Naked Lunch

Well, now that I’m Seeing It, What Is It?

Writer/Director David Cronenberg translated William S. Burroughs’ “unfilmable” book Naked Lunch in a (ahem) novel way, creating an intensely hallucinogenic, psychosexual trip that’s more about the writer himself than the writer’s cultural lightning rod of a book. Cronenberg incorporates bits of the book, but infuses his film with a profound statement on the artistic process, and especially the inner turmoil that fuels many artists’ best work. Cronenberg’s movie sees Naked Lunch the novel through Burroughs’ shame and torment over being a homosexual and his consuming drug addiction. Other aspects of the author’s life are also interwoven into the film’s narrative with the most notorious being that he was married to a woman, Joan, who Burroughs shot and killed during an intoxicated “William Tell Routine.”

Interzone here is a drug-induced construct to which the movie’s Burroughs-like protagonist Bill Lee (a superbly droll Peter Weller) flees, imagining himself as an agent dispatching reports while using homosexuality as his cover. This wildly metaphorical Interzone is where Bill Lee’s psyche confronts his sexual confusion and its role in his addiction and Joan’s death, and the anguish of writing about all of it. And, of course, there are large, talkative, violent, and overtly sexual bugs/writing machines that give voice and shape to Lee’s hallucinations.

Naked Lunch the film is an astonishing amalgam of Cronenberg’s typically freaky explorations of mind and body, and Burroughs’ drug-laden literary visions of sexual-identity crisis (the latter is a theme Cronenberg would revisit in his next two features, M. Butterfly and Crash). Naked Lunch is Cronenberg’s most artistically provocative film, and the turning point at which he no longer required the shock value of extreme gore to express his cinematic vision.

Naked Lunch is cleaner and more sharply detailed than ever on this Criterion Blu-ray Disc, and in fact a little antiseptic for my taste. There are no glaring artifacts as a result of whatever processing was used, but the film looks scrubbed of film grain and texture, a video-like appearance that appeals more to others than to me. The colors are warmer and more richly inviting than I’ve ever seen them, and overall it’s a big step up from previous releases. Typical of Criterion, the lossless 2.0 surround track is sonically transparent and vibrant, especially with the jazzy score. But it’s front-heavy, with barely discernible surround ambience.

The gems in the extras are the commentary with Cronenberg and Weller and the terrific “Naked Making Lunch” documentary. Cronenberg is as intellectual and grounded as they come, and intensely fascinating.

Studio: Criterion Collection, 1991
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio Format: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Surround
Length: 115 mins.
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Peter Weller, Ian Holm, Judy Davis