Naked Lunch (DVD)

As David Cronenberg notes dryly in the behind-the-scenes documentary Naked Making Lunch, one of the bonus features on the new double-disc DVD of his 1991 William S. Burroughs adaptation, the problem with a faithful, literal-minded version of Burroughs' book is that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and be banned in every country. Cronenberg's method of filming a notoriously unfilmable book was to be faithful to Burroughs' spirit while radically filtering it through his own warped sensibility. The remarkable result owes at least as much to Cronenberg as to Burroughs, which works in its favor as a film. The director's audacity only begins with taking an experimental, almost pornographic gay classic and re-imagining it as a narrative movie with a heterosexual romantic relationship at its emotional core. Combining elements of Naked Lunch with parts of Burroughs' other books and huge chunks of the Beat icon's notorious life, the film casts a never-better Peter Weller as Burroughs' surrogate. A junkie exterminator who accidentally kills his wife (ghostly Judy Davis, who makes morbid self-obliteration sexy), Weller flees to Interzone, a fever-dream Third World community of exiles, criminals, deviants, and cutthroat capitalists. There, he becomes involved in all manner of Kafka-esque subterfuge involving sentient, insectoid typewriters with talking anuses and shadowy plans for Weller; slimy, omnisexual creatures called Mugwumps; and his dead wife's double (also played by Davis) and her writer husband (Ian Holm). As admirably faithless to genres as it is to Burroughs' text, Cronenberg's hallucinatory Naked Lunch ricochets among deadpan black comedy, science fiction, surreal cloak-and-dagger intrigue, and psychological drama. But ultimately, it's a fetishistic, haunting meditation on the mysteries of the creative process and a testament to the writer's ability to transform tragedy into art. Wisely eschewing mere impersonation–his dry monotone suggests Steven Wright more than Burroughs–Weller strikes just the right note of ironic detachment without shortchanging the soul-shaking despair of a man who has done something that can never be forgiven or undone. A tour de force of understatement, it's as comic as it is tragic. Burroughs has said that he would never have become a writer if he hadn't killed his wife, and that horrifying truth and all it implies informs Naked Lunch's multi-dimensional take on artists as the ultimate outsiders, perpetually warring with internal and external forces beyond their control. In Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, as in Burroughs' life, creation is inextricably linked to destruction, and the film's poignancy is derived from giving full moral and emotional weight to that destruction's consequences.

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