William S. Burroughs' 1959 book Naked Lunch, named by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the century, was long considered, despite its popularity and influence, to be unfilmable. It's less a story than a series of vignettes, many of them hallucinatory or obscene (or both), and Burroughs said the chapters could be read in any order. It holds the distinction of being the last purely literary work (that is, with no pictures involved) to be the subject of an obscenity trial in the United States. How do you turn something like that into a movie?
Well, for starters, you put David Cronenberg on the job. The Canadian filmmaker had worked in the horror and sci-fi genres in the 1970s and '80s, primarily on the fringe but with occasional mainstream hits like The Dead Zone and The Fly. His films tended to be weird and unsettling, trafficking in psychological mayhem and science run amok -- which made him an ideal fit for Burroughs' book. Not surprisingly, Cronenberg had cited Burroughs as one of his influences, and he claimed a kinship with the author while writing his Burroughs-approved screenplay adaptation of Naked Lunch.
When the film was released theatrically 17 years ago this week it was met with the reaction you'd expect: complete stupefaction. It's not a straightforward adaptation of the book, which Cronenberg said "would cost $400 million to make and would be banned in every country in the world." Instead, it combines elements of the book's vignettes with details from Burroughs' own biography. It becomes a film about a Burroughs-like character trying to write the book that would become Naked Lunch, which would later become the film we are watching (a twisty logic that has since been used in movies like Adaptation).
The protagonist, played by Peter Weller (recently of RoboCop and its sequel), is named William Lee, which was the pseudonym under which Burroughs wrote his first novel, Junky. Bill works as an exterminator (Cronenberg has a thing for insects) and has been getting into trouble because his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), keeps using his roach powder as a recreational drug. "It's a Kafka high," she tells him. "You feel like a bug." I don't know what the appeal would be in that, but there you go.
Bill indulges in a bit of the stuff himself, becomes addicted to a variety of drugs, and the rest of the film is a cavalcade of hallucinatory bizarreness. He sees a giant bug with a sphincter-like mouth that gives him instructions as though he were a secret agent. His orders are to kill Joan, which he does semi-accidentally in a manner reflecting the way Burroughs actually did kill his wife (also named Joan) in Mexico in 1951: by shooting at a glass balanced on her head but aiming low. The game is called "William Tell," and kids, do not try this at home.
Burroughs later said that shooting his wife is what turned him into a serious, full-time writer. In the film, the incident causes Lee to take on further assignments from his bug associate, leading him to a part of Morocco called "the Interzone," where he tries to write his report on the shooting. Cronenberg emphasizes the power of words, making typewriters (the film is set in the 1950s) valuable and beloved, even when they transform into giant talking insects. They are pleased when you type something brilliant on them, going so far as to excrete gooey fluids when you do. The MPAA rated the film R for its drug content, profanity and "bizarre eroticism," which is probably the most succinct way of describing it.
Audiences didn't exactly flock to the film. It grossed only about $2.6 million, less than even a lot of Cronenberg's "fringe" movies -- which, though usually odd, at least tended to have plots that made rational sense. The reviews praised Weller's Burroughs-impersonating performance and noted that Cronenberg was the perfect choice to adapt a Burroughs work, yet many of them also described the film as "stomach-turning" and "vile" (Janet Maslin) and full of "dryness, death and despair" (Roger Ebert). Many compared it to Barton Fink -- released four months earlier and also featuring Judy Davis -- because both examined the often-torturous writing process. But watching writers write doesn't sound like an interesting time at the movies, and who wants to watch anyone torture themselves?
It's easy to watch Naked Lunch and not "get" it; the film became famous more for its inscrutability than for anything else. (As a disappointed Nelson said in a 1996 Simpsons episode, "I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.") Movies known primarily for their weirdness had existed before and have flourished since (Mulholland Drive, Donnie Darko, etc.), but the Internet has made it easier for viewers to discuss them and try to figure out what the hell they're about. In 1991 and early 1992 when Naked Lunch was in theaters, you were basically on your own unless you happened to know someone who had seen it too. But even then, did you want to be the one to admit you were baffled by it?
FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When Naked Lunch was released, 17 years ago this week, on Dec. 27, 1991 ...
- The only new wide release that weekend was The Prince of Tides, which opened in fourth place behind the family-friendly Hook, Beauty and the Beast and Father of the Bride. Opening in limited release along with Naked Lunch were Fried Green Tomatoes and Grand Canyon.
- On TV, The Ren & Stimpy Show, Home Improvement and The Jerry Springer Show had all recently premiered, while Dallas, Amen, and thirtysomething had breathed their last.
- Recently released albums included Nirvana's Nevermind, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and U2's Achtung Baby. The top song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart this week was Michael Jackson's "Black or White."
- The #1 book on the New York Times best seller list was Scarlet, the infamous sequel to Gone with the Wind, written by Alexandra Ripley. Also on the list: Stephen King's Needful Things, Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears and Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express.
- The Soviet Union had just finished dismantling itself, with Mikhail Gorbachev resigning as president on Christmas Day. The U.S.S.R. would officially cease to exist on Dec. 31. Also recently deceased: Freddie Mercury, Redd Foxx, Gene Roddenberry and Irwin Allen.
- After a contentious Senate hearing, Clarence Thomas had been confirmed a member of the Supreme Court in October. And speaking of horndogs, Bill Clinton announced his intention to run for president in 1992 around the same time.
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Eric's Time Capsule appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, created on non-insect computers.