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Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch is one of those movies so full of bizarre images that it can blow you away the first time (or the first dozen times) you see it. It's also open to interpretation, and here's what I make of it: the story is told from the point of view of the main character, Will Lee, and in fact he spends most of the movie in a drugged hallucinatory fantasy. When he start shooting up the roach powder, he begins hallucinating (the appearance of the big bug in the police station), and he loses control to the point where he accidentally kills his own wife. To cope with this, he becomes a full-time junkie, descending into a drugged haze that finally consumes him and "annexes" him by the time the film is finished. While in this drugged state, he turns out a manuscript that is eventually published as the book Naked Lunch.

(Of course, this is how the movie portrays the life of "William Lee" and the origins of the book. I have no idea how much of this is based on William Burrough's own life, and how much of it is hypothesis or pure fiction.)

During the movie, every time we see William Lee sitting at a typewriter and writing, he isn't really "writing a report" – that's just what he THINKS he's doing, in his drugged haze. He's actually shooting up more powder in "real life." When we see him in the midst of a room full of men writing at typewriters, he's actually in the midst of a den of addicts, all shooting up.

When he appears to his two writer friends and tells them that he has his "ticket to Interzone," and shows them a vial full of powder, that's exactly what it is – his ticket to the world of his drugged fantasy. And later in the movie, he is carrying the remains of his "Clark-Nova" typewriter in a sack, but it's revealed to be nothing but a bag full of empty, discarded drug paraphernalia. This is when we realize that he's spent his entire "journey" in a drugged state, getting stoned to cope with the death of his wife, and producing the manuscript of "Naked Lunch" while doing so. At one point near the movie's climax, Lee repeats what his powder-addicted wife was doing early on in the movie: he breathes onto bugs and kills them with his insecticide-laden breath.

Finally, as he meets Dr. Benway and is told that the doctor no longer uses his antidote to the powder, but rather distils "mugwump jism" – a creation of his hallucinations – William Lee fully descends into the world of his own creation and enters "Annexia". In other words, he is "annexed" (taken over) by his fantasy, and he re-creates the final act that drove him to this point: the killing of his wife. When he "kills" her for the second time, in his fantasy world, he finally breaks away from reality for good, and is welcomed into the world of fantasy forever: "Welcome to Annexia."

I should say, of course, that this is only my interpretation of Naked Lunch, the movie. It's not a disseration on the book, nor what I think "happened" to William S. Burroughs, and it's not an attack on drug use and its consequences. It's just one way of explaining "what happened" in this particular movie, using some between-the-lines reading and thought.


Additional commentary by NowReVuing:

To comprehend how wickedly "out of it" William Burroughs' cult classic Naked Lunch gets, we'd need to know that the novel may be a loving amalgam of not only Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky and his wife Jane's The Serious Ladies, but also Genet's Querelle de Brest, Brion Gysin's The Process, about a black American professor travelling through the Sahara Desert, and 16th Century writer Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveler. David Cronenberg's movie version, though, has, I hazard to guess, been condensed as a tribute to Paul & Jane.

With that said, everything else is up for grabs. Peter Weller is a most dapper bug exterminator – minus the attire, something in real life Burroughs was too – who discovers that his missing killer-bug formula is being injected into the breast of his lady Judy Davis, who's on a perpetual Kafka high of insomnious estrangement and inner despair. The law's onto the missing formula as well, calls Weller in, and brings out this giant bug who informs Weller that he must in "tasty" fashion kill Davis and become a practicing homosexual in order to infiltrate a drug-producing organization.

What a leap! Do you follow? Am I following it? Weller – either in reality or via a drug trip – ends up in exotic Interzone that appears to be Morocco. When Weller meets Ian Holm and Judy Davis, in a dual role, the Bowles tribute manifests itself – Paul's homosexuality is clearly there, as well as Jane's lesbianism. Risking censure from the "in," I'd say the movie's a druggy bow to alienation and sexual ambiguity, and what is the only sure bet is that it's an astonishing prophetic glimpse at writing machines as ejaculatory creations – exactly what modern computers have become.

Whatever it all ultimately means, it's in the right hands: Cronenberg is a supremely undoubting director who's not afraid of filming the squeamish, as we've seen in Dead Ringers and The Fly. What makes him unique is that we don't turn away in revulsion; the imagery is intriguing, witty. (One exception: when one of the psycho twin doctors in Dead Ringers is about to dive into a patient's vagina.) Sometimes directors who know how to handle special effects, making them integral, sacrifice their actors to them. Cronenberg is the opposite – he knows how to blend the two and what he gets out of Peter Weller is a revelation. Best known as Robocop, Weller, with a Holocaust face, incorporating the Kafkaesque tubercular cough, meshes with the horror and hallucinations without registering a single false acting note – at least I couldn't detect one. And since most of us haven't the foggiest as to what's going on, this bridging of reality to trips and back is all the more amazing; Weller is the cable-wire that holds this ultra flake-out together. The last time I believed an actor co-starring with special effects was Henry Thomas in E.T., and though Weller's task will never be as popular, it's a hell of a lot more formidable. Burroughs admits that Naked Lunch is an account of his heroin addiction, and that explains how all the seemingly disparate got thrown into the mix. It also explains why the movie isn't entirely fulfilling as comic surrealism: it gets fogged in by its golden yellow Raid.

– written on September 18, 1999 and posted to rec.arts.movies.past-films