"I understood writing could be dangerous. I didn't realize the danger came from the machinery.”
Naked Lunch is first and foremost a writer’s movie. Whatever possessed Cronenberg to tackle this project is a questions better left to the ages. William Burroughs’ book is virtually impenetrable in text form, so the ability to glean a screenplay from it is not only a Herculean labor, but a near impossibility.
Strangely, this screenplay succeeds.
We are introduced to Bill Lee, who is modeled on Burroughs himself, an exterminator in Hell’s Kitchen, a heavy drinker, addicted to the powder he uses to kill insects, and prone to massive terrifying hallucinations. After the accidental death of his wife (shot in the head in the same manner as Burroughs’ actual wife, that is, playing William Tell), he is recruited to file written reports from a strange country known as Interzone.
This is where the real strangeness begins. Cronenberg shoots the whole film in a series of claustrophobic sets that mirror the winding narrow alleys of familiar ancient Arab cities. Dark, deep shades of brown and tan dominate the entire look of the film. It almost looks like the entire negative is coated in coffee or nicotine.
So, why is this film a “writer’s movie”? Well, anyone who has done any serious writing will be familiar with “The zone... the groove...” any name for that mindset when the story just tumbles out as fast as you can type. Almost as if the word processor or typewriter is creating the story for you, telling you what to write, how to write it; and you become obsessed, writing long hours. Ignoring friends and neighbors, family and pets.
This is the world of Interzone.
I have a theory that this whole film is meant to take place in the writer’s mind, that is, the mind of William Burroughs, but it’s only a theory. With occasional intrusions from characters that seem to represent the personalities of Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac occasionally popping in to suggest that William Lee’s reports are good, and getting noticed.
It is not an easy film to watch, or for that matter, to truly understand.
There are several characters in Interzone who interact with Lee in his deepening manic state. The most important are Tom Frost, the writer and telepath, his wife Joan, also a writer who is under the direct control of their housemaid Fadela.
There are others, but they come and go so quickly and so strangely that capturing their purpose in this film is virtually impossible.
Cronenberg captures the writing process perfectly in this film, and that may seem strange to non-writers, but it’s true. He does this by transforming the writing process into a sexual bonding between man and insectiod-typewriter.
I kid you not.
Lee’s typewriters (A Clark Nova) passes on the orders from whatever shadowy organization is receiving Lee’s reports. The typewriter just sits there, like a typewriter, until he begins working whereupon it metamorphosizes into a strange insectoid creature with keys beneath its chit nous shell. The effect is striking. The fetishization of typewriters and the entire writing process make up the best sequences of the film. Watch for the bit where Lee and Joan are typing erotics together on a decidedly hermaphroditic Arabic typewriter, it will either repulse you (non-writers) or make you scream yes! Yes! YES! (Writers).
“Just remember this. All agents defect, and all resisters sell out. That's the sad truth, Bill. And a writer? A writer lives the sad truth like anyone else. The only difference is, he files a report on it...”
Cronenberg’s narrative is so strange, so circular, that at times it is almost like watching several short films randomly stitched together, or like assembling the pieces of a story.
But it works! It shouldn’t work at all, but it just gets it all right...
Metaphors for drug addiction are prevalent too, and also play into the strange dance of the Interzone reports. Interzone has its own addictive drug, that Lee himself suggests doesn’t even exist, in the form of the powdered bodies of Deep Sea Centipedes.
Lee’s mission, to locate Dr. Benway, is secondary to the overall look, feel, and pace of the film, and Cronenberg gets it right. Interzone feels like a real place, at times I swear, I can smell it.
The film has no real conclusion... It has no real middle either... We are simply placed alongside Lee and taken through this strange and terrifying world. We only learn what he learns, we only see what he sees, so the boundary between reality and Interzone is never, ever made clear; just like the shadowy wall between fiction and non-fiction to the writer.
That is one of the great strengths of this film.