Want a Mind-Blowing Literary High? Watch 'Naked Lunch'

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?

Naked Lunch

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Peter Weller, Judy Davis
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
Release date: 2013-04-09

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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