Director – David Cronenberg – 1991 – Canada – Cert. 18 – 115m
UK PAL laserdisc review.
Distributor Pioneer LDCE
Cat No: PFLEB 30781
BBFC Certificate 18
Running Time 85 min
New York, 1953. Bug exterminator Bill Lee (Peter Weller) runs out of roach powder whilst treating an infested apartment. His initial accusations against his employers’ theft of the substance are revealed as groundless when he discovers wife Joan (Judy Davis) is using the brown powder as a drug. She persuades him to take up the habit. In a downtown interview, two narcotics detectives introduce Bill to his “Case Officer” – a typewriter sized bug with a talking orifice in its back who instructs him to kill Joan, as she is an Interzone agent.
After shooting his wife, Bill seeks counselling from Dr.Benway (Roy Scheider) who gives him a counter narcotic. A Mugwump gives Bill two air tickets to the Interzone where he meets (among others) Swiss expatriate Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands) and writers Tom and Joan Frost (Ian Holm and Judy Davis). Throughout his adventures, friends Hank (Nicholas Campbell) and Martin (Michael Zelikner) encourage Bill to write his book Naked Lunch.
Before Cronenberg made Crash (1996) for British producer Jeremy Thomas, the pair collaborated on this adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, another novel considered equally unfilmable (there had already been several failed attempts by others). The overall fabric incorporates biographical details from Burroughs’ life number of his books. Hence, the “accidental” shooting of his wife at a party (Burroughs was high at the time) jostles with insect typewriters turning into sex blobs (here pink, dog sized insects with prominent flattened buttocks) and animatronic Mugwumps (sipping cocktails at a seedy bar) working for the Interzone network.
As director, Cronenberg once again confirms his mastery not only at handling both actors and special effects but also in his sheer command of filmic vocabulary. The sequence where Joan Lee (Judy Davis) is startled by husband Bill’s “William Tell Routine” going wrong and getting her shot (he takes out his gun after she’s balanced a glass on her head) is as unforgettable as it is unsettling. When Cronenberg reruns the sequence later on (with a slight variation), it comes over equally shocking second time round. Equally memorable are the various insect typewriters (the first of which has a literal “talking asshole” after a Burroughs anecdote later recounted by Bill Lee).
While the meandering, drug-induced haze of a plot rather lets the proceedings down, the potency of various images more than compensates, not least in their resonances elsewhere in the director’s work. Thus, the pulsating TV which seduced James Woods in Videodrome (1983) is here translated into a pulsating typewriter turned sex blob which cavorts with Bill Lee and (another) writer’s wife Joan Frost (Davis in a second role) in a frenzied moment of passion; significantly, though, the typewriter is an instrument of creativity whereas Videodrome‘s TV represented mere relaxation. Naked Lunch will make a lot more sense to those familiar with Videodrome‘s “New Flesh”.
At once Cronenberg’s most complex and least coherent work, Naked Lunch is essentially a film about writers and the creative process, viewed through a drug-induced, fifties counter-culture haze. For aficionados of the Cronenberg oeuvre, it brings together Videodrome‘s hallucination, The Fly‘s entomological aesthetics and Dead Ringers‘ fall from grace via drugs. Pioneer’s disc has some eleven chapters per side, but more would have been nice since this is unusually a movie you’re as likely to watch in little segments (not necessarily preferring any one scene over any other) as from start to finish – a movie to be watched, in fact, in a manner, not dissimilar to Burroughs’ ‘cut-up’ approach to writing.
Unlike Videodrome, quite a lot of action takes place at one or other side of the screen (Bill Lee’s leaning on a door at screen left springs to mind), so it’s nice to see a widescreen presentation. Gorgeously lit by Peter Suschitzky (Crash/1996, Mars Attacks!/1997) it looks wonderful on LD despite the small number of minor print scratches during Dr.Benway’s reappearance in Chapter 20, (not enough to be annoying – and they don’t last long anyway).
More irritatingly, the terrific UK TV trailer featuring the voice of Burroughs (“Cover your eyes America! Run For Your Lives!”) isn’t included on the disc. On a more positive note, the unsettling score (a collaboration between regular Cronenberg composer Howard Shore and jazzer Ornette Coleman) sounds terrific here (the soundtrack CD, on Milan Records, is highly recommended and well worth tracking down). But best of all is the price, which Pioneer have just reduced to an unbelievable bargain £9.99. A revealing entry in the Cronenberg canon, Naked Lunch remains quite unlike anything else.