The facts are these. In 1951, William S. Burroughs shot and killed his common law wife Joan Vollmer in a drunken game of “William Tell” at the Bounty Bar in Mexico City. Fleeing back home to the United States and beginning a peripatetic life that took him all over South America, Tangiers, and New York City, Burroughs also embarked on one of the most important literary careers of the 20th century. In 1959, he published one of the strangest and most subversive novels of all time, Naked Lunch.
Naked Lunch represents that most unfilmable of all unfilmable projects. Salinger may have been right that The Catcher in the Rye could not be captured on celluloid. He probably meant by this that the book conveys a level of angst and yearning that likely couldn’t be matched on screen.
But it’s a least possible to imagine Holden Caulfield slumming around Manhattan. How do you picture the flumes of bodily excrescence that explode in Naked Lunch, its alien interrogators and masters of control hovering over bodies in pain and pleasure, the inward ecstasies and torment of bodies on a perpetual high?
The Criterion release of David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch offers the closest to this experience we are likely to ever get. Burroughs’ himself says in the disc’s “Making of” feature that he never expected more than a fraction of the book to make it into the film. In fact, this is something other than a filming of a book, an adaptation. In fact, it’s not really an adaptation at all. It’s a collaborative project, something entirely new.
Cronenberg chose to blend elements of the novel with bits and pieces of Burroughs’ biography. Joan Vollmer makes an appearance as does the horrific “William Tell” incident, Cronenberg mingles with the biographical flotsam and jetsam his own interest in body horror and a meditation on the meaning of the Beat movement.
Cronenberg makes clear in the excellent “Making of” featurette that he had no desire to make a “drug movie” in the midst of the “war on drugs. He succeeds admirably in this by making the “drug” a valuable kind of “roach powder” which in turn allows him to integrate his strange talking insects that, borrowing heavily from the novel, speak through an aperture part anus, part vagina and part wound. These repulsive symbols mediate everything from Burroughs’ obsession with “junk” (heroin) to the book’s interest in sexuality as a mystical mode of knowing, an alienated generations replacement for prayer.
The film follows “Bill”, a character who, in dress and demeanor, clearly stands in for William Burroughs himself, through a series of nourish landscapes. It intertwines Joan’s accidental death with Burrough’s struggle to become a writer (a struggle with terrifying typewriters that will cause you to never see a keyboard the same way again). The many science fictional elements of the film are borrowed directly from Burroughs’ work, blending well with Burrough’s philosophy of the dangers of control and social supervision, tyrannies he saw working at every level of human experience.
“Homosexuality is the best all around cover an agent ever had.” This line from the film (and this idea that appears in the novel) reminds us that Burroughs understood the idea of “gender trouble” long before scholars like Judith Butler defined the term. The film deals with this idea rather brilliantly. In one of the featurettes, Cronenberg tells of how he explained to Burroughs that the director’s own “heterosexual” sensibility would have to inform the film. This, of course, represents a departure from the book’s themes (since its, among other things, a classic of gay literature… though Burroughs probably would have disliked that description).
Some might find Cronenberg’s approach both a butchery and a concession to homophobia. In truth, his refusal to make Naked Lunch a “gay film” (whatever that is) fits well with Burroughs and the Beats conception of sexuality and its meaning.
In Burroughs, gender and sexual identity are complex and fluid, resisting normalcy and any kind of structure that might impose new standard of normalcy. Burroughs found homonormativity as objectionable as heteronormativity. While this might make the film politically problematic for some, it shares this sexual anarchism with Burroughs’ oeuvre.
Cronenberg captures the essence of the novel in a number of important ways (if such a book can be said to contain an essence). The tagline of the 1991 film was “Exterminate all rational thought.” In essence, this constituted Burroughs’ whole literary project. A pirate of words, he made it his mission to take everything from the cold war to psychiatry to drug use to Latin American gay subcultures and blend them into a full frontal assault on the structures of human thought.
Burrough’s could arguably be considered the most subversive of the Beats. Kerouac idealized the romance of the road but incorporated into this love affair fairly traditional notions of American masculinity along with a healthy dose of manifest destiny and a fascination with frontiers worth conquering. Burroughs’ frontiers are the strangest corners of the self, places of mythic struggle where freedom resists not only outward controls, but even the strictures imposed by language.
Cronenberg captures this with his noir hero’s struggles with Burrough’s concept of the “Interzone”, his efforts to acquire the mystical roach powder and his game of deception played with the insectoid horrors that stalk him. Mixing the fantastical with reflections on the dangerous and terrifyingly illuminating act of writing itself, Cronenberg and Burroughs collaboration offers a bizarre aria on disease, sexuality and freedom.
The single disc included in this set contains the same special features as Criterion’s previous DVD release. But these are an outstanding set of features, a treat for Burroughs and Beats fans as well as Cronenberg aficionados. The “Making Of” feature includes interviews and readings by Burroughs. The disc also includes Burroughs reading selected passages from Naked Lunch (especially the segments dealing with the film’s philosophical themes of social discipline and punishment).
Perhaps an even greater treat for Burroughs enthusiasts, another special feature allows the viewer to scan through about 25 photographs of Burroughs in New York City and Tangiers in the early ‘50s. These are not images of the Burroughs you are most familiar with (although the mid-century fedora makes an appearance). He’s young here, sitting with Kerouac in Ginsberg’s apartment and, according to the text, giving advice to an even younger Jack about women (!!!). Or he’s at a café in North Africa, an exile among exiles and yet still startlingly alien looking in his own idiosyncratic way.
The crisp transfer will be welcome although its not so much richer than the previous DVD release that you could call it a required purchase, even for Cronenberg completists. Criterion included an excellent book of essays with the set that features a piece by Burroughs himself on the making of the film. This is exactly the same text included, however, in the earlier DVD release.
Peter Weller, who portrays Burroughs, describes Cronenberg’s effort as being a film about the subtext of Naked Lunch rather than the novel itself. At its heart, he says, pulses the sadness that created the art. As Cronenberg notes, Burroughs often described his art as a way to defeat “the ugly spirit”, the shadows of a strange and violent night in 1951 that never left him. Naked Lunch the film probes these dark places and lets the ugly spirits come out to play.