DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Naked Lunch, Blu-ray (1991/2013)

The film is totally surrealistic, in a clammy, compelling way.

Published on May 4, 2013

Naked Lunch, Blu-ray (1991/2013)

Cast: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider
Director: David Cronenberg
Studio: 20th Century Fox/ The Criterion Collection 220 [4/9/13]
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 1080p HD color
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 surround
Subtitles: English
Extras: Commentary track with Cronenberg & Weller; “Naked Making Lunch,” 1992 BBC-TV documentary (45 min.); Special effects gallery & essay; Original marketing materials; Audio-only: Wm. S. Burroughs reading excerpt from his novel Naked Lunch; Photos of Burroughs taken by Allen Ginsberg with notes; Printed illustrated booklet with pieces by film critic Janet Maslin and more 
Length: 115 minutes
Rating: ***** (if you can take it)

Wow. What a film!  No U.S. studio would touch the idea of a film based on William S. Burrough’s insane novel Naked Lunch, so it was a co-production of companies in The U.K, Canada and Japan. I recall attempting to read the novel once but was turned off by  the violent homoerotic content. However, Cronenberg didn’t attempt to turn the “unfilmable” novel into film. Instead he used elements of the book mixed with a sort of unique biography of Burrough’s crazed life.  It is a fantastic journey thru Burroughs’ completely warped territory of drugs, paranoia, sex and creepy crawly things.  The film is definitely not for the squeamish, but I feel it does have a broader appeal than the novel. The film’s subtitle/slogan is “Exterminate All Rational Thought.”

Peter Weller is just perfect to play the monotone-talking Burroughs character, and Judy Davis is his perfect mate. (She is also in Barton Fink, which with Naked Lunch would make a wild double feature about the madness of writing.)  “William Lee” is an exterminator who finds that his wife Joan is injecting his bug-killing powder as a drug. Cronenberg cleverly uses fantasy drugs such as this in the film instead of dealing with real drugs such as heroin.  Lee tries some of the bug powder and begins to hallucinate. A giant talking bug tells him he is a secret agent and he must kill his wife, who is an agent for Interzone Inc. After he returns home they do an act similar to William Tell (although they’ve never done that before), and he accidentally kills her instead of shooting a glass off her head.  (Burroughs actually did this.)

Having thus done his “mission,” Lee flees to the Interzone, where all sorts of even crazier things happen. He is writing so-called “reports” and his typewriters become giant talking insects. (I won’t go into what they talk thru.) There is a Swiss dandy who turns into a terrible beast, and the wayward wife of another writer in the Interzone appears to be his own wife that he killed. She leaves both him and her husband for a mysterious lesbian woman. Several of the characters in the film are based on actual friends of Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac assisted him in compiling the novel and they are there, and the strange married couple in the Interzone (actually Tangier, Morocco) are really the composer and writer Paul and Jane Bowles.

The film is totally surrealistic, in a clammy, compelling way. Roger Ebert was “repelled  by the material on a visceral level.” Newsweek said it was “obviously not everybody’s cup of weird tea…” Howard Shore’s music score features Ornette Coleman as well as the Master Musicians of Jajouka.  Criterion’s restoration is gorgeous as usual, and the extras are most interesting, especially the BBC documentary.

—John Sunier




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