David Cronenberg is certainly one of the better choices of directors to navigate the twisted and demented mind of William S. Burroughs. I have a vision of Cronenberg in a small boat floating in water as black as oil. The boat is springing leaks from all the strange creatures that are gnawing at the boards on the underside. Exotic fauna, forming splashes of unnatural colors, grow along the banks. Leaf shaped words, unspeakable words, drip a sticky white jelly on Cronenberg’s hair as he passes under them. Animals whine from the darkness. Burned out synapses hang overhead looking like trees that have been hit by lightning. Fear and elation mix in his stomach, like two cats in a bag, each slashing and scrambling to be the one to live. He would have to think as he goes deeper and deeper into this terrifying exploration of the mostly unknowable that Spike Jonze had a cake walk navigating John Malkovich’s mind.
So my first thought is how do you film Naked Lunch? Anyone who has read the book would have to feel it is an impossible task. The perversions, the hallucinations, the spurting sperm, the disjointed impressions, the grotesqueness, and the cornucopia of pharmaceuticals all create a kaleidoscope of confusion.
Now the movie is not anywhere near as weird and convoluted as the book. The movie,though, is plenty weird on its own. Cronenberg took elements from Naked Lunch,, other Burroughs writings, and pieces from Burroughs' life to create a movie that is actually an homage to the mind of William S. Burroughs.
The movie begins with William Lee (alter ego of Burroughs played by Peter Weller) working as an exterminator. He is mystified when he runs out of bug powder half way through a job. Someone has been stealing his bug powder! When he returns home, he catches his wife Joan (Judy Davis) shooting up with bug powder, mystery solved. He decides to try it, and soon both are addicted.
That’s when the bugs and other strange creatures start showing up.
The police run him in for suspected drug dealing and confiscate his canister for spraying bug powder. He loses his livelihood and his access to the very addictive bug powder. He goes to see a Dr. Benway who scores him an even stronger drug called Black Meat which is made from the guts of giant centipedes. He is so excited about trying this new drug that he walks right past his friend Hank (stand in for Jack Kerouac in the book as well.) who is listlessly screwing Joan. WIlliam is much more intent on getting the Black Meat into his bloodstream.
”No American should find himself in a foreign land without a pistol.”
He continues to believe he is a secret agent and keeps typing up reports on his insectoid typewriter which will all be collected eventually into the book Naked Lunch.
Peter Weller is dead pan, calm, cool, and collected, much as I feel Burroughs was even as his life continued to fall apart and become stranger and stranger. Most of it completely his fault. The sex in the movie is farcical, completely different from the graphic, sometimes perverted sex in the book. The colors are bright, almost festive in the movie as if color has been heightened by the hallucinatory drugs William Lee has floating in his bloodstream. The creatures from the alien handler to the insect typewriters are more hilarious than terrifying. I found the whole movie brilliant. I have not seen all of Cronenberg’s film, but by far this is my favorite. It is a well constructed, enjoyable homage to Burroughs.
With the Criterion Blu Ray copy, they included a pamphlet with essays about Cronenberg, the making of the film, and a short piece written by Burroughs endorsing the film. It took more than ten years for Cronenberg to track down the financing and get this movie made. For this fan of Burroughs and Cronenberg, I was so glad he was so tenacious.