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Naked Lunch (1991) – DVD Review

Naked Lunch Criterion Collection DVD


Written by David Cronenberg, based on the novel by William S. Burroughs
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider, Julian Sands


  • Running audio commentary with director Cronenberg and actor Weller
  • Docu: Naked Making Lunch
  • Illustrated essay about the special effects by Jody Duncan, editor of Cinefex
  • Stills gallery
  • Original marketing materials, including a trailer, TV spots, and a featurette
  • Audio recordings of Burroughs reading from the novel
  • Archival stills of Burroughs taken from The Allen Ginsburg Trust
  • Booklet:
    • Essay on the adaptation of the film by Janet Maslin
    • Essay on Burroughs by Gary Indiana
    • Essay on Cronenberg by Chris Rodley
    • Essay on being adapted by Burroughs

Released by Criterion
Rating: R
Region: 1
Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: It’s Burroughs and it’s about writing, okay? Buy the damn thing.

[ad#longpost]Bill Lee (Weller) is a…well, he’s nowhere near a normal joe. He’s an exterminator, yes, and he hangs out with a couple of writers (Nicholas Campbell & Michael Zelniker). He also has a charming wife by the name of Joan (Davis), who has discovered a brand new addictive substance…Lee’s bug powder. The fact that his wife and friends start using it all up to get themselves high puts his job in jeopardy and also gets him picked up by the local constabulary. It is then that he’s first put into contact with a field agent from Control: a talking bug. Yes, you can guess that shit’s just going to get weirder from there.

Filming the unfilmable novel, a story that’s as old as…well, cinema. How the hell do you get what’s on the printed page onto the screen, somewhat intact and in a manner that doesn’t piss off fans of the prose? In Cronenberg’s case, this is no mean feat. As he admits himself in the bonus features, the only way to do a movie that was a literal interpretation of the novel would be to make it an animated endeavor, and to anticipate having the film banned in every single country in the world. So Cronenberg gets points for using a sort of writer’s aikido–he just stepped out of the way and used the work’s momentum against it, creating a gestalt that was part Naked Lunch and part biopic of Burroughs. The result was, again to go back to Cronenberg’s words (since he’s rather apt, I must say), as if you had zapped Burroughs with a bit of Cronenberg in some teleporters like something out of his Fly remake.

That’s not to say the film is perfect: it’s amazing that the thing is watchable in some places. All over the map in terms of a plot and with no obvious narrative, it’s not exactly what you can pop in when you need to kick back and take it easy. The film takes a great deal of work to watch and try and figure out just what in the hell is happening. Anchoring the entire madhouse is Weller’s Bill Lee (a Burroughs pseudonym in real life), who does a remarkable job of channeling enough of Uncle Bill to tie the whole thing together. Also providing a great modicum of sleaze is Scheider as the inevitable Dr. Benway.

William S. Burroughs and a fan from Naked Lunch

The fact that the work becomes one about the writing process and manages to make all of the paranoia (drug induced or no) involved with such a thing come alive on the screen is admirable. Granted, not every writer out there has had their typewriters turn into giant insects, but they have had to make sacrifices and have had to write over and over again some variation of what Joan does in the film, “All is lost, all is lost…” On that level, the film scores well. Its weakness, though, is inherent in its singular way of causing “What the hell was all that about?” to overpower the film’s point.

The DVD presentation here is what you’ve come to expect from Criterion: they’ve thrown in just about everything they could lay hands upon, and you’ll thank them for it. First up you get a commentary from Cronenberg and Weller, the two of them recorded separately. It’s a nice balance of going over the background of the film itself, their thoughts and love for Burroughs and his writing, and their own philosophies about how the creative process works.

You’ve next got a made-for-British TV docu regarding the film, which manages to bring a bunch of footage from the set along with background on both novel and film–without resorting to everybody blowing smoke up each other’s skirts. That’s not to say the set isn’t devoid of that–the featurette included in the marketing materials section is just that, although it’s blissfully short. It’s basically there for posterity’s sake, as are the trailers and TV spots, which may have been groundbreaking for their time but aren’t given enough context to impress upon someone unknown to the evolution of trailers just how odd it was to have a voice representing the author of a book telling America to basically watch the hell out.

William S. Burroughs types away from Naked Lunch

The effects essay is interesting, fully illustrated with stills regarding all of the various whacked out props and creatures. We always prefer an actual featurette as opposed to text on screen, but this will do in a pinch. Sadly, it sounds as though the majority of the pieces featured in the film have gone the way of all flesh (or at least all latex), as Cronenberg mentions in the commentary.

The fact that you get around an hour of audio clips of Burroughs reading from the book is positively priceless. For anyone who hasn’t heard his Dead City Radio or the album he did with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, this is a great introduction–because nobody reads Uncle Bill’s work like the man himself. This is especially valuable since, last time I checked anyway, the audiobooks where Burroughs reads from Lunch are out of print.

Peter Weller from Naked Lunch

Closing out the two-disc set is a gallery of photos of Burroughs and friends, taken mostly by Ginsberg, which hail from Ginsberg’s trust. Then you have a rather hefty booklet, featuring essays on the making of the film and (again priceless), Burroughs own thoughts on being adapted. In retrospect, of all the authors to adapt, Burroughs was probably the easiest to please–anybody who was a major proponent/pioneer of the cut-up method of writing isn’t going to be averse to a few changes. Again, the booklet is a great addition because most of the essays are taken from the book that covered the making of the film, which again, is out of print.

While the film may not work for everybody, Criterion has made the thing a must-own for Burroughs fans or anyone interested in the more surreal mind-blowing aspects of the writing process. It bears multiple viewings to completely grasp everything that’s going on, but it should be seen at least once.

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