by J.D. Lafrance
[J.D. Lafrance is a wonderful Canadian writer who presides over the blog, Radiator Heaven. There, he usually provides thorough overviews of all the films he surveys. Today, he brings us a typically comprehensive look at one of Cronenberg’s more surreal films.]
Widely regarded as unfilmable because it defied normal narrative logic and for containing some of the most perverse, often disturbing passages of sex and violence ever committed to the page, William S. Burroughs seminal novel Naked Lunch was the ideal project for filmmaker David Cronenberg. In many respects, the themes and subject matter the book explores parallel many of the preoccupations of his films: the merging of flesh with machines, human transformation, and secret societies. One only has to look at an early film like Videodrome (1983) to see Burroughs’ influence—the mix of pulpy exploitation with high concept ideas. The characters in Cronenberg’s films—like the characters in Burroughs’ fiction—are morally ambiguous. It is not as easy to identify with them as it is with characters in more mainstream entertainment.
As Cronenberg was the first to admit, a conventional adaptation of Naked Lunch is impossible as it would be banned in every country. So, he wisely merged key elements from the book along with bits and pieces from the author’s early novels—chief among them Junky and Exterminator!—with aspects of Burroughs’ life, tempered with black humor as we are taken to surreal places. The end result is a fascinating collaboration between two like-minded artists and a film that is ultimately about the writing process as it defines the film’s protagonists much as it does Burroughs—writing acts as a catharsis, a way of dealing with guilt.
Ornette Coleman’s freaky, free-form jazz complements Howard Shore’s ominous score to create a film noir vibe right from the start, keeping in tone with Burroughs’ early work that often parodied badly written pulp crime novels. When he’s not spraying for bugs at people’s homes to pay the bills, Bill Lee (Peter Weller) hangs out with his friends and fellow writers, Martin (Michael Zelniker) and Hank (Nicholas Campbell), who are introduced arguing about the writing process. Hank (a thinly-veiled riff on Jack Kerouac) argues that to rewrite is to betray ones own thoughts as it disrupts the flow of words while Martin (a stand-in for Allen Ginsberg) counters by saying that one should rewrite so that they consider everything from every possible angle in order to produce the best work possible. Hank sees this as censorship and a betrayal of one’s own best, honest and most primitive thoughts. When asked for his opinion, Bill simply replies, “exterminate all rational thought.”