I have read the book Naked Lunch. The film is nothing like the novel.
But then, how can it be? The novel is a bizarre sort of rambling, where the use of the language is the only real claim to fame. Essentially, the novel is about how the rigid fifties gave way to a mentality that helped shape something like the Third Reich rather than something like America. Dr. Benway is an atack against psychiatry, the Interzone a goof on the Cold War. The mugwumps are just a deranged part of William S Burroughs’ psyche – he needed to lay off the drugs.
It is impossible to translate it literally into a film, so it was not surprising that David Cronenberg did not even try. It is even more surprising that he managed to still maintain the integrity of the work, creating the effective satire that made William S Burroughs proud.
The film is a semi-biograhpy of Burroughs himself; it takes place in the 1950s when Burroughs (called Lee in the film and played by Robocop’s Peter Weller) worked as an exterminator and was involved in an incident where he accidentally shot his wife Joan (Judy Davis) I am not spoiling anything by saying so, it’s a famous incident and those who complain are revealing more about themselves than I am about the plot of of the film, but never mind. He is also trying to write a novel, but is unwilling or unable to do so. He then retreats into the Interzone, which looks a lot like Rick Blaine’s Casablanca after a particularly nasty drought. Giant bugs with talking buttocks (buttockses?) come to provide him inspiration, and Lee comes to believe he is a spy trying to overthrow the tyrannical Dr. Benway.
Why has it been so difficult to provide a plot synopsis for a film lately? I am not really complaining – it provides a challenge for the viewer. Besides, it is a lot easier to recap than the novel would be (my recap is as follows: Damn! Bastards! Down with the system! Mugwump jism! Talking asshole! ARRRGHHH!) I have seen the film three times now and can still barely tell what is going on.
I can tell that there are several things that I admire. Peter Weller’s performance is one – he is positively subdued despite the madness that is occuring around him, making it that much more convincing. THe whole idea is that reality and fantasy are unable to be told apart – a man yelling at what he is seeing would have made it that much more obvious. Weller is the best part of the film, really, proving once again that Cronenberg somehow manages to elicit the best performances of an actors’ career (be it James Woods, Jeff Goblum, Geena Davis, Viggo Mortensen, or Jeremy Irons).
I can also admire the visual aesthetic of the film. Interzone is a crowded, dirty place that still somehow manages to give off an exotic feel, while the animatronics are some of the most convincing I have seen. The bugs are an effective meld of typewriters (how did anyone ever manage to work on those evil things) and insect: mechanical, but also twittering and organic. They are destroyed with a smash of circuits rather than a squish of guts. The Mugwumps also move and act convincingly (one is introduced smoking a cigarette). This helps everyone enter Lee’s world, where we can see the different layers of reality.
But then, there are a lot of things that about the film that I do not like. Cronenberg usually creates a rather evisceral expierence that is likely to repulse just as many as it is to convert. When he started with material that was already quite ghastly, Cronenber had his work cut out for him. There is such a palor hanging over the film, the same sort of a deeply drunken man. He is unable to do anything, but desperately wants to. Sure, that was a part of Burroughs’ existence, but it is not a lot of fun to see. Most of the supporting cast looks and acts like they do not believe in the precedings (with the exception of Roy Scheider) and this makes the film very difficult to watch at times. Then again, there are still rewards if you stick with it, and in many ways this is better that the novel, if only because you can make sense of what is going on.
Still, in spite of all the good and bad things I have said about the film, I cannot decide whether or not it is a good film. I definitely believed it should be seen by everyone, in the same way the novel should be read. But then, that does not mean it will be appreciated by all. I cannot think of any film that is as likely to be as divisive as this one. Then again, maybe that is what counts as true art.