"Naked Lunch," which opens today at the Charles, is loosely derived from William S. Burroughs' novel of the title, and when I say "loosely," I do mean "loosely." The thing has expanded from Burroughs' own surrealistic impression of a serious narcotics addiction to a phantastic phantasy, a parabola of paranoia, a festival of feckless folly. It follows as a writer/bug exterminator named William Lee (Peter Weller) suffers interesting reverses in the New York of 1953 and comes, in a hallucinogenic stage, to believe he's a secret agent in Tangier; he will also author a book called "Naked Lunch," though he's so wonked he'll have no memory of it.
It may help you to know that "William Lee" was the pen name William Burroughs used on the cover of his first book, "Junkie," published in 1953 and that under the appliques of surrealism and grotesqueness, the movie pretty straightforwardly recounts the life and times of Bill Burroughs. Certain of his fabled misadventures are chronicled, such as the time he played the "William Tell" game with his wife Joan and put a bullet through her forehead. She was not amused. What she was, was dead.
Other literary figures move through the duck soup of the film. The expatriate American writers Paul and Jane Bowles (whose own life and times were chronicled in "The Sheltering Sky") are represented by Ian Holm and Judi Davis (who also plays luckless Joan Lee). Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg put in brief, irritating appearances (played by Nicholas Campbell and Michael Zelniker). In some ways, the movie is so inside it has no outside.
Cronenberg's concept of "Lee" is quite amusing and Weller's deadpan asceticism brings it off perfectly: He sees the writer-junkie-degenerate as a creature of the anti-hip, as if the truest and most passionate weirdness is encapsulated not in the concept of flamboyance but in the concept of normality. Thus Lee is a grim, repressed razor of a man as colorless as the brown gabardine suit that engirdles his body. He wears horn rims and a Joe-Friday porkpie hat drawn down low across his eyes. He's a twist on a famous '50s icon: the man in the brown flannel suit.
Thus it's doubly astonishing that his resume includes homicide, addiction to heroin, true excellence at eradicating roaches in the coldwater flats of the Village in 1953, eager deviance, moral indifference, and an imagination that is in itself a ticket that exploded, a nova express, a soft machine. He's Mr. Clean as hipster-saint-murderer of both wives and the narrative tradition in literature.
Cronenberg has always been a poet of the subversive: This movie is subversion's anthem, a celebration of the dark, the violent, and the repulsive. It insists on seeing the drug addict strictly in melodramatic and never in social terms: He's a proud rebel, jawing against the square duds of middle-class America. If you buy this, you're going to have a time.
Yet another case could be argued: That in a tragic way, William S. Burroughs was the Patient Zero of the drug epidemic. Harvard grad, trust-funded experimenter at the furthest ragged edges of experience, he was a typical white rich-boy slumming among the ruins of his society and having a wonderful time, thank you very much. From his apotheosizing of the needle as an act of romantic rebellion to the little kids blowing each other away on street corners for the price of a rock of crack, it's one long, sad slide. That said, I wish I could hate the movie. But I don't. It's a trip.
Starring Peter Weller and Judi Davis.
Directed by David Cronenberg.
Released by 20th Century Fox.