Criterion Corner: Naked Lunch(1991)

The Criterion Collection has been known to release the best Blue Rays and DVD’s ever known.  They would be considered the Coach name of handbags or The Harley Davidson
of motorcycles, the Crystal of champagne if you will.  They are the cream of the crop and some will say that getting a film released by this company is even better then winning the Oscar.

Naked Lunch

Cast:  Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Roy Schieder

Written by William S. Burroughs(Book), David Cronenberg(Screenplay)

Directed by David Cronenberg

“Exterminate All Rational Thought”. William S. Burroughs

This quote written on the cover perfectly explains the mindset you need to be in to watch this.  Of all the movies by David Cronenberg I have seen.  This is by far one of the oddest ones.  However to say this movie is just weird would be a major understatement. I have never read the book, but I imagine it would be just as difficult to review that as it is for me
to review this movie.  There are images and themes in this movie that are difficult to explain, but they are iconic and they helped me appreciate and understand this movie better.  They almost become the rational center of an irrational world. So please join me as I try my best to explain the movie that is “Naked Lunch“.****Spoilers****

I will be exposing and expaling some plot details in this review. It’s really difficult not to because even the trailer listed below doesn’t tell you anything about the story.

Set in the 50’s we meet an exterminator named Bill Lee(Peter Weller) who finds out that that his wife Joan(Judy Davis) is abusing the same powder that he uses to kill bugs.  The idea of having the bug powder be used this way does make a lot of sense.  It’s posinous and can be used to kill and yet can also help people feel good too.  This is a good statement or metaphor about all drug use itself. They can be enjoyed even if they have the sole purpose to kill.  Bill is picked up by the police because of the insectiside and while there they have him meet one of their agents.  However this is not a normal human agent, but a typewriter. Not a normal one, but one in the shape of a large beetle with a keyboad on it’s front and talks from it’s anus.  It tells him that his wife is an agent of Interzone and that he needs to kill her.  “Do it Sweetly” It tells him.  Not beleving a word of what this insect is telling him.  He smashes it into peices with his shoe and leaves the station.  At home Bill sees his wife making out with one of his writer friends while another one reads them a story.  This appears to be a very common thing in their marriage because he doesn’t get upset nor jealous about it.  “He was too high to cum” explains his wife to help I guess ease her husband’s mind that he is still her main lover I guess.  When asked if she had an orgasm.  She just tells him with a somber face that she’s on bug powder.  To me this had  different meanings. Either she was too happy on the stuff to enjoy sex, or the stuff made sex more enjoyable then the act itself.  Bill then tells Joan that it’s time to play their “William Tell” routine.  She puts a glass on top of her head while her husband aims a fully loaded gun at it.  He misses the glass and shoots her dead in the face.  This moment actually happened to writer William S. Burroughs and his ex wife Joan Vollmer.  They were playing the same game of “William Tell” in Mexico City when he accidently shot her.  Now in the movie
Bill Lee has this look in his eye before he does it that he has the sole intent to kill this woman.  After it’s done he becomes very sorrowful and sad about her death.  But just before he pulls the trigger.  I get this errie feeling that he wanted this to happen.
Having done what the talking bug told him to do.  Bill flees to Interzone to begin writing reports for an agency who want him to find a Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider). A man assoicated with the making and selling of a powerful narcotic called “Black Meat”. I should note that this mission was told to him by a talking creature known as a Mugwum at a coffee shop. While in Interzone, he meets a woman named Joan Frost who is an obvious doppelganger of his late wife and they help eachother with his task.

Naked lunch TYpeIt’s pretty obvious to me (and I’m sure you as well) that everything Bill has been experiencing is part of the same bug powder that him and his wife have been using throughout the years. His guilt over his wife’s death have brought him into this dependency on the stuff to help him continue on. All of the reports that he has written have in actuality been going to his friends who are putting it into a book.    It has been noted that the real Burroughs wouldn’t even have begun writing this book if it wasn’t for the death of his wife.  I feel that the events in the book was a fictional reaction to what
Burroughs was feeling at the time when it happened.  Having David Cronenberg infuse both the real story of the author and the plot of “Naked Lunch” into the movie was actually quite impressive.  There is no way that this story could have been told in any sort of rational way. The stuff with the talking insects and the bug powder were solely all Cronenberg, but the rest were all Burroughs.  It’s a meeting of two very creative and very bizarre minds that give this a very unique visual experience.  I wouldn’t even say that I enjoyed it, but I’m glad I experienced it.  I watched it once when I was 16 because I really liked “The Fly“, and I saw the images of the bug typewriter in a magazine.  Thinking that this was going to be another horror film, I  was disappointed to find out that it wasn’t. (I fell asleep right after he meets the Mugwum in the bar)    Many years later I find this Criterion edition at my local library and decide to give it another watch.  This time the whole thing  kept my interest until the very end. I still have a hard time trying to fully
explain my thoughts about this movie and I’m sure when I watch this again.  I will find other meanings that I have missed before.

naked-lunch3-20120130-114744-largeEven though the main selling point of is this is a David Cronenberg picture.  The cast featured all do a great job.  Peter Weller gave up his job of  being RoboCop in the third movie to be in this and I for one am glad that he did.   Judy Davis is the perfect sort of femme fatale.  I have only seen her as the anxious and off the hinge character in Woody Allen films that it was refreshing to see her being really sexy in this.   The puppet work in this movie is really impressive and they make all the creatures feel very much alive.  I wished that more movies would use this instead of just relying on computer graphics .  As much as I like the imagery and the casting.  I won’t deny that the film does drag a few places. Especially once Bill gets to Interzone.   Luckily there was enough strange things happening on screen from time to time that kept me from falling asleep this time.  If you are a fan of Cronenberg.  It is one that you should seek out.

8442&v=fit512Criterion Special Features

  • High-definition digital transfer, approved by director David Cronenberg, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary featuring Cronenberg and actor Peter Weller
  • Naked Making Lunch, a 1992 documentary by Chris Rodley about the making of the film
  • Special effects gallery, featuring artwork and photos alongside an essay by film writer Jody Duncan
  • Collection of original marketing materials
  • Audio recording of William S. Burroughs reading from his novel Naked Lunch
  • Gallery of photos taken by poet Allen Ginsberg of Burroughs
  • Film stills gallery (DVD only)
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring reprinted pieces by film critic Janet Maslin, critic and novelist Gary Indiana, filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley, and Burroughs

About The Vern

I love movies and I enjoy writing about them too. They both go pretty much hand in hand with each other and it's fun to discover new classics. I co host the podcasts The Film Pasture, ScreenTrax, and soon Cinema Recall. While also contributing reviews and articles to other great sites when I can.
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13 Responses to Criterion Corner: Naked Lunch(1991)

  1. One of the few films I watched recently that I just couldn’t write about. I tried. I sat there and typed words but because I had no idea what I watched I just couldn’t make coherent sentences. You did better.

  2. The Vern says:

    Thank you so so much for those nice words. It wasn’t easy to do. It kept me awake at nights.

  3. I haven’t see this I epppppp

    • Sorry about that Vern – my keyboard just had a meltdown! I was trying to say that I haven’t seen this one but I completely agree with you about the use of puppets. There’s something very appealing about puppets – the way they move and the way they look on screen, that I think makes them preferable to CGI in many cases. Great review.

  4. jjames36 says:

    Again, very strong review. I saw this once quite some time ago, and now barely remember it, including whether or not I liked it. Maybe I’ll give it a second viewing at some point.

  5. ninvoid99 says:

    It’s one of the weirdest films I’ve seen but it’s one of Cronenberg’s best films as well as how to create an adaptation where it can be faithful but also be something of its own.

  6. table9mutant says:

    Excellent review! I really like Cronenberg but I never watched this one. Know I should. When in the right mood for it… ! Lol : )

  7. mistylayne says:

    This is one that I’ve always wanted to read the book first then watch the movie. I’m a fan of Burroughs and Cronenberg so I’m pretty sure I’ll love them both.

  8. The Vern says:

    I think the movie will help me put the book into better context when I do actually read it. Thanks for the comment Misty.

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