I love Naked Lunch. I love David Cronenberg. Theoretically, I should love David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of William Burrough’s psychosurreal classic. But hey, that’s rational thought for you, right? I didn’t love it in ’93 or ’94, the first time I saw it. Maybe I was too young. Maybe I just didn’t get it (but if that was the case then why did I love the book so much..?) So I watched it again as an undergrad; this was maybe ’99 or ’00. Nope. In fact, I remember thinking “Wow. This is actually pretty bad.” At that point, I was a big Cronenberg fan too. eXistenZ had just come out. eXistenZ is easily my favorite Cronenberg film, and a favorite film in general, and Naked Lunch didn’t hold up well against it or my re-reading of the Burrough’s book. But yet and still, ever the glutton for disappointment, I gave the Naked Lunch movie another shot this weekend, as part of the Biblioklept Summer of Cronenberg Film Festival. Guess what? It’s not a very good movie.
The fault of Cronenberg’s movie is not in failing to adapt the content of Burrough’s book, which is pretty much untranslatable as a narrative movie. Instead, Cronenberg attempts to weld some of the images of Naked Lunch–along with elements of other Burroughs novels such as Nova Express, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket that Exploded–into a cohesive thread using Burroughs’s biography as the overarching frame story. Burroughs’s life story is fascinating–the guy shot his wife in the head, for chrissakes–and lit junkies will love to see characters based on Kerouac and Ginsberg and Paul Bowles–but the end results simply don’t achieve or reflect the spirit of the novel. The bitter, caustic satire of Naked Lunch is almost wholly absent, replaced by wry one-liners from Peter Weller (who woodenly portrays Burroughs’s alter-ego, William Lee (an alter-ego who doesn’t appear in the novel of Naked Lunch at all, incidentally)). Cronenberg seems to underestimate his audience’s capacity for a nonlinear story, taking the loose collection of riffs, routines, and episodes that comprise Naked Lunch, and turning them into a pretty dull meditation on the nature of creativity and the suffering and alienation of the outsider-artist. Worst of all, the audience is asked to identify and sympathize with William Lee–again, this seems to be a negation of the original text.
In the end, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is just another bad Cronenberg film (see also: his mish-mashed adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, his boring adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone). In Naked Lunch, we get the usual Cronenbergian tropes: mechanical objects that become hideously organic, bodily invasion, constant “is this real or is this a dream?” moments, and general dark creepiness. However, they simply don’t work here: Cronenberg is attempting Burroughs-icky resulting only in Cronenberg-icky. Cronenberg’s entire oeuvre is littered with flawed films, but I tend to enjoy them more for their flaws. This one was a no-go though, and I gave it three shots. But, in a way, I believe that Cronenberg deserved three viewings. You never know. Still, I doubt I’ll watch this one again.
If you haven’t seen a Cronenberg film, I suggest starting with Videodrome, A History of Violence, or eXistenZ. He also has a new movie coming out later this year, Eastern Promises starring Naomi Watts. If you haven’t read Burroughs, I suggest starting with Junkie or Queer (or just go ahead and jump into Naked Lunch).
I end with a far better review of Naked Lunch than I’ve provided here, courtesy of The Simpsons. Do you remember that episode where Bart makes a fake driver license (not the one where he’s awarded a real driver license courtesy Mayor Quimby)? And he takes Milhouse and Nelson and Martin on a road trip to the World’s Fair in Knoxville? Well, along the way the boys decide to sneak into an R-rated movie. They leave the theater disappointed; the shot reveals that they’ve just left Naked Lunch. Nelson remarks: “There’s at least two things wrong with that title.” I’ll leave it at that.