Naked Lunch explores writer's twisted creativity
Directed by David Cronenberg.
Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis,
Ian Holm and Julian Sands.
Now playing at Loews Nickelodeon.
By CHRIS ROBERGE
EARLY IN DAVID CRONENBERG'S new film Naked Lunch, two aspiring writers are shown in a New York City diner in 1953 discussing different approaches to the creative process. One man strongly believes in revising every draft until each word is perfected; the other insists that any type of revision conflicts with the very nature of creation by censoring out all of the most important first ideas and images. One of their friends, William Lee (Peter Weller), walks in, and they ask him for his opinion on the subject. Bill looks up calmly and says with a slight grin, "Exterminate all rational thought," a motto that the character, and the film, live by.
Lee is an exterminator who begins to run into some problems when the bug powder that he uses starts disappearing because his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), and his two friends start using it as a drug to get a "Kafka high." Bill himself is soon brought down to a police station by officers who are sure that he is using the addictive powder himself. They leave him alone in a room and bring out a giant, talking beetle that tells him that he is really an undercover agent who must kill his wife because she is an enemy agent of Interzone, a drug-producing territory in northern Africa. Scared by the hallucination, Bill visits Doctor Benway (Roy Scheider) who prescribes another drug -- the black meat of the giant, aquatic, Brazilian centipede -- for withdrawal purposes. After using the black meat, he coaxes Joan into playing a "William Tell" routine with a glass on her head, and fatally shoots her.
Bill flees to a bar, where he meets a six-foot tall alien Mugwump, who congratulates him on his successful kill and gives him his ticket to Interzone, from where he must regularly file reports on his progress. He trades his revolver for a Clark Nova typewriter in a pawn shop, where he meets his two friends who warn him that the police are looking for him in connection with his wife's death. Bill tells them that he is escaping to Interzone, showing them his ticket -- a vial of the black meat.
All of this serves as a very elaborate and extremely bizarre introduction to the major portion of the film which takes place in Interzone, a hallucinatory state of Bill's mind. The primary conceit of the movie, introduced each time Bill uses drugs in Interzone, involves typewriters that transform into large, talking insect-like organisms -- comically grotesque manifestations of Bill's thoughts and emotions. The typewriter bugs bark orders and guidelines at him constantly, such as "Homosexuality is the best cover for an agent," and guide him into a lifestyle of sexual ambivalence and heavy drug use to fuel his extensive writing.
Bill meets several colorful characters in Interzone, such as Hans (Robert A. Silverman), the owner of a facility which produces the black meat, and Tom and Joan Frost (Ian Holm and Davis), two writers from America. He constantly writes progress reports, which the insects insist must be typewritten rather than handwritten. Apparently, working in longhand, a slower process by nature, would allow for some of the "censorship" of ideas discussed earlier. Bill mails his reports to his "controllers" in America, but in reality he is sending pages of text to his friends who are compiling them into a book, Naked Lunch.
Cronenberg's film is based on William S. Burroughs' controversial Beat generation novel, Naked Lunch, but rather than translate the book directly to the screen Cronenberg has written an ingenious screenplay that deals metaphorically with the creative process that resulted in the work and the factors that influenced and perhaps necessitated it. Many details of the script are in fact drawn from Burroughs' life -- Burroughs is a gay writer and self-proclaimed junkie; he shot his wife in a "William Tell" accident; he wrote Naked Lunch in the International Zone of Tangiers; and two of his famous acquaintances in North Africa were the writers, Paul and Joan Bowles.
As William Lee, Peter Weller is very good, always acting with a droll expression and deadpan delivery that belies the strangeness of his situation and helps the movie's comic edge. Davis is also excellent in each of her roles.
The other high point of the film's excellent production is the set designing, particularly in Interzone. The large, dense sets are believable both as an exotic African locale and as a fictitious playground for a drugged mind. With these sets and the insect and Mugwump effects, Naked Lunch looks like a film that cost quite a bit to bring to the screen.
Naked Lunch is not a movie for everyone. Some of the scenes are extremely distasteful, and every action and line of dialogue can, and should, be read on three different levels. But for those who like their entertainment very twisted and intelligent, Naked Lunch is one of the best films of the year.