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Naked Lunch: The Criterion Collection

First published in Paris in 1959, William S. Burroughs' controversial and influential novel Naked Lunch isn't an easy read. Surrealistic, hallucinogenic, paranoid, and horrific, Burroughs' tale of the nightmarish abyss of heroin addiction (a subject with which Burroughs was intimately familiar) is an exercise in pure literature — it lives on the page because of Burroughs' perversely elegant, idiosyncratic writing style and proved, through several attempts by different writers, to be untranslatable to film. It was also the last American novel to be banned, instigating a ground-breaking trial in the Massachusetts Supreme Court. So director David Cronenberg — who acknowledged that a literal translation of the book would have been astronomically expensive and "banned in every country in the world, because there would be no culture that could withstand that film" — took a different tack when he made his 1991 film Naked Lunch. Not even attempting to put the book on film but to instead make a Burroughs-flavored homage to the author, it's a story about the process of an addicted writer — Burroughs' fictional alter-ego, Bill Lee — as he navigates the phantasmagorical landscape of his addiction on his way to giving birth to the novel that will become "Naked Lunch." In making his tribute, Cronenberg drew imagery, characters, and events from several of Burroughs' semiautobiographical novels like "Junky" and "Exterminator!" and injected incidents from Burroughs' real life — all set in a world of metaphorical, imaginary experiences, grotesque creatures, and skin-crawling special effects. The result is a brilliantly imagined quasi-biography of Burroughs that manages to recreate the experience of reading Naked Lunch without actually telling that book's story, the film standing on its own as a mind-boggling document of creation, addiction, and insanity as filtered through Cronenberg's own unique vision. William Lee (Peter Weller) is a down-on-his-luck writer who's reduced to working as an exterminator and writing porn to make ends meet. The exterminator job is handy though, since Lee and his wife Joan (Judy Davis) are both addicted to the bug powder Lee uses on the job ("It's a very literary high," she explains. "A Kafka high — it makes you feel like a bug.") Lee takes the advice of the skeezy Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), who theorizes that Lee can wean his wife off the bug juice by cutting the stuff with "black meat" extracted from a Brazilian centipede. But before he gets a chance to help her, a drunk Lee and his wife decide to show a visiting acquaintance their "William Tell routine" — and Lee shoots her in the head. Joan's death sends Lee into a tailspin, causing both his own addiction and his mental state to spiral out of control as he enters his own chemically/psychologically manufactured alternative universe. Traveling as a spy to a Moroccan locale called Interzone, Lee takes instructions from a man-sized, lizard-like being called a "Mugwump" and begins writing his reports/novel on his manual typewriter, which develops a large, pulsing orifice and beetle-like wings. As he maneuvers amid black-market drug selling, his homosexual impulses, writer's block, and possible espionage, Lee encounters people and creatures both real and imagined — including writers Tom and Joan Frost (Ian Holm and, again, Judy Davis) and a sinister man/bug played by Julian Sands. Conspiracy and madness build as Lee discovers the diabolical secrets behind Interzone, Dr. Benway, and the black market narcotic trade as he comes to terms with both his writing and his wife's death.

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Cronenberg has said that Burroughs was an early influence on his creative process and, with their common themes of conspiracy, perverse sexuality, alternative realities, and bizarre bodily functions, it seems inevitable that Cronenberg would some day make this film. Naked Lunch isn't a biopic in the strictest sense, but the foundation of the film is solidly anchored in Burroughs' biography. Addicted to heroin, Burroughs fled to Tangier in 1954, three years after shooting his wife in the famous William Tell incident. He wrote Naked Lunch in bits and pieces there, sending it by mail to Allen Ginsberg, who encouraged him to turn it into a book. He also befriended expatriate writers Paul and Jane Bowles, represented by the Frosts in Cronenberg's film. Beyond these factoids and some others snatched from Burroughs' books, the film is entirely a fantastical construct of the director that reflects Cronenberg's take on the more outrageous aspects of Burroughs' writing — works that colored Cronenberg's own surreal psychosexual dramas like Videodrome, Dead Ringers, The Fly, and eXistenZ. The common elements of both artists — especially the themes of organic transmogrification and control of individuals by secret, powerful organizations — are developed to such a high degree that at times Naked Lunch seems to be an almost magical (albeit horrifying) symbiosis of writer and director. The best of Cronenberg's pictures and Burroughs' writings inspire dread, delight, pity, disgust, and speculation — both artists are celebrated as notorious rule-breakers and Naked Lunch, while not for the easily offended, presents one of the strangest, smartest, and most disturbing depictions of the writer's process ever put on film. Criterion's two-disc DVD release of Naked Lunch is spectacular, starting with the new high-definition transfer in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1), which has been approved by Cronenberg and is absolutely pristine. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo audio is equally good, in English with optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Disc One offers the film with optional commentary by Cronenberg and Weller. It's an exceptionally intelligent, detailed track, with both men sharing an awesome depth of knowledge about Burroughs, and Cronenberg going into great detail about his own process of adapting Burroughs' life and work for the film. Disc Two offers Chris Rodley's excellent 1991 behind-the-scenes documentary "Naked Making Lunch" (50 min.), originally presented on London Weekend Television's "South Bank Show"; a stills gallery of special-effects designs for the film; a gallery of production stills; materials from 20th Century Fox's ad campaign, including the surprisingly artistic theatrical trailer, a six-minute featurette and TV spots; an hour-long audio track of Burroughs reading excerpts from "Naked Lunch," originally produced in 1995 for an audio book, with music by Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz; a gallery of photographs of Burroughs from the collection of Allen Ginsberg; and a 32-page booklet with essays by Janet Maslin, Chris Rodley, Gary Indiana, and Burroughs. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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