after killing his wife accidentally by messing up a William Tell recreation, and then suddenly Interzone is a haven for gay sex and then before you know it the movie keeps going on about centipedes.
Cronenberg, bless him. You can tell he did his best to make this into a coherent narrative. While Videodrome was simply a mess, there’s a certain flow and logic to all of this, but at the same time it’s all just stupid. There are tons of gory effects and gross-out scenes but they seem to be there only because Cronenberg is seemingly contractually obliged to be a gross-out director. A typewriter beetle eats another typewriter beetle. An alien creature leaks semen from tentacles on its head. A gay sex scene is portrayed as a two-headed beast where one head is trying to consume the other (I think). It’s possibly allegorical in many cases, but it’s also completely meaningless.
In the end, you’re hoping that all this randomness and gross-out nonsense serves a purpose. Perhaps there’s a message about drug addiction or repressed homosexuality. Perhaps there’s some narrative about Interzone being some corrupt agency trying to control people. Perhaps it’s an allegory for the writing process. Do we find out? No. No we don’t.
Naked Lunch is a movie that says drugs are bad, no wait, they’re amazing, or I don’t know. Whatever, dude. Penis monsters. In other words, this is not a good movie.
Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm & Roy Scheider
Written by William S. Burroughs (novel) and David Cronenberg
Produced by Jeremy Thomas & Gabriella Martinelli
Music by Howard Shore
Cinematography by Peter Suschitzky
Edited by Ronald Sanders
Favourite Scene: When it finally finished.
Scene That Bugged Me: Everything else. Just…pick a scene and there you go.
Watch it if: You like rambling gibberish about nothing
Avoid it if: You’re anybody else