Horror is a genre of ideas, of what ifs turned into terrifying flesh-and-blood monsters. In the 1980s, David Cronenberg emerged as a renouned horror director for his willingness to explore dark avenues of thought, rather than burying them beneath layers of screaming teenagers and half-baked plots. Despite his genre of choice, too often considered a low-minded form of entertainment, Cronenberg’s films were always somehow literate. It seems only natural that he would eventually adapt a novel, and it seems almost perfect that the novel would be William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.
In many ways, Cronenberg and Burroughs are a perfect pairing. No matter how many times I watch Videodrome, I doubt I’ll ever understand every piece of the puzzle, and the same goes with much of Burroughs’s work, including his magnum opus novel Naked Lunch. You don’t think about Cronenberg’s and Burroughs’s art so much as you feel it, even if it doesn’t always feel good. Despite the title, Naked Lunch is a film less concerned with its source material than it is with its author. This is a biopic of the bizarre life of William S. Burroughs, as filtered through the bizarre sensibilities of William S. Burroughs, as filtered through the bizarre sensibilities of David Cronenberg. Needless to say, the result is bizarre. Two difficult artists come together in a film roughly as difficult as you might expect.
Like its namesake, the film resists attempts to make sense of the whole thing, which often proves frustrating, especially on the initial watch. Beneath all the sexualized imagery and incomprehensible plotting though, there’s a relatively bare bones story of a man who discovers a disturbing world of drugs and confusing sexuality in the wake of a tragedy, and becomes an artist almost by accident, or perhaps by instinct. Burroughs stand-in Bill Lee (a stoic Peter Weller) doesn’t think about the art he’s creating, and we only find out he’s been writing the novel that would become Naked Lunch through a brief visit by beat buddies Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The words and the themes pour from him as he discovers new facets of his id. The art isn’t an extension of the mind but of the body, and so the typewriter isn’t a machine, but a living, breathing, feeling thing once Lee uses it.
Other subplots flit in and out of the story seemingly at random, sometimes coming to a head in gloriously weird sequences that make even the most discerning viewers question if they missed something. Cronenberg clouds Burroughs’s life story with the nightmarish and noir-tinged themes of his work. Unlike many adaptations, Cronenberg doesn’t really retain words from the text but rather tries to translate Burroughs’s abstract writings into images. Burroughs drew many parallels between insects and humans, specifically their baser animal impulses like eroticism. Burroughs stand-in Bill Lee, in one scene, watches in one scene as a long millipede gyrates like a belly dancer around his restroom. In another, a predatorial dandy turns into a literal predator, elongated and many-legged but still sporting the same unsettling grin, as he takes advantage of young gay man.
More than anything, Naked Lunch is about what drives us to create art. It isn’t always a choice, and it isn’t always pretty. For Burroughs and for Cronenberg, art is another insectoid impulse, like addiction or sexuality, that can’t really be understood. Lee’s art is motivated by tragedy, by id and by a lack of understanding for the grotesque world surrounding him. The noir elements reflect the sense that an artist is simply wandering through a disturbing, impossible to understand world and recording what they see, the way they see it.
The film retains the horrific, visceral creature effects Cronenberg perfected in his earlier horror films, often to make art come alive. Even outside the horror genre, he’s working at the height of his powers in terms of creature design, as Lee’s artistic impulses take on many forms, including a typewriter-turned bug and a cigarette-smoking alien that assigns him artistic missions, like an FBI agent coaching a CI. Since this is not a horror, Cronenberg alters his style accordingly. Instead of the eerie blue television glows of Videodrome or the slime-green laboratory lighting in The Fly, Cronenberg bathes the whole movie in a vaguely nauseating yellow tint that suits its Tangiers locale while imbuing the film with a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia due to lack of natural sunlight. The screen seems to be perpetually coated with the heroin-esque bug powder Bill Lee soon finds himself hooked on. Indeed, the drugs do provide a sort of lens through which the whole story is filtered.
Like most noir heroes, Lee lives in a dark world that only reveals itself to be darker as time passes. Though Lee does temporarily find love, it doesn’t last. Late in the runtime, in one of the strangest scenes in an excessively strange film, Lee discovers a sort of underground lab where the alien creatures who first sent Lee on his artistic journey are suspended upside down and milked of their bodily fluids. Just as art can turn machines into flesh, industry can turn art into machinery. These agents of art have been streamlined and abused by a shape-shifting foe wishing to profit from human creativity. Lee, just like Burroughs and Cronenberg, can’t stop the perversion of art, and so he flees to his next assignment.
Seeking entrance to this new land, the border patrol guides oddly demand Lee proves that he’s really an artist. For Cronenberg and likely for Burroughs, the only way to prove such a thing is through pain and tragedy. Art is uncompromising. Lee can only continue to create art by forgoing his shot at happiness and at love.
by Jeffrey Rindskopf