Exterminating All Rational Thought With David Cronenberg’s ‘Naked Lunch’

In the fall of my sophomore year of high school, I hostessed at a restaurant on the beach. It was right along the water and whenever the wind blew it felt as though we all might disappear any moment. And as the weather grew colder throughout the season, the customers began to disappear. The only companion I had was the smorgasbord Sunday morning brunch buffet, which I wasn’t eve allow to dive into until proper brunch hours had ended—even when not a single soul came to dine. So to cure my boredom I began reading William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch instead of answering the phone.

The more I read, the less appetizing that calamari on the table would become. With each turn of the page, I no longer desired that saccharine wafting french toast perfectly placed so close to my stand. Even now nine years later, I can’t even think of the book without my memory tingling with the smell of buttery skillets and the quiet desolation that overwhelms beach towns in the winter. But I loved it, and as all books, films, etc. that eventually become the backbone of who you are, the novel always stuck with me as not only a piece of literature, but one of my most cherished sense memories.

And in imagining the adaptation those nine years ago, I found myself at a loss trying to imagine how Burroughs’s mind could be translated for the screen. For a world that lives so heavily in imagination and in the space between literal dictation and the surreal inquiry, I couldn’t fathom it finding a way to be filmed without maybe slicing out part of your temporal lobe and rubbing it on a strip of film. But leave it to David Cronenberg to bring Naked Lunch to the screen in a way that not only works but creates something completely his own in the process. 

So with the film playing at IFC Center this weekend, take a look back on some of Criterion’s wonderful on the set photos, as well as some further words on the film.

From the outset, Burroughs’s influence was like a neurological connection. Beyond its startling language and literary form, beyond its “forbidden” subject matter and obsessions (and sympathetic reaction to the repressive era in which it was written), the work spoke most immediately to Cronenberg’s viscera. More an infection than an influence.

To coexist with an infection, you have to be ingenious or it can subsume all of you. An artistic cure is essential to the creation of work that is intrinsically one’s own. Cronenberg’s particular antidote emerged in the act of filmmaking. He felt free to invent his own cinema, to be original in a way he could not with his writing, while many other filmmakers of his generation struggled with cinematic atavism under the towering shadows of Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, and so on.

Also going on to that say:

Cronenberg is no cinephile. To Cronenberg, what separates Fellini from Paul Brickman, director of Risky Business, is the auteurist impulse: the drive to create a discernable, hermetically sealed world consistent from film to film, an instantly recognizable sensibility or vision. There are no direct cinematic influences on Cronenberg’s work. His heaviest influences are literary, and Burroughs is perhaps the strongest.

Similarities between the work of Burroughs and Cronenberg arise as much from the sheer force of imagery as from the imagery itself. Finding a cinematic equivalent for a literary vision is one thing; equaling its power in the context of another medium is something else entirely. Cronenberg’s compulsion is to “show the unshowable, to speak the unspeakable,” and even his relatively subdued and mainstream The Dead Zone (1983) is filled with images not easily erased from the mind. His ability to imagine and create the impossible in ways truly shocking, without compromise—a remarkable feat, given the commercial demands informing so much of cinema—is what binds the Cronenberg-esque to the Burroughsian. Both artists have suffered from often hysterically adverse reactions to the powerful images they have unleashed, and the impact of their visions has been overshadowed for some audiences by the “disgusting” nature of the subject matter.

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