I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Naked Lunch: William Burroughs, Cronenberg, and Where the Twain Shall Meet


by Chrisaphenia Danai Papagrigoriou
Sept. 23, 2011

“This is all happening telepathically” (Tom Frost) Naked Lunch – David Cronenberg 1991

Notably different from the book, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is an attempt to combine Burroughs’ life and work with his own filmmaking qualities. However, Burroughs’ life and work are combined by default. So essentially, in his screenplay Cronenberg rewrote the non-linear stories of the book in his own cinematic style, adding facts about Burroughs’ life to the protagonist's.

William Lee (Peter Weller) is a pest exterminator in New York. He discovers that his wife Joan Lee i (Judy Davis) is addicted to the exterminating powder he uses for his work and is being held and interrogated by the police for the origin of the powder. Having used the drug himself, things start to look and feel uncanny. Mostly, inanimate objects take the forms of gigantic bugs (or bug-like beings), which begin talking to him. Eventually, both he and his wife enjoy injecting themselves with the bug powder and often do so. His two good friends Hank (Nicholas Campell) and Martin ii (Michael Zelniker) do too, and have visited Joan one day while Bill (William Lee) is still at work. When he returns, Hank leaves embarrassed after trying to get his way with Joan, and Hank stays only to see Bill and Joan performing “The William Tell routine”. Joan puts a glass on her head and Bill points the gun at it. Joan dies from a bullet in the head. Bill, devastated after this accident, goes to a bar, where he meets an attractive young man, Kiki (Joseph Scoren). Through him, Bill gets introduced to an alien looking creature called Mugwump. As his habit develops to an addiction, Bill starts to be led by his hallucinations to take any action. So he follows Mugwump’s advice and goes to the Interzone to write a report using a Clark-Nova typewriter, which he trades for his gun. From then on Bill has turned from an exterminator to an agent sent to Interzone to report and investigate the dealership of a new powerful drug called the Black Meat. Bill has tried this already, having received it from a doctor suggested by a fellow addicted exterminator, Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider). Black Meat is made from the meat of centipedes and was given to Bill as an antidote to the bug powder. In the Interzone, Bill gets acquainted with Hans (Robert A. Silverman), a German Black Meat dealer and an American couple, Tom (Ian Holm) and Joan Frost (Judy Davisiii). Joan looks identical to Bill’s late wife.

Throughout the movie, Burroughs’ homosexuality -- suggested subtly as being “queer” -- is supposed to be his cover-up in Interzone as an agent. Quite obviously, Interzone is real life Tangiers, where Burroughs spent some time enjoying the company of young men and exploring the local drug flavors. This cover-up idea is suggested to him by another hallucination, the animated and bug-like Clark-Nova, which directly dictates the words to Bill and seems to sexually enjoy them being written on paper [if this plot seems confusing, that's because it is -- ed]. Perhaps this is another metaphor on the homosexual nature of Bill -- sorry -- Burroughs’ texts. The plot evolves more and more complicatedly, but also turns the movie into an existential sci-fi study of the writing of Naked Lunch by Burroughs, rather than an adaptation of it.

Overall, things seem to radically change after the death of Joan Lee. Taking into account the fact that Burroughs himself did indeed kill his wife in a William Tell routine and famously statediv: "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” The film seems to be adaptation of that notion.

We witness more and more Bill's addiction, and the development of it, in synch with his writing urges. New characters are introduced in Interzone, twisting the plot but bringing it closer to a comprehensive story. Eventually, Dr. Benway returns for his second appearance in the film, only to be responsible for the drug trade in Interzone and give a solution to Bill’s case. The drug is not Black Meat as he thought, but the juices that come from a body part on the head of the Mugwumps. Bill and Dr. Benway come to an agreement that Bill can take Joan Frost with him to Annexiav. The final scene of the film quite bluntly depicts the above quote about Burroughs’ “appalling conclusion” -- in the border to Annexia,  Bill is asked by the two guarding officers what his profession is and when he answers that he’s a writer they ask for proof. Then Bill wakes up Joan, who is napping at the back of the van, only to repeat “The William Tell routine”. Once again, Joan dies and the two officers are convinced that Bill is, indeed, a writer and let him through the border to Annexia.

Cronenberg has successfully delivered the haze in which Burroughs and his characters have existed, but a big part of the narrative is the music composed by Howard Shore and featuring Ornette Coleman. The music sets the Beat-inspired background in the most original free-jazz way. The characters merge into the music, the transitional medium from scene to scene in such an unorthodox adaptation of writings and facts.

i In real life Burroughs’scommon-law wife was named Joan Vollmer.

ii Hank and Martin are characters based on Burroughs’s real life friends and fellow beatnik writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg .

iii Indeed, Buroughs befriended a couple of Americans in Tangier named Paul and Jane Bowles.

iv Joan Vollmer died in 1951

v In fact, Annexia appears in the movie in a totally different way than in the book.

Chrisaphenia Danai Papagrigoriou