Calling J. Hoberman “one of the greatest film critics to emerge from his generation,” the very wise and always correct tastemakers at BAM kick off their month-long tribute to Hoberman’s 30-year career at the Voice this week with screenings of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (the first film Hoberman reviewed for the paper) and David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. Here at Hoberman HQ, we couldn’t be prouder or more pleased for the opportunity to revisit his 1992 review of the latter, which celebrated the elusive art of writing that has been Jim’s life’s work.
The designated straight man in David Cronenberg’s comic adaptation of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, Peter Weller is as unsmiling as an icon and as unflappable as a ’40s private eye. The movie opens by casting the shadow of Weller’s fedora on a tenement door; he mumbles his way through every subsequent scene as Burroughs’s stand-in, the exterminator in the three-piece suit.
There would scarcely seem to be a movie in Burroughs’s hallucinatory, sexually raw, severely nonlinear novel. Still, as early as 1958, Burroughs’s pals Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso tried to sell John Huston on the idea. In 1971, Burroughs himself hoped to see his novel filmed as a musical vehicle for Mick Jagger; even more bizarrely, Burroughs was brought to Hollywood the following year when Terry Southern somehow managed to interest Gong Show mogul Chuck Barris. Discounting such vintage Cronenberg body-horrors as Rabid or The Brood, the closest Naked Lunch came to the screen was in Howard Brookner’s 1983 documentary Burroughs, which included a brief dramatization of the book’s lavatory operation with Burroughs himself as Doctor Benway, braying about the time he performed an appendectomy with “a rusty sardine can” while massaging the patient’s heart with a toilet plunger.
Surprisingly, given the material and director’s track record, such gross-out vaudeville is at a minimum. Although Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch takes as its motto one of Burroughs’s favorite sayings (“Nothing is true—everything is permitted”), the movie is far more absurd than it is disgusting. It’s as if Cronenberg took his cues from the writer’s sober demeanor. The movie is a deadpan riff, deliberate and decorous—shot, with a quiet camera, in brown tones so drained you wonder why they’re not black and white. Ostentatiously respectful, it’s the accumulation of a hundred small, sustained jokes—the audience might well feel as nonplussed as Weller looks. A sitcom without canned laughter, Naked Lunch is something for the malls to ponder.
Although Cronenberg manages to incorporate the Naked Lunch routine of the man who taught his asshole to talk, the film is less an adaptation of Burroughs’s book than a fantasy on how the book came to exist. Weller is called Bill Lee, the pseudonym Burroughs used to publish his first novel, Junky. The movie is unmistakably a period piece. But from the credit sequence evoking The Man With the Golden Arm, through the tenement of boho squalor, the Ornette Coleman sax doodling, the sidekicks modeled on Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and the junkie slapstick (fingers that can’t find the cigarette in one’s mouth), to the pair of beefy narcs who bring the hero downtown, you have to wonder whose ’50s are these? With offhanded sophistication, Cronenberg mixes motifs from Burroughs’s writing with allusions to his vita—his job as an exterminator, his accidental killing of his wife, his sojourn in Tangier.
Although most of the movie’s visions can be interpreted as drug-induced, the substance to which the characters are addicted is always something else, Mugwump jism or the black meat of the giant aquatic centipede. Joan Lee (the stalwart Judy Davis, one of only two women in the cast) is introduced injecting her chest with bug poison. “It’s a very literary high, it’s a Kafka high—you feel like a bug,” she tells Bill. To watch Davis idly kill roaches simply by breathing on them is to see the real Morticia Addams. Davis and Weller are a pair of hollow-eyed cadavers—all the more so when, like the actual Burroughs, Bill Lee decides that it’s “time for our William Tell routine” and, aiming for the glass on Joan’s head, undershoots it by several critical inches.
Joan’s death propels Lee into the Interzone, Burroughs’s name for Tangier and his original title for Naked Lunch. As constructed by Cronenberg, this unreal North African city is populated by expatriate writers (including Tom and Joan Frost, stand-ins for Paul and Jane Bowles), Arab boys, and, most spectacularly, Mugwumps—envisioned as sopped and stately lizard men. (These outsized, jaundiced ETs almost do justice to Burroughs’s own description; in Naked Lunch, he writes that their eyes are as “blank as obsidian mirrors” and their lips “thin and purple-blue like the lips of a penis.”) Here, the movie Naked Lunch becomes an even more elaborate mix of literary and literal Burroughs.
Asked if he’s a “faggot,” Lee is noncommittal. His typewriter—which, once in Interzone, mutates into a giant waterbug with a ripe New York accent—dictates a line from the novel to the effect that “homosexuality is the best all-around cover story an agent can use.” Still, Lee’s homosexuality is limited to a bit of affectionate nuzzling with Kiki (Joseph Scorsiani), named for the Spanish boy who was Burroughs’s lover in Tangier. Later, Kiki is compelled to have sex with the wealthy Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands), who turns into a centipede and lustfully devours him—the closest any scene comes to the extravagantly nightmarish sex-murders of the novel.
More than anything else, except perhaps Burroughs’s insect-fear, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is a movie about writing. The typewriter-bug is his prize invention—a domestic monster that cowers, scuttles, babbles advice. (“Save the psychoanalysis for your grasshopper friends,” Lee snarls.) Lee’s rivalry with Tom Frost—played by Ian Holm with a tough, prissily jaded edge—is as a virtual scene from The Hellstrom Chronicle. Tom insists on lending Lee his typewriter, and the two machines transform each other into something resembling congealed tomato paste. Later, Lee turns his attention to Tom’s wife Joan (Judy Davis again). In the movie’s lone representation of heterosex, Bill seduces Joan into typing erotica on an Arabic typewriter—a giant glistening penis pokes out as they grapple.
Although Jane Bowles did remind some of Joan Burroughs, the notion that Burroughs had an affair with her may be Cronenberg’s most outlandish conceit. Ultimately, however, Naked Lunch has less in common with such solemnly gaseous cousins as Henry and June or The Sheltering Sky than with a mythopoeic manifesto like Cocteau’s Orphée. (Indeed, Naked Lunch‘s typewriter-bug controller is not unlike the oracular car radio in Orphée, and the fatalistic ending suggests Orphée as well.) Cronenberg not only assumes a certain audience familiarity with his subject, he uses his movie to theorize on Burroughs. It’s clear that, in his view, shooting Joan was what compelled Burroughs to become a writer; it’s also what turns the movie into a matter-of-factly delirious noir.
To see Naked Lunch is to ponder anew the connection between Burroughs and Poe (or between their interpreters Cronenberg and Roger Corman). Cronenberg has done a remarkable thing. He hasn’t just created a mainstream Burroughs on something approximating Burroughs’s terms, he’s made a portrait of an American writer. There’s never been a pithier definition of the artist’s relation to art than Bill Lee’s remark that he’s addicted to something that doesn’t exist.
Naked Lunch will screen, along with Craig Baldwin’s experimental film, Tribulation 99, on March 11 as part of “30 Years of J. Hoberman,” which runs from March 10 through April 3 at BAM.