Analysis of the movie, its shifting levels of reality, and questions of interpretation.
The audacity of filming Naked Lunch
is impossible to overstate. David Cronenberg
adapted a William Burroughs
novel that is one of the most incomprehensible creations in the Western canon – a novel
that has been critically lauded for nearly fifty years, but never understood. It's not in the category of mind-wandering experimental fiction
to be unraveled like a Finnegan's Wake
– any questions of 'correct interpretation' miss the point. Not only is there no 'one thing' that it means, it is a work that stands in absolute defiance of meaning. Burroughs didn't understand it himself. He thought he was writing something else altogether
Art tries to interface with the mind of its viewer. In the case of Burroughs' novel, the interface is inherently defective, due to his psychotic
mind-state at the time of writing. He was going through severe withdrawal
from the heroin
addiction that defined and delineated his life, but his writing did not suffer per se
– only his reality. Burroughs' novel brought the near-journalistic, from-the-gut Beat
philosophy to a world of unintelligible paranoid hallucinations. Meanings shattered, narrative
escaped from rationality – but Burroughs' linguistic virtuosity and tremendous discipline held it together. Nobody can say, however, what this it is. The novel is a journalistic record of a subjective
state wholly incompatible with the reader's – incompatible by necessity
. It is unlikely that anyone in the position to think thoughts like these would have the capacity to read anything at all.
Filming the novel with accuracy, then, presents a problem on the level of filming Finnegan's Wake
or Gravity's Rainbow
. David Cronenberg
, writer as well as director, responded to the challenge by remaking the script from the ground up. Rather than take closeness to the original text as his goal, he submerged his story in the tone
of Naked Lunch
– the seedy, unearthly atmosphere runs through every word of Cronenberg's script, as does the sense of palpable violence done to mundanity. Paradoxically, Cronenberg did more justice to the text by radically transforming it than he ever could have by following it as gospel. Burroughs' Naked Lunch
is, after all, a novel that can be read equally well after tearing out every page and collating
them again at random.
Cronenberg's Naked Lunch
actually has a tremendous narrative thrust that's nearly straightforward. In composing the script, he drew heavily on the actual life experiences of William Burroughs while his Naked Lunch
was being written. The film's protagonist
, in fact, is 'William Lee', Burroughs' infamous pseudonym, and his two friends Hank and Martin are plainly the young Jack Kerouac
and Allen Ginsberg
. What is told here is the chronicle of William Lee: wanted for the accidental murder of his wife, he flees to the African port city of Interzone
, and becomes enmeshed in an exceedingly complex government conspiracy plotted by sentient cockroaches
. (Some of this might not have happened in real life.) The unrelenting and skilful portrayal of Lee as viewpoint character
keeps the viewer immersed in the story; when the plot becomes intentionally incomprehensible, Peter Weller’s
performance anchors the narrative with stunning emotional clarity.
The film begins in a curiously timeless recreation of hep Fifties New York
, and the bare-bones immediacy of Beat Generation
living is adroitly conjured through detailed set-design and a powerful supporting cast whose belief in Cronenberg's vision is obvious. William Lee
tries to pawn his pistol
in one scene, for instance, whereupon the pawnbroker immediately sniffs the chamber
and comments that it’s been recently fired. That man never returns to the narrative, but he knows what’s going on. He is an integral part of a world.
Two levels of reality, or more, are competing throughout this narrative, fragmenting against each other. The simplest level consists of a historical retelling of Burroughs' life: in this layer of the story, Burroughs (‘Lee’) accidentally shoots his wife when a drunken William Tell
trick goes wrong. He escapes to Tangiers
and hides in a crumbling hotel room, shooting a dwindling supply of heroin
and hallucinating more and more as withdrawal sets in – while writing the book that was published in our reality as Naked Lunch
. This 'baseline' version of the story, however, exists outside of the film
– Cronenberg assumes the viewer's familiarity with these famous events from Burroughs' life, and the film makes much less sense without this knowledge. This history is treated
in the film, but in varying degrees of symbol
that range from merely surrealistic to out-and-out frightening. For instance, the character of William Lee is a pest exterminator
by trade, not a writer. (He claims to have given up writing because it 'got too dangerous'; indeed the film makes much from associating danger with story-creation, as will be seen.) It's not heroin that Lee injects, but a cryptic yellow bug-killing powder. Additionally, Tangiers
is never referenced directly – it's always Interzone, a deregulated and decadent port city somehow superimposed
. Although Interzone does not seem to actually exist, that does not prevent anyone from traveling there.
Two or more incompatible levels of reality: the or more
is truly key here. The actual number of competing realities is not just logistically difficult to tally, but theoretically impossible. Logical explanations of events are undercut before the events have finished taking place. A frequent motif
here is the appearance of the 'aquatic centipede', roughly six feet long and thick as a weightlifter's thigh. These centipedes are sentient beings, the ringleaders of vast conspiracies and orchestrators of an infinity of interwoven lies. They are also mindless bugs that are farmed and harvested so that their dried, powdered meat can be used as a drug
. The story makes room for both of these possibilities, and each version of events has definite, real repercussions that prove it relates
to the rest of the world in a way that no mere delusion could.
Early on in the film, the centipede-powder is introduced by an underworld-connected doctor, who provides it to William Lee as a treatment for addiction to the yellow bug-powder. Lee asks if there are any side-effects, and the doctor simply replies that there's 'nothing the addict won't expect'. Nothing out-of-the-ordinary – but in this story, of course, there is no ordinary to be out of. It is supremely logical here to treat one unwelcome alteration of consciousness by dropping another hallucinogen overtop it, causing the second reality to displace the first. This centipede-powder, which can only be found in the phantasmagorical altered Tangiers called Interzone
, is somewhat of a doorway between layers of reality – the drug is at first synonymous with Interzone, then gradually the concepts are interwoven until the imaginary drug’s effects (or mere physical presence) seem to have dragged an imaginary city into existence.
If a person believes something in this world, or sees or thinks about it, it will likely come true. Near the beginning of the film, Martin (the Allen Ginsberg
character) reads from a notebook of poems
, lingering on the line Addicts to drugs not yet synthesized
. William Lee is not present during this scene, but later, the line is bizarrely echoed in a plaintive letter Lee writes to Hank/Kerouac from his hotel room in Interzone – I seem to be addicted to a drug that does not exist
. In another instance, the act of typing certain words is sufficient to cause a creature – a pale sort of human-centipede hybrid – to actually manifest into existence.
This film makes strenuous effort to reject interpretation as a straightforward 'reality is clouded by drug use' story. Hallucinations, here, are as valid and real as anything from outside the world of consciousness-alteration – although arguably, none of the latter exists here. Reality is contaminated
by some inconceivable force prior to any mere drug. For instance, many of the characters in this film are gigantic sentient cockroaches
that speak through pulsating anuses on their backs. They are also typewriters. They are both at once. It isn't a question of interpreting an ambiguous image – these creatures are unmistakably present, and they have typewriter keys integrated into their bodies. Many characters use them throughout the film in a sort of Gnostic
communion, even creating literature by erotically massaging the keys rather than typing.
Although it's certainly tempting to dismiss the movie’s bizarre events as drug-induced phantasmagoria
– since this movie’s about nothing if not altered states – but their pivotal role in 'real events' precludes this interpretation. Or rather, they're probably drug-induced phantasms, but according to the Burroughsian logic of this world, their hallucinated status gives them an increased
degree of reality. Early on in the movie, William Lee’s typewriter turns into a cockroach, and begs him 'rub some of this powder on my lips' – the powder is the opiatic yellow dust that is purported to kill cockroaches but plainly works at right angles to its intention, and the lips are those of the lasciviously gurgling anus
between its wings. A few minutes later, William Lee returns to his apartment, and encounters his wife mainlining
a heavy dose of the same yellow powder; she asks him, using identical words, to rub some powder on her lips. This can't be taken as a mere coincidence; rather, William Lee's use of hallucinogenic drugs has given him some kind of prescience
, or else the typewriter-cockroach isn't a hallucination, but a genuine being from a version of reality that somehow runs alongside Lee's fifties New York
. Both interpretations, along with many others, support and negate each other at once.
But the cockroach-beings cannot be taken as creatures that put on
the aspect of typewriters when they wish to remain undiscovered. One of the film’s most shattering sequences involves William Lee’s typewriter, in its cockroach
form, being tortured by enemy agents. Lee recaptures the dying creature and slips it into a pillowcase, later to show this evidence to Hank and Martin (who are skeptical about the stories he relates). The pillowcase, to his surprise, has stopped containing the corpse of a football-sized cockroach
. Neither, though, does he find a smashed-up typewriter, which would be the obvious consequence of the interpretation stated above. Instead, the pillowcase is full of unfamiliar drug paraphernalia.
The interpretation of Naked Lunch
as a work of fantasy
or science fiction
is likewise discouraged. This film offers no cues regarding genre, even though its quizzical, unnatural creatures
and shifting redefinitions of ‘reality’
are core motifs in every literature of speculation. Although speculative works define themselves by taking similar license with biology
and other such aspects of mundane existence, they present their created worlds as things for the understanding to engage. Naked Lunch
blends the themes of the most bizarre science fiction with the phenomenology
of Beat journalism
. Viewers are strenuously discouraged from intellectual understanding; the only viewpoint supported by the film is a schizophrenic
rush that pays no heed to any notion of the real. It is an invitation to submerge the self in madness, and ignore the consequences.
Indeed, no character ever treats the movie's events as remarkable. Nobody is surprised when typewriters grow anuses. This is one of the true brilliances of Naked Lunch
: reality is mocked and twisted in near-infinite ways, and yet the world conjured is absolutely cohesive. There is any number of reasons to doubt any one interpretation of events, but the existence of events is incontrovertible here. The movie opens with a quote from Hassan i Sabbah
– "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted
." – and maintains this motto
at every point. Every aspect of the movie is on a totally equal footing, and as such, it comes together seamlessly.
offers a pure visual experience to equal the narrative: everything in the camera's focus is skewed and unsettling. The detail in these scenes is tremendous, with the utterly fantastical merging fluidly with what can be taken as real (i.e. the mundane, consensually real). When ichor-dripping Mugwumps
with penises for hair pop up in unremarkable New York bars, or William Lee walks into a vaguely-described 'dope factory' that becomes a sort of slaughterhouse for centipedes, the transition is absolutely smooth. This continuity is accomplished by subtly sabotaging just about every mundane thing that might be looked at. No matter what sort of scene the film presents at any given moment, the quality of light is wholly incompatible with the natural illumination that a normal world would provide. It's as if it's not even light that's illuminating these scenes, but something wholly unfamiliar. Proportions are wrong, straight lines acquire subtle tilts, and utterly ordinary objects are presented in contexts that do not make sense.
The squalling bebop soundtrack is the work of the legendary Ornette Coleman
leading a powerful three-man band
; much like the set design, it is thoroughly grounded in the fifties period, but simultaneously its rabid excess and surreal intensity give it a subtle wrongness that makes it the perfect fit for the skewed worlds of New York
. Due to some interesting cuts and the unpredictable nature of what makes a scene demand this jazz accompaniment, it feels as if the music itself is yet another layer of reality; when it breaks through, there is a feeling of something absolutely remarkable going on. It only comes to the surface when a scene absolutely needs to be accentuated, but whenever it emerges, it energizes the scenes with a stylish urgency.
Certainly this is an atypical film for a Canadian director – but it is an atypical creative work, period. It must be classified alongside films like Eraserhead
or the Cremaster
cycle, films grouped by virtue of an inherent ungroupability, outside any possible classification based on today's understanding of genre. Nonetheless, there is a sense of Canadiana here, arguably stronger than in Cronenberg's other surreal pieces. Like in many Canadian films, the setting has an incredible strength to alter the course of the story – but instead of being driven by a gas-station
, a prairie village
or an office building
, Naked Lunch
is powered by an entire world and world-view that is specific and distinctive.
's narrative technique is fundamentally different even from Eraserhead
, which roots its sense of unreality in a setting that is unexplained rather than inexplicable. Eraserhead is a nightmare
, offering (and needing) no logical justification whatsoever for its events, whereas Naked Lunch
is a bad trip -- it toys with the minds that attempt to comprehend it, forcing its viewers into convolution and ultimately paradox
The film is not truly a monument to Canadian filmmaking, but rather the skill and audacity of Cronenberg
, who is willing to use themes and topics that break free of Canada’s influence completely. The topics are protean in their breadth, and yet he manages to evolve and refine similar themes (the othering of the human body, the plasticity of reality, horror that comes from within) with every film he makes. This film acknowledges the postmodern
overfascination with interpretation that marks the movie-analyzing elite, and proceeds to dismantle it. Naked Lunch
cannot be thoroughly interpreted; neither can it be explained or understood. Monstrous, it rises from the text and demands to be experienced.