Forgotten Cronenberg: Naked Lunch
I was 31 the first time I saw David Cronenberg’s take on William S Burroughs’ 1959 novel, Naked Lunch. Feeling nostalgic, I ordered the Criterion Collection edition (the only way it’s available) and have just learned, to my horror, that Naked Lunch is a movie you don’t want to see more than once!
Peter Weller (Robocop) channels Burroughs’ drug-quenched spirit as William Lee, an exterminator who finds that his wife Joan (the magnificent Judy Davis) is using his insecticide powder to get high. When he too begins hallucinating because of “bug powder” exposure, he comes to believe he is a secret agent who takes his orders from a talking insectoid typewriter and an alien “Mugwump”. The giant talking bug assigns him the mission of killing Joan (who is said to be an enemy agent), and it is this death which sends Bill off on a paranoid, drug-drenched adventure through the gay Casablanca known as “Interzone Incorporated.”
Burroughs’ subversive, allegorically political depiction of drugs and homosexuality becomes the perfect playground for Cronenberg’s oft-cited love of “body horror”; but instead of our human protagonists, it is the Giger-esque insectoid typewriters whose bodies are metaphorically pleasured and mangled.
But even more shocking (and delightful) than these talking typewriter-bugs that communicate through their pulsating sphincters is “The Mugwump”, designed by Stephan Dupuis. While only roughly described in the novel, Cronenberg’s intention was to make the creatures look like a junkie’s body, and more humanoid than the creature described in the book. Indeed, he went as far as to decide that they should be based on William Burroughs himself, that it should look like him, have something about him in his face, chest and posture. Cronenberg’s Mugwumps were extraterrestrials from Venus and appeared much more benevolent than the creatures in Burrough’s book and were said to be “sexually ambivalent”.
The film has been called “a metatextual adaptation” in that it depicts the writing of the novel itself. Several characters are loosely based on people that Burroughs knew: Hank and Martin (Nicholas Campbell and Michael Zelniker) are based on Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg (who assisted Burroughs in compiling the original novel), and Tom and Joan Frost on Paul and Jane Bowles (Ian Holm and Judy Davis) whom Burroughs befriended in Tangier, Morocco.
As rendered by Davis, both Joan Lee and Joan Frost are wry and sexy, but with a little doom thrown in for charm. Explaining why she shoots up bug powder she purrs, “It’s a Kafka high, you feel like a bug”.
The film’s stellar cast also includes Roy Scheider as a quack doctor and drug dealer, Julian Sands as Bill’s lovelorn suitor, and Monique Mercure as the lesbian witch Fedela(!)
By the way, “the title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”