William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) was one of the most important writers of the Beat Generation, his novel Naked Lunch is one of the most well known books of that time, creating equal amounts of shock and awe. Like Allen Ginsberg's Howl, Burroughs faced an obscenity trial that helped his book gain even more popularity. His work was effected by his excessive drug use which made his writing pace very inconsistent and his books very drug based. For many years he was a heroin addict, sporadically using those experiences in his work was something he would do his entire career. On August 2, 1997 Burroughs suffered a heart attack, he was 83-years-old.
Naked Lunch loosely incorporates parts of William S. Burroughs' classic novel of the same name, two of his other novels Junkie, Exterminator! and Queer, with just much of it being inspired by his actual life. Just like the novel that inspired it, this film is not the least bit coherent with the feel of a continuous drugged out haze. For a long time Naked Lunch was considered "un-filmable", in many respects it still is, David Cronenberg goes crazy with Burroughs' ideas, qualities, and ways of life without attempting to bring them together in any sensible way. A sporadically random collection of images and characters.
William Lee (Peter Weller) is a recovering addict who has become a bug exterminator as an attempt to have an honest job. Meanwhile his wife Joan (Judy Davis) has become addicted to William's bug powder, injecting it like heroin, which leads William to experimenting and also becoming addicted. While suffering for "sporadic" hallucinations, William is becomes convinced that he is an agent fighting against an organization called Interzone Incorporated. Under the guidance of giant talking bugs he is told that his wife isn't human, though dismissing the bugs he still unintentionally kills her during William Tell routine.
I will say that it is a powerful moment to watch the William Tell routine when knowing that Burroughs really did accidentally kill his wife Joan Vollmer that exact way. It is that moment Burroughs considers when he realized he was going to be a writer, saying that after she died all his time was dedicated to drugs and writing. He would flee to Mexico to avoid jail time. So isn't it safe to say that his entire career is in debt to that one moment?
Each character is, or at least seems to be, a representation of someone Burroughs knew in real life. William is nothing else than a very accurate portrayal of Burroughs himself. Peter Weller's performance is unreliable and emotionless, exactly like the man he is meant to represent. Some other obvious ones are William's friends Hank and Martin -- both played satisfyingly by Nicholas Campbell and Michael Zelniker -- who are extremely reminiscent of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg who were good friends with Burroughs. Hank is played b Both men assisted him with the book Naked Lunch. We first see them sitting at a coffee shop having a pointless argument about the positives and negatives of each of their writing styles, in a way reserved for the Beat Generation they make every simple conversation become an exhausting battle of ideals.
Cronenberg was the man for this job, but was the job necessary? Using the visual tricks that have made him such a beloved director for cult groups, Cronenberg leaves us with lasting twisted images; roach-like typewriters attacking rival type writers. The atmosphere of the noirish African setting of Interzone makes the druggy dream-like imagery very fitting. He does create a film that is very interesting to watch, though everything feels so random, so much detail put into scenes that are forgettable. Here is an attempt for Cronenberg to create a new type of film, something that might have been something to with the impact similar to Videodrome (1983), his surrealist vision of violent television taking over people's minds. I guess there was just so much to work with that his ideas, mixed with Burroughs' ideas, clashed making a real mess of a film.
With as much purpose as Terry Gilliam's film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's classic novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Naked Lunch does not have any wonderfully eccentric performances like that of Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. The mood is just so dark, overwhelmingly really, I felt quite distracted by just how serious this ridiculous film let itself become. Both films are in drugged out states through their entirety, that alone is enough to give someone a headache, so when a film decides include detailed phallic visuals into the mix the weirdness can be a little too much. All in all this film is an interesting mess, unfortunately it isn't interesting enough to be worth the headache that is caused.
Reviewing Naked Lunch is like reviewing the life and mind of William S. Burroughs because all it is, is a dedicated collage that tries to adequately combine important moments of his life with his drug-culture ideas. Cronenberg's own vision does work well in its own right with Burrough's, although I do think that this proves that Naked Lunch is a book that is "un-filmable." Watching this isn't a waste of time if you can respect something for what it tries to do other than just what is achieved. I guess this is one of one of those films that had to be made in some sort of way, so maybe this is the best we could get out of it.