December 5, 2001
Starring: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider, Monique Mercure, Nicholas Campbell, Michael Zelniker, Robert A. Silverman, Joseph Scoren, Peter Boretski, Yuval Daniel, John Friesen, Sean McCann, Howard Jerome, ,
Just as David Cronenberg was the ideal filmmaker to adapt William S. Burroughs’ complex novel, Naked Lunch, into a film, The Criterion Collection is the perfect company to finally release this challenging movie on DVD. Both have never shied away from releasing ostentatious material (Cronenberg with Crash and Criterion with Salo), so it is rather appropriate that their paths should converge on this particular project.
Naked Lunch is one of the most difficult novels to adapt into a film. Not only does it defy normal narrative logic, but it is also filled with some of the most disturbing passages of violence and depravity ever committed to the page. Burroughs often tempers this with black humour and this takes the reader to surreal places. Cronenberg wisely does not attempt a faithful adaptation; instead he blends elements of the book along with two of Burroughs’ earlier efforts, Exterminator and Junky and autobiographical elements from the man’s life.
Burroughs alter ego, Bill Lee (Weller), is a part-time exterminator who writes spy novels in his spare time. One night, he accidentally shoots and kills his wife (Davis) in a parlor game gone horribly wrong. This incident, and his experimentation with bug killing powder as an opiate, leads him into the shadowy realm of Interzone where everyday objects, like his typewriter, transform into mechanized insects that talk to him. The line between what he is writing and what he is living becomes blurred beyond recognition.
In many respects, Cronenberg was the perfect choice to tackle Naked Lunch. Like Burroughs, he is fascinated by the merging of flesh with machines. One only has to look at an early film of his, like Videodrome (1983), to see Burroughs’ influence—the mix of pulpy exploitation with high concept ideas. The characters in Cronenberg’s films, like the characters in Burroughs’ fiction, are morally ambiguous. It is not as easy to identify with them as it is with characters in more mainstream entertainment.
The versatile Peter Weller (from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai to RoboCop) is well cast as Bill Lee. With his tall, gaunt appearance, he could almost pass for a young William S. Burroughs. Some reviews criticized his monotone line readings and the detached approach to his character but this is a superficial reading of his performance. His sometimes emotionless demeanour is as a result of a drug high and his detachment from mainstream society. It’s a nuanced, underrated performance and a career high from this offbeat actor.
The first DVD features an audio commentary with director David Cronenberg and actor Peter Weller. The filmmaker has always provided thoughtful, informative tracks and this one is no different. For those not familiar with Burroughs’ life or his body work, both men go into great detail about how the film is a pastiche of prose and real life incidents. Of interest to fans, the insect motif that is so prevalent in the film was Cronenberg’s idea and not one of Burroughs’ preoccupations, but he felt that it kept true to the spirit of the book. Weller mentions an amusing anecdote about his first meeting with Burroughs and how they talked at length about all kinds of addiction. This track is a good listen for the uninitiated, confused by all of the surreal imagery, and for the hardcore fan, with the in-depth discussions of all things Burroughs.
The second DVD starts off with a real treat for Cronenberg fans. “Naked Making Lunch” is a fantastic documentary made by Cronenberg expert, Chris Rodley in 1991. Rodley had complete access to the production and so there is some great behind-the-scenes footage here. For example, included are clips from a press conference with Cronenberg and Burroughs. There is an amusing moment when the writer dryly notes that only a fraction of his book is in the film—much to Cronenberg’s bemusement.
The “Special Effect Stills Gallery” is an illustrated essay on the special effects for the film that mixes text with stills and pre-production artwork.
There is also a “Film Stills Gallery” that features a decent selection of production photos and set design sketches.
The “Marketing” section contains a surprisingly good theatrical trailer that hypes the controversial nature of the book with narration provided by an uncanny Burroughs sound-alike. Also included is a promotional featurette with some decent interviews with most of the cast. What is so striking about this section is how this electronic press kit provides a fascinating snapshot of the times and how 20th Century Fox tried to market such an unmarketable film.
For Burroughs fans there is an hours worth of audio of the writer reading excerpts from Naked Lunch. Nothing beats hearing the ancient, sardonic drawl of the man reading his own work.
Finally, there is a small collection of photographs of Burroughs with his fellow Beat writers by poet and friend, Allen Ginsberg. The pictures that are included in this section were taken during the time Naked Lunch was written and eventually published.
Like the book that it’s based on, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is a difficult, often impenetrable work of art. The Criterion Collection has provided a solid compilation of supplemental material that puts the film into the proper context and helps in understanding this complex test. They have also provided extras that will please fans already familiar with both artists’ work—it’s a tricky balancing act that Criterion pulls off effortlessly.