“It’s a literary high…. It’s a Kafka high. You feel like a bug.”
Canadian director David Cronenberg’s film Naked Lunch is a hallucinogenic and hazy adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ novel of the same name. Or rather it dances around the original novel, fusing it with other Burroughs’ novels and depicting the writing of Naked Lunch, a little like Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. The whole movie takes place in a paranoid, symbolic, and surreal fantasy world reflective of the main character’s drugged out state of consciousness. The movie is filled with recurring motifs and themes that symbolize a variety of things about the main character, who serves as a stand in for William S. Burroughs himself.
The early Kafka reference is more than a little deliberate. One of the most prevalent recurring images brings to mind the protagonist of Kafka’s classic Metamorphosis. Kafka’s novella deals with a man transforming into a bug. Naked Lunch deals with a similar transformation, except it manifests in a more exterior way. The protagonist doesn’t believe he’s turning into a bug, but rather believes he’s interacting with bugs, snorting the remnants of bugs, and being manipulated by a mysterious cockroach gang. The cockroach is commonly associated with Metamorphosis (although, strictly speaking, the novella never names the bug). In Naked Lunch, the Kafka allusions are twisted and warped to display a degrading mental state instead of a degrading physiology.
The entire movie takes narrative approaches designed to resemble the synchronous state brought about by hallucinogenic drugs. Even in the early, “normal” world in the film, characters behave oddly. They laugh too much, and react strangely, and seem generally out of touch with reality in subtle and off-putting ways. Then motifs start to recur, as if by accident. The film’s protagonist, William, sees characters accidentally mirror each other’s phrases. He sees symbols recur in a variety of ways. Everything takes on meaning during this time. Images of cockroaches, centipedes, spy rings, and homosexuality appear again and again with eerie regularity. As reality starts to break down for William, more and more off-hand comments and innocuous sights become charged with meaning. William himself seems unable to react to most of these situations, his icy calm demeanour only occasionally cracking. More often than not though, his reserved exterior just makes for a more dramatic disconnect between his actions and perceptions. When a character is asked to wipe drugs on the fleshy orifice of a cockroach, it would be less unsettling if he was distressed.
Some of the compositions and camerawork further this disconnect. While some images feel more typically reminiscent of entheogen imagery, others are reserved and blunt. There are more than a handful of planimetric camera angles that create a slightly mundane feeling, often used as a counterpoint to surreal and even disturbing sights. These tonal touches further complicate the film, casting more doubt on the proceedings – specifically making it unclear which actions of William’s are deliberate and which are uncontrolled.
This is, of course, matched by Peter Weir’s excellent performance as William. His role is fairly consistent, but viewed through different lenses. At times it seems he’s in precise control of his circumstances and, at other times, it seems like he’s a nut operating on a different plane of existence, at yet other times he seems as confused as the audience. It’s all conveyed in subtle, restrained changes in his performance that do more than any broad take ever could. It works better for the film to have the characters around William be more over the top and odder. Characters like Doctor Benway, played by Roy Scheider. His role gets fairly camp, and he sells it perfectly, coming across as an unhinged lunatic. Ian Holm puts in a serviceable performance too, as a grim American who’s slowly killing his wife and has an obsession with typewriters (another of the film’s recurring thematic symbols).
A movie this blatant with its symbolism and thematics might run the risk of becoming repetitive and over-obvious, especially with a two hour runtime. There are only so many clues the audience needs to figure out that William is probably gay, for instance. However David Cronenberg handles this incredibly deftly, adding compelling wrinkles to the film’s surface plot, and complicating the symbols to reflect this. This keeps the whole film from becoming too repetitive and obvious and, by the end of the film, the audience has been forced again and again to recontextualize the film’s meaning.
This is aided too by the fact that the film takes the Eraserhead route and makes these symbolic constructs a part of the surface plot and proceedings. They’re not relegated to an overloud background detail; instead they appear to have influence over the plot and proceedings. The characters can interact with them, in all their fleshy practical-effects-glory. Making the symbols a tactile part of the narrative is endlessly engaging and surreal, far more so than a subtler or more literal interpretation of the source material would have been.
Any film with this much legitimately surprising imagery is worth a watch. As a drug movie, Naked Lunch could stand shoulder to shoulder with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for whatever that’s worth. As a film, Naked Lunch feels like it has a lot more on its mind. There’s a whole lot of meaning behind the story. Meaning that becomes readily apparent with some passing familiarity with William S. Burroughs, but still meaning that’s impeccably and uniquely dramatized. The film captures all this meaning in a way that feels spontaneous and visceral, which is a rare accomplishment. The structural feel to the film, much like the Kafka influence, is succinctly brought up early on by one of the characters:
“See, you can’t rewrite, ’cause to rewrite is to deceive and lie, and you betray your own thoughts. To rethink the flow and the rhythm, the tumbling out of the words, is a betrayal, and it’s a sin, Martin, it’s a sin.”
The film beautifully evokes a “tumbling out of words,” the exact sort of tumbling out of words you’d get with a Kafka high.