I like to think I have a pretty high tolerance for the sort of gonzo wackiness on display in Naked Lunch. I’ve seen plenty of films that are, however you quantify it, weirder than this one. Just in terms of breadth of imagination and bizarre imagery, Naked Lunch is nothing to write home about. I was surprised, then, at how overwhelming I found it, how tough to keep my eyes open in places. There aren’t many directors who have both a talent for base grossness along with a talent for filmmaking. David Cronenberg is unquestionably at that peak.
The real star of Naked Lunch is the effects work. I’m a proponent of CGI as a unique art form which can create imagery that practical effects can’t match; that being said, this is a film that only works because everything is practical. You need it to look real, like you could reach out and touch it. Or more accurately, like it could reach out and touch you. You need something the actors can actually interact with, and feel, and stick their fingers inside with an accompanying squelch. CGI at its best creates a deliberate disconnect between ostensibly “real” actors and the fabrications around them. It draws a line in the sand between the real and the fictional. Naked Lunch is a film wherein there is no such line.
That’s actually one of the things I found alternately fascinating and frustrating about it. In depicting the main character’s descent into hallucinatory paranoia, it doesn’t begin with any sort of grounded reality from which to descend. The film begins in a sort of Gilliam-esque world of metaphor, a writer’s construct more than a real place. By the time the first talking bug shows up, it’s less a shocking departure than another stop on the established road. What makes it partially work is Peter Weller as Bill Lee. His mumbled monotone undersells even the strangest developments. His utter lack of shock makes you wonder if he even cares that he’s hallucinating, whether or not it even matters. Naked Lunch is unconcerned with how much of what you’re seeing is “real,” perhaps because it acknowledges that none of it is, at least not in that sense.
What is real, what does matter, is the stellar final moment. Lee, asked to prove he is a writer by border guards of a country called Annexia, re-enacts the hazily-accidental murder of his wife. He shoots her in the head and tearfully cradles her body. The guards accept this as proof he is indeed a writer, and wave him through. This feels like deliberate provocation to William S. Burroughs, who shot and killed his own wife in the same way, and was thus inspired to begin a career as a writer. This plot does not appear in Burroughs’ book, and so in adding it the film becomes less direct adaptation than commentary on the author himself. It leaves Lee on a note of ambiguity, asking himself, “Was it worth it?” Did Burroughs ever wonder the same?
I liked Naked Lunch. But as a part of David Cronenberg’s canon of body horror classics, I found it a little wanting. His best films use terrible morphing flesh, the cracking of bones and the ripping of skin, to illustrate the terrible condition of having a body at all, of having to live inside this thing that you have less control over than you think. In Naked Lunch, it’s just an aesthetic.