Director – David Cronenberg – 1991 – Canada – Cert. 18 – 115m
Watching David Cronenberg’s film of William Burroughs’ novel The Naked Lunch, it becomes clear that the two men share a bizarre sensibility for what the protagonist of the director’s earlier remake of The Fly (1985) described as “insect politics”.
To film Burroughs’ “unfilmable” work, Cronenberg adopts the strategy of incorporating biographical details from the writer’s life into an overall fabric also comprising elements from a number of Burroughs’ 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 working for the Interzone network.
Once again, Cronenberg is shown as a master not only at directing 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.
Equally memorable are the various insect typewriters (the first of which has a literal “talking asshole” after a Burroughs anecdote placed later in Bill Lee’s mouth by Cronenberg’s script. While the meandering, drug induced haze of a plot rather lets the film down, the potency of its various images more than compensate, since they illuminate much of what’s gone before 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 (Judy Davis in a second role) in a frenzied moment of passion; significantly, though, the typewriter is an instrument of creativity whereas the TV precursor represented mere relaxation.
Likewise, the Mugwumps could only have emanated from the same mind as the biologically considered Brundlefly (both were also executed, I note in passing, by the Chris Walas effects facility). While Naked Lunch is recommended, it will make a lot more sense to those familiar with the director’s earlier work: those uninitiated in the ways of Cronenberg’s “new flesh” are therefore directed to both the ICA and Scala cinemas which are currently programming a number of the films.
Finally, hats off to British producer Jeremy Thomas for having the guts to get behind Cronenberg’s most commercially problematic project to date; the curious result is nothing if not a revealing addition to the Cronenberg canon.