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  Naked Lunch William Tells All
Year: 1991
Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider, Monique Mercure, Nicholas Campbell, Michael Zelniker, Robert A. Silverman, Joseph Scoren, Peter Boretski, Yuval Daniel, John Friesen, Sean McCann, Howard Jerome, Michael Caruana, Kurt Reis
Genre: WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 2 votes)
Review: William Lee (Peter Weller) is an exterminator who today has suffered a mishap: halfway through a job he runs out of the bug killing powder. When he sees his two friends Hank (Nicholas Campbell) and Martin (Michael Zelniker), also aspiring writers like William, they appear to know more about why he had the deficiency of powder than he does, and when he gets back to the apartment he shares with his wife Joan (Judy Davis) he discovers the reason he ran low. Joan has been injecting the bug powder to get high - it makes her feel like an insect, she tells him - and soon William sees the appeal too. But he has to get back to his book...

A notoriously unfilmable novel, as adapter and director David Cronenberg fully admitted at the time, Naked Lunch was possibly beat writer William S. Burroughs most famous work. It says much that the movie tie-in publication of the original novel supposedly took more money than the movie itself in the United States, as this was not only a shot at literary respectability by Cronenberg, but also a film that was unwilling to be watered down for mainstream acceptance. However, even fans of the book had their qualms with what he had done with the material, looking as it did to be the missing link between Burroughs and Philip K. Dick.

Certainly the homosexuality was played down as it looked as if this Burroughs, Lee being the alter ego of the writer here, was more obsessed with the woman he lost, Joan, with the coming to terms with his sexual orientation somewhat lost in the hubbub of drugs references. In fact, the storyline here has more to do with Burroughs' life than the book does, with Lee accidentally killing his wife by shooting her in a trick that went wrong then moving to Interzone, a stand in for Tangier, to write his novel, all as the actual writer had. The shooting of Joan is implied to represent Burroughs rejecting his heterosexuality, but here it's more an embrace of narcotics that prevails instead of any carnal leanings.

And he still fixates on Joan when he reaches Interzone, only it's another alter ego, as this is supposedly an alternative character who happens to look and act identical to the last one (still played by Davis). This Joan is married to tourist Tom Frost (Ian Holm, another real-life-inspired character, this time Paul Bowles), and Burroughs fans can amuse themselves picking out the allusions to the people and incidents surrounding their literary hero. Otherwise, the atmosphere is a claustrophobic one, blatantly filmed on studio sets to evoke the nineteen-fifites but never appearing to be especially convincing.

Then there are the weirder aspects. We're rarely given pointers as to what is actually happening and what is spewing from Lee's fevered imagination, but you can be fairly sure that when he sees his typewriter turn into a giant beetle talking through an arsehole under its carapace it's not precisely based in fact, and is more symbolic. Similarly the Mugwumps, fantastical creatures from which a new drug is being synthesised, come across as more oddities to keep the mood of surrealism going, but this is only successful up to a point. The usually difficult to cast effectively Weller is a numb Lee, but he captures a lot of his beneath the surface anguish, not bothering to make him deeply sympathetic; indeed, emotion is kept under wraps for a more cerebral handling and it's left to a scene-stealing Roy Scheider, as the novel's unscrupulous Dr Benway, to inject a little life into proceedings even if he only appears twice. This Naked Lunch is an interesting but finally cold-eyed experience. Music by Howard Shore.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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David Cronenberg  (1943 - )

Highly regarded Canadian writer/director who frequently combines intellectual concerns with genre subjects. Began directing in the late-70s with a series of gruesome but socially aware horror thrillers, such as Shivers, Rabid and The Brood. 1981's Scanners was Cronenberg's commercial breakthrough, and if the hallucinatory Videodrome was box office flop, it remains one of the finest films of his career. The sombre Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone and the hugely successful remake of The Fly followed.

The disturbing Dead Ringers (1988) was a watershed film, based for the first time entirely in reality and featuring a career-best performance from Jeremy Irons. The 1990s saw Cronenberg in uncompromising form, adapting a pair of "unfilmable" modern classics - Burrough's Naked Lunch and Ballard's Crash - in typically idiosyncratic style. M. Butterfly was something of a misfire, but eXistenZ surprised many by being fast-moving and funny, while 2002's powerful Spider saw Cronenberg at his most art-house.

His later films were the acclaimed, bloody comic book adaptation A History of Violence, London-set thriller Eastern Promises, an examination of the sources of psychotherapy in A Dangerous Method, drama in a day Cosmopolis and Tinseltown takedown Maps to the Stars. Never one to bow to critical or popular demands, Cronenberg remains one of modern cinema's finest filmmakers.

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