*TC In his new movie, "Naked Lunch," David Cronenberg ("The Fly") fleshes out some pretty heady concepts.
The Canadian writer-director has transformed William S. Burroughs' scandalous 1959 novel into a squishy, hallucinogenic odyssey, replete with hybrid insect-typewriters; a writhing, squiggly, crustacean-like beast that embodies runaway lust; and emaciated reptilian creatures known as "mugwumps," who represent the addictive pleasures and perils of sex and drugs.
Rather than attempt to literally transpose the fragmented, dreamlike "Naked Lunch" from page to screen -- which, as Cronenberg has noted, would have "cost $400 million to make and would be banned in every country in the world" -- Cronenberg decided to make the movie a metaphorical exploration of the author's tormented psyche, and of the creative process itself.
Using the character of exterminator William Lee (Peter Weller), who serves as Burroughs' alter-ego in several books and short stories, Cronenberg combines elements from "Naked Lunch" with incidents, characters and themes from Burroughs' life and art.
The result: a phantasmagorical allegory about how homosexual junkie beat writer Burroughs himself came to write one of the 20th century's most infamous and influential novels.
"I talked to Burroughs at length while I was playing around with this," said Cronenberg, 48. "I really, really wanted his blessing. So I did speak to him, for example, about using the [accidental] shooting of his wife Joan as a fictional incident in the film, which triggers off many things. He approved and basically said that he couldn't separate his life from his art. He felt that all of his writings were one big work -- which I could certainly relate to."
Cronenberg's screenplay, which has been honored as the year's best by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics, interweaves characters from Burroughs' fiction, such as the notorious quack Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), with fictionalized figures from his life -- including his wife Joan (Judy Davis) and his friends and fellow beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, known in the movie as Martin and Hank, respectively.
In the movie, Bill Lee becomes addicted to the insecticide he uses at work and begins having hallucinations involving bugs. His talking typewriter/beetle dispatches him to a place called Interzone -- patterned after Tangier, where Burroughs spent four years in exile during the '50s. There, he acts as a secret agent and sends reports of his findings back to "headquarters."
Although Burroughs sketchily describes the creatures known as mugwumps in the book, the talking bug/typewriters and the squirming "sex creature" are the products of Cronenberg's own unrestrained imagination.
"Burroughs really loved [the typewriters]," Cronenberg said with a laugh. "He said any writer could relate to that."
By creating the loquacious insect-machines, Cronenberg says he was trying to metaphorically convey the experience of writing, and how the act takes on a life of its own.
"You've got a typewriter ... which tells you what to do and you argue with it," he says. "It pushes you around, you push it back and it's a kind of dialectic. . . . He [Burroughs] is the person who's saying the thing that people don't want to hear, but who will speak no matter what."
The extreme sexuality and graphic explorations of drug use in Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" resulted in an obscenity trial in 1965. And even today, putting Burroughs' fevered visions into a major studio movie presented Cronenberg with a considerable challenge.
"It's not even really a censorship problem," he said. "Certainly, you try very hard not to censor yourself. I've had enough experience with that to know that when your film is distributed in anywhere from 40 to 70 countries, you can never anticipate what people are going to take offense at. And it's better to not even think about it."