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‘Naked Lunch’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 10, 1992

"Naked Lunch," Williams S. Burroughs's controversial 1959 novel, was a masterpiece about what he called "The Algebra of Need." Its subject was heroin, and addiction in general, and no other author, before or since, has had greater firsthand knowledge of his material or used it to re-create in such vivid, ant-crawling detail the plunge into the hungry abyss of drugs.

The movie "Naked Lunch" is a different sort of masterpiece altogether. It's not about drugs, per se, though it euphemistically dives into the universe of mind-altering substances as deeply and lustily as any movie in history. Drugs serve as the film's background, its world, but not its substance. Adapted by David Cronenberg, the Canadian director of, among others, "Dead Ringers" and "The Fly," the film isn't a literal transcription of the novel at all; it's more a fictional essay on Burroughs and the anxious birth of the novel. It's a movie about a writer's relationship to his work -- and, as such, perhaps one of the most penetrating examinations of a writer's processes ever made. Certainly it's one of the strangest and most disturbing.

For Cronenberg, Burroughs's "Naked Lunch" served only as a jumping-off point. Sprinkled throughout are bits from other Burroughs books, particularly "Junky" and "Exterminator!," all of which are folded in with incidents from Burroughs's life. The film's biographical details are more metaphorical than literal too, including Burroughs's relationships with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, his accidental fatal shooting of his wife, Joan, and his encounters with Paul and Jane Bowles. When Cronenberg introduces his hero, Bill Lee (Peter Weller), it's 1953 and Lee's an exterminator slaughtering roaches and centipedes in New York with a pump canister of yellow bug powder. At this point Lee is not a writer, at least not like his friends Hank and Martin (Nicholas Campbell and Michael Zelniker), who are modeled on Kerouac and Ginsberg and struggling to get into print. He is, however, a pungent rhetorician. "Exterminate all rational thought," he says, adding his two cents to the literary babble between his friends.

The line is not idly dropped, either by the character or the director; it points the way for what is to come. When Lee returns home, he finds his wife, Joan Lee (Judy Davis), with a hypodermic stuck in her breast -- a hypo filled with bug powder. Yes, she admits, looking at him with coal-circled eyes, she has something of a habit, which also explains why he's been coming up short on his jobs.

Afraid of losing his gig, Lee visits a mysterious Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), who says Joan can kick the bug stuff if Lee cuts it first with a vile-smelling black powder he's extracted from the giant aquatic Brazilian centipede. But before Lee can test the effectiveness of Benway's concoction on Joan, he tries it himself, and, still woozy from his injection, informs his wife that it's about time for them to show Martin their "William Tell routine." Obligingly, Joan puts a drinking glass on her head and Lee blithely pulls out a revolver and shoots, leaving a ruby-red dot on her forehead.

Joan's death puts the cops on Lee's tail, forcing him to travel as a spy to a kind of fantastical Casablanca called Interzone. Burroughs has said that his wife's death was a pivotal moment in his life, and Cronenberg takes him at his word. He uses the incident as the event that catalyzes Lee's metamorphosis into a full-fledged addict and a writer. Following the instructions of a bony, greenish reptile called a Mugwump, he begins filing reports from Interzone on his trusty Clark Nova, a portable typewriter that, while Lee is working, transforms into a buggy creature that talks out of a sphincterlike opening beneath its wings.

There is, of course, no such place as Interzone; it, the Mugwumps and the pestilent writing machines are all figments of Lee's drug-fevered imagination. And the dispatches he files from this hallucinatory nether realm are actually the raw stuff of what would eventually become "Naked Lunch." In his novel, Burroughs showed that he was both a descendant of Swift and the paterfamilias to cyper-punk futurists such as William Gibson. And Cronenberg manages to capture the paranoid social satirist and the science fiction writer in Burroughs. Visually, the director has tilted the balance more toward the latter, though it's the grungy future-of-the-past we see, some surrealistic dimension where deranged junkie fantasy and emotional reality intersect. The way Cronenberg presents it, the story seems to slide out of some mutant polyp of roach brain in Lee's skull. It's a movie full of perverse longings, oozing fluids and raunchy physical detail -- a film constructed out of a genuine revulsion for the body, where the simple sight of human flesh is nearly enough to turn your stomach. It's a truly excremental movie, in the purest Freudian sense.

What's amazing, though, is that we feel as comfortable with the terrain as we do. The reason for this, I think, is that we remain connected to the sane part of the Lee character, the part that realizes that his hallucinated alternate reality is a product of his drug-induced virus and that stays detached enough to take notes on the experience. This is the result of both the cool clinicism of Cronenberg's direction and Weller's droll, atonal performance. Dressed in his proper, anti-hipster suits and ties, he gives a perfect approximation of Burroughs's secret-agent style; he's an invisible man, without definite gender or sexual inclination, and so bland that he fades instantly into the squalid woodwork, so suavely Somatized that his reactions seem to register only after an eternity, as if they've made their way to the surface in slow motion from the bottom of the sea. Weller's comatose portrayal is stocked with hilarious detail; it's a wonderfully deadpan piece of acting, tense, precise and painfully still. And Cronenberg positions it beautifully in counterpoint to the outrageousness of the imagined world around him.

Cronenberg hasn't always been as skilled with his actors; in past films they've often seemed lost, overshadowed by the graphic design of the work. Everyone in the cast here, though, is superb, particularly Davis in the dual role of Lee's wife, Joan, and Joan Frost, another writer and Mugwump-juice junkie (a character based on Jane Bowles) whom he meets in Interzone. Davis shows a different side of her cyclonic talent here; she's a burnout, with a world-weary sag to her features, and whenever she's in front of the camera a gaping, wounded hole seems to open up on the screen. She's not around much, but she leaves you wishing there were more of her character.

There's a synergistic overlap here between Cronenberg's own particular brand of weirdness and Burroughs's; they're both twisted in ways that complement each other nicely. If the movie has a flaw, it's that the aspects of Burroughs's work many believed unfilmable still resist visualization. What had seemed unthinkably subversive on the page seems slightly literal-minded, and somehow tamer, on screen. Still, it's a dank, genuinely sick trip into the dark, rancid basement of the writer's mind -- a fitting homage to the labors of a true original.

"Naked Lunch" is rated R for nearly everything imaginable.

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