It has long been a piece of folk wisdom in the film industry that writers rarely make good subjects for stories. What could be less cinematic than the sight of a novelist, alone in his or her study, hunched over a typewriter or computer terminal?
Yet, judging from a cycle of films from the early '90s, it would seem that the writer is the tormented, dramatic hero par excellence. For the protagonists of Barton Fink (1991) and Communion (1989), the usually mundane condition of writer's block brings forth grand visions and surreal nightmares. And then there are movies as different as Steven Soderbergh's Kafka (1991) and Jon Amiel's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1990).
Naked Lunch takes us into the wild, hallucinatory mind of Beat author William Burroughs. Writer-director David Cronenberg takes an unusual approach to adapting Burrough's notorious, free-associative fantasy novel. Ideas and images from many Burroughs stories are framed within a loosely veiled biography of the author's own, very seedy life.
Thus we are given William Lee (played with unnerving cool by Peter Weller), a pest exterminator and a junkie. After playing a fatal game of William Tell with his wife Joan (Judy Davis), he plunges deep into a twilight zone of drugs and madness. In the strange, treacherous, exotic world of Interzone, Lee becomes a pawn in an unfathomable political game.
Lee is no ordinary writer. His typewriters speak, mutate into monstrous beings, and engage in hideous sexual acts. Other creatures that Lee encounters in Interzone – such as the Mugwamps – are even more articulate and sinister. And the slick, scheming human beings he meets (including Roy Scheider as Dr Benway and Ian Holm as Tom Frost) are no less inscrutable or disquieting.
Cronenberg is well known for his brilliant, gory horror films of the '80s like Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986). Naked Lunch has its icky moments, but overall it is a fully certified art film, slow and reflective. The director's control over performances, images and an indelible brand of sick, ironic humour has never been more subtle or masterful.
Yet Naked Lunch is also an elusive film. At times, it seems as if Cronenberg is determined to capture the banality and monotony of a junkie's inglorious existence.
Is the film, ultimately, a celebration or a criticism of William Burroughs and his perverse art? The finale – one of the blackest, most unnerving scenes that Cronenberg has ever conceived – will certainly move audiences to ponder that question long and loud.
© Adrian Martin May 1992