Canadian director David Cronenberg has fused body horror with literature in his version of William Burrough’s ground-breaking novel, The Naked Lunch. Nigel Floyd talks to the man who filmed the unfilmable, while Alastair Mabbott follows the career of the controversial author.
terile and repressive societies obsessed with political and moral order; anarchic sexual desires which erupt and tear at the fabric of ‘normal‘ society; mind-altering experiences and bizarre, hallucinatory imagery — Burroughs’ controversial novel, The Naked Lunch, infected David Cronenberg‘s imagination very early on. With the themes running through the book being an acknowledged inﬂuence on films such as Shivers, Scanners and Videodrorne, Cronenberg has now come full circle, as he explained when I spoke to him in 1990 on the set of Nightbreed. At that time he had just started writing the first draft ofthe Naked Lunch screenplay.
‘It’s like returning to one‘s roots, in a way. I was writing stuff which connected with The Naked Lunch even before I read the novel. And then when I read it, it really crystallised so many things for me. I remember talking to a journalist from Omni magazine about wanting to make a film of The Naked Lunch — this was on the set of The Dead Zone — and he wrote that, as far as he was concerned, I’d already done Burroughs. But it’s just that whole Burroughs ethos; I really need to allow myselfto be possessed by the
Burroughs virus, which is what I’m doing now as I‘m writing the script.‘
Two years later, Cronenberg’s $17 million adaptation is in the can, and the man once dubbed “The King of Venereal Horror‘ is talking to me about it over tea and biscuits in a London hotel room. When first published, The Naked Lunch provoked a storm of moral outrage with its powerful evocation of the effects of mind-altering drugs and explicit descriptions of homosexual acts— including the masturbating, buggering, rape and hanging of young boys. So even ifa ‘straight’ visualisation had been possible, says Cronenberg, ‘it would have cost three or four hundred million dollars, and been banned in every country in the world.‘
Fleshing out the plot with details from the author’s own life, Cronenberg casts Peter Weller as Burrough’s alter ego, Bill Lee, a cockroach exterminator whose experiments with injecting his own bug powder lead to some bizarre encounters. An appointment with the sinister Dr Benway (Roy Scheider), Lee’s meeting with the strange creature, The Mugwump, and the murder of his wife Joan (Judy Davis), precipitate Lee’s ﬂight to lnterzone. More of a mental state than an actual place, lnterzone is a decadent,
nightmare world run by paranoid bureaucrats who control the market in a rare drug, The Black Meat.
Lee’s grasp of reality disintegrates, as under the hallucinatory inﬂuence of Black Meat he uses a speaking insect typewriter to file obscure reports concerning emigre’ writers Tom and Joan Frost (Ian Holm and Judy Davis), and Joan‘s Svengali-like
‘ lesbian lover. Fadela (Monique Merdure).
Cronenberg links these drug-induced images with Lee‘s eventual salvation, as he comes to terms with his repressed homosexuality and discovers another, more permanent way of altering reality — the writing of his novel The Naked Lunch. Early in the film. Dr Benway advises Bill Lee to mix the yellow bug powder he has been injecting into his veins with an ever-increasing proportion of the Black
‘lt a ‘straight’ visualisation had been possible, it would have cost three orlour hundred million dollars, and been banned in every country in the world.’
Meat: ‘You see how elegantly it works,’ says
Benway, skilfully cutting the two drugs together, ‘the black disappears completely — no smell, no discolourisation — like an agent who’s come to believe his cover story but is still in there somewhere, hiding, in a larval
' state, waiting for the proper moment to
hatch out.’ Here, in one crystalline image, is a perfect metaphor for Burroughs‘ gradual transition
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