Written by: Michael Mackenzie on May 14th, 2005
Theatrical Release Dates: USA, December 27th, 1991
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: David Cronenberg
Cast: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider
DVD Released: November 11th, 2003
Approximate Running Time: 115 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Stereo
DVD Release: Criterion
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $39.95
I have not read the book Naked Lunch; nor do I have any particular plans do to so at any point in the near future. From what I have gathered about it, it is not the sort of book that you read from cover to cover, but rather, like a religious text or dictionary, dip into when you are looking for something specific. The primary focus of this review, therefore, is not how the film measures us as an adaptation of a work of literature, but rather how the film portrays the various ideas and concepts that it tackles. From a sheer cinematic standpoint it is one of the best pieces of work I have ever had the pleasure of seeing; how it compares to its source material, if you are interested in such matters, is something you will have to decide for yourself, for it is an area in which I am ill-equipped to advise.
The pairing of David Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs would seem to be the perfect combination. After all, both have long demonstrated an interest in obscure body horror, and indeed the Canadian filmmaker has often cited Burroughs as one of his indirect references. The end result, however, is unlike anything that could have been predicted: an immensely complex piece of work that combines the Cronenbergian style with material from Burroughs’ literature and elements of the author’s own life. Despite not wanting to get drawn into an attempt to compare the book with the film, a brief discussion of this matter is relevant to any review of the film, due to the unique approach taken by Cronenberg. With the book deemed “unfilmable”, Cronenberg wisely avoided trying to do such a thing; instead, his script combines elements of Burroughs’ life during the period in which he wrote Naked Lunch with ideas from the book itself and a number of Burroughs’ other novels, creating in “Bill Lee” a character who seems more or less to be a stand-in for Burroughs (Lee being his mother’s maiden name), and who inhabits a world that is a bizarre mixture of the book, Burroughs’ imagination and the various places in which he lived throughout his life.
In many ways I surprise myself in liking this film so much. Not only have I not read the original book, I have never sampled a single drug, the consumption of which seems to be a main focus of the movie and something that colours virtually every aspect of it. To some extent the film can be enjoyed purely for being weird, and that is not necessarily an inappropriate way in which to view it. Certainly, coming to terms with any movie in which substances such as “mugwump jism” figure heavily can be a little tricky, but there is more going on beneath the surface than simply attempting to make people laugh via obscure scatological references. Naked Lunch is about being trapped and unable to move on: Bill Lee shoots his wife but comes across a ‘reincarnation’ of her in Interzone; at the film’s climax he kills her too in a scene that plays out virtually identically to the one in which he shot his wife. Elsewhere in the film, Joan Frost is found to be writing the same phrase again and again: “All is lost”.
The fact that Burroughs’ life is combined with his writing is also of vital importance. The clearest example of this is Lee shooting his wife (something which Burroughs actually did, the exact details of which are shrouded in mystery). Lee first shoots Joan Lee and then later Joan Frost in exactly the same manner. Both with the same first named and both played by the same actress, Judy Davis, he essentially shoots essentially the same woman twice, representing the fact that this event has coloured both his life and his writing (which, indeed, are so closely connected that they become intertwined) and is something that he will never be able to escape from. This is the fantastic power of Naked Lunch: it illustrates better than any other film (except perhaps Julio Medem’s fabulous Sex and Lucía) the relationship between an author and his work.
Holding it all together, and somehow lending an air of legitimacy to all the bizarre goings-on, are the performances by the varied cast. Peter Weller’s deadpan performance as Bill Lee is excellent, incorporating many of Burroughs’ mannerisms (Weller socialized with Burroughs and studied his behaviour thoroughly before playing the part) and straddling the fine line between insanity and indifference. Judy Davis, too, is great, playing two very similar characters with only slight differences to distinguish them. Special mention must also go to Peter Boretski, who provides the voices for the various bugs Lee encounters. Elsewhere, Cronenberg’s regular cinematographer Peter Suschitsky gives the film a wonderfully earthy quality, and Howard Shore’s offbeat score – one of his most experimental to date – combines jazz with ethnic sensibilities. The creature effects, by Jim Isaac (who would later go on to direct Jason X, featuring a cameo by Cronenberg!), are also quite stunning, combining believable performances with just the right amount of that hand-made feel.
The way in which Cronenberg dealt with the material is unqiue in cinema and was inevitably going to be controversial, and it is quite possible that, if I was an avid Burroughs reader, I would consider this adaptation tantamount to blasphemy, but from my perspective as a Cronenberg follower rather than an acolyte of Burroughs, the finished piece is among the finest work I have ever seen on screen. Naked Lunch is not for everyone and indeed will probably frustrate many, but if your taste in movies veers slightly off the beaten track, I highly recommend this work of psychotropic splendour.
I can state with some certainty that this transfer is pretty much the best you’re going to get on a format as lossy as MPEG2. Any criticisms of this transfer are going to be restricted to completely anal nitpicks, as this is just about the smoothest, sharpest, most film-like presentation I have seen of any film on any DVD. The transfer is framed at 1.78:1, which is slightly narrower than its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1; I’m not sure why Criterion have framed it this way (they did the same with Straw Dogs), but since it carries the blessing of Cronenberg, I’m going to accept it as faithful to his vision. Barring two or three edges that look slightly enhanced, I really can’t fault this presentation at all. The compression is handled expertly and the grain structure is maintained superbly. This is fine work from Criterion: exquisite even by their high standards.
The only audio track provided is the original stereo mix, with surround encoding, which of course is as it should be. Once again, it’s nigh on impossible to find fault with this aspect of the presentation. It’s not going to wow you like the 5.1 mix on the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but it does exactly what is expected of it and is as crisp and clear a track as you could hope to find. The English subtitles are equally great: clear, distinctive, easy to read and appropriately sized. My only complaint in this respect is that Criterion continue to fail to provide subtitles for the bonus features, but otherwise there is nothing wrong here. As one of Criterion’s higher-priced releases, Naked Lunch is a two-disc set coming in one of their standard double-thickness alpha cases and containing a chunky booklet filled with liner notes. These notes are of an exceptionally high standard, featuring essays by critics Janet Masley, Chris Rodley and Gary Indiana, as well as – arguably best of all – an essay by William Burroughs himself, in which he discusses his reaction to Cronenberg’s interpretation of his work.
Disc 1’s only extra is a feature-length commentary featuring Cronenberg and Peter Weller. Recorded separately and edited together, the two comment on a wide range of subjects, primarily focusing on the difficulties of adapting the book and Burroughs’ life to the screen. This is an excellent commentary and well worth a listen.
Disc 2 kicks off with the documentary Naked Making Lunch, a 50-minute BBC documentary produced at the time of the film’s production and recounting both the making of the film itself, the story of Burroughs’ life and previous attempts to bring the book to the screen. Of particular interests are the various interviews with Cronenberg, Burroughs, Weller, Davis and producer Jeremy Thomas, who provide some useful insights into what they are attempting to achieve and the difficulties of getting the project off the ground. Of particular note are footage from a press conference featuring Cronenberg and Burroughs, and various clips in which Burroughs reads sections from Naked Lunch to the camera. A huge Special effects and stills gallery follows, centring around an essay by Jodie Duncan and featuring copious conceptual drawings, storyboard and photographs showing the various animatronic creatures being built and “performed”. Another gallery, this one focusing on Film stills, shows various behind the scenes, production and promotional photographs. The Marketing materials section features a bizarre and quite effective trailer, designed in collaboration with Cronenberg and featuring a Burroughs sound-alike voice-over, as well as a 6-minute EPK-style featurette, three minutes’ worth of B-roll on-set footage, and two TV spots that incorporate many of the ideas from the theatrical trailer. One real highlight of this release is a collection of nine audio-only sections featuring Burroughs reading excerpts of the book Naked Lunch, in that wonderfully dry, drawling voice of his. Originally produced for an audio book in 1995, it is backed up by music by Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and Eyvind Kang. In all, there is slightly over an hour of material here. Finally, a collection of photographs of Burroughs, taken by his friend Allen Ginsberg, are included.
Naked Lunch will not be for everyone, but those who enjoy this offbeat offering from David Cronenberg will be more than happy with this superb DVD from Criterion, one of the studio’s absolute best releases to date.
This review originally appeared at Whiggles.com and is reprinted here with permission.