Presumably this is what happened to Dale Gibble from King of the Hill after huffing insecticides. An aesthetic ripped straight from the grotty back pages of some 1950s-set pulpy motion. An autobiographical nod to one of the great and shamed American writers. William S. Burroughs, the deplorable, once-walking controversy penned Junky and Naked Lunch at a pivotal time for how public bodies perceive and obstruct literature. The latter was one of the last banned books in American history, with some parts of the country deeming it too sickly to endure. David Cronenberg was inevitably attracted to the grossness, the fear and the sorrow embedded in this Peter Weller-led adaptation of an entire body, not just a book.
Sparking the inevitable, squeamish charms of his body horror, Cronenberg drives through with that at the height of his unique charms. Cockroach typewriters ooze and beg for sentences, displaying themselves as quality control for those damned to write up their thoughts. Everyone that is anyone has experienced that feeling of feeding an endless bug-like horror a bit of paper with what could be potentially gifted words onto it. Naked Lunch is that of the writer’s perspective, an uncontrollable fit of endurance that graduates itself from pest control problems to understandings of tongue-in-cheek jokiness alongside bitter portrayals of real and controversial moments. Burroughs’ life, like those madcap writers of the time, is in no way smooth sailing.
Presenting that in the harsh light of day would be impossible, not just for what the action was but what it would then stand for. Naked Lunch does not prevent the gruesome details but changes their display. Junk and drugs are the pest control of the population while Burroughs has his mind picked through by an in-form Cronenberg, who enlists the help of Roy Scheider and Judy Davis to get to the bottom of what the man endured. Barton Fink has a similar scepticism from that same year about the projection of a writer as a character and not a conduit for a message. Only one has talking bugs with mouths for anuses and a desire to have poison rubbed around its lips. One of many strange and fascinating features Ian Holm cropped up in during the 1990s, and what a wild and entertaining ride it is.
Beyond that entertainment and wildcard display from Weller in his leading role as Bill Lee is a tender attempt at figuring out Burroughs and his mind. Despite its charmed visual structure and its lucid displays of reality, Naked Lunch holds firm as it bombards the viewer with question after question on the form of writing as a craft and as a commodity. Cronenberg blurs the line in a sweaty, eerie piece of sentimental adaptation that peppers a twisted life with mutations, spin and metaphor. Unfilmable novels often make for the best of the bunch. From Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Filth, it seems the impossible is always endearing when it is up to the director, and here writer also, to make sense of a chilling journey filled with death, destruction of the self and the acceptance of the strange as every day.