Naked Lunch (1991) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

When I started high school, Naked Lunch, a work of fiction by "beat generation" writer William Burroughs, was something that "good" people would only mention in the harshest, most condescending whispers. They might call it "trash, obscenity, and gibberish written by a gay junkie." More likely, they would not speak of it at all.

Needless to say, I made up my mind to read it, not because I find gay junkies fascinating, but simply because I'm the kind of person who has to read anything that has been forbidden to me. Finding a copy in Rochester, New York forty years ago was not an easy thing to do. In those days, we purchased most books at suburban stationary stores and from the book departments of refined and proper department stores. It was difficult to get these people to stock the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, so you can imagine that William Burroughs was way out of the realm of possibility. Our libraries, even the downtown library, were no help either.

The search ended when my friend Richard Pero introduced me to a place which would change my life as much as any single place ever has - the Clinton Book Store. This place was like Valhalla for kids seeking to learn about the adult world. Much of their product assortment consisted of tables full of used comic books and sleazy pulps and nudist magazines in helter-skelter arrangement, with prices marked on them in black magic marker. More to the point of this anecdote, the Clinton Book Store was also the town's sole repository for the complete output of a semi-underground publisher named Grove Press. Grove Press had a very singular raison d'etre - to publish everything forbidden by the guardians of mainstream culture. There was the anonymous Victorian diary My Secret Life. There were the novels of the Marquis de Sade and the plays of Jean Genet. There were the nihilistic works of the European theater. And there were the anti-establishment works of the American Beats - Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs.

Naked Lunch became one of my many Clinton Book Store acquisitions.

I found it utterly baffling.

I fought my way through to the end of its twisted narrative, but to this day, I don't have a goddamn idea what it is about. I know that Burroughs was a junkie, and a late-discovered homosexual, and wasn't very happy about being either one of those things, so he retreated into a bitter self-loathing world which was half consciousness and half dreams. He shot up so much junk that he more or less completely lost sight of the difference between his dreams and his drug-induced hallucinations, so he took those dreams which resembled his life, and he wrote them out into Naked Lunch. He just poured out all his sadness and craziness and self-loathing and self-delusion and angry humor into a surrealistic book, which was less stream-of-consciousness than stream-of-lunacy. Burroughs originally came from a rich family, but his state of drug-addled consciousness was not some idle rich man's posturing. This was his reality. He descended further and further into drugged-out dementia, the nadir of which resulted in his having blown out his wife's brains in a game of William Tell. Was he aiming for the glass on her head, or was he trying to kill her? Who knows? He himself was not sure. His ambivalence is reflected in this exchange in the film:

One of Burroughs's personalities: "I didn't murder her. It was an accident."

Another one: "There are no accidents."


Monique Mercure shows her breasts.

Nicholas Campbell shows his buns.

If ever there was a case of a filmmaker and an author who were meant for one another, it is cerebral, weird David Cronenberg and cerebral, weird William Burroughs - two screwy guys who seem on the surface to be accountants or low-level civil servants. Cronenberg must be the only guy in history who actually "got" Burroughs, and the result of their psychic connection is this supremely odd, magnificently imagined, visually splendid, and totally fucked-up movie, a hybrid of Burroughs's book and Burroughs's life, in which the main character representing Burroughs has various masturbatory, drug-addled conversations with his own layers of consciousness, which are represented in the film as humans and insects. At various times and in various ways, Burroughs lives and relives the key incidents of his life, sometimes again and again.

DVD info from Amazon

Criterion did a tremendous job on this 2-disk set. The film itself is rendered in a brilliant widescreen anamorphic transfer. There are many extra features on the second disk, and a 32 page book of essays as well.

Speaking of insects, the various drugs he takes are all insect-oriented, and there is an evil Moriarty character behind all his woes, and I don't know what else, because I don't get Burroughs at all.  If you care to know what it's about, you better just see it, because Cronenberg actually seems to understand it all.

Ol' Cronenberg seemed to be right up there in Burroughs's head, and that's the head of a man whose ruling principle was to "exterminate all rational thought" - which must make this a pretty good movie, if that's what you're looking for.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Roger Ebert 2.5/4.

The People Vote ...

  • It grossed $2.5 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. Maybe. I don't know what to score it. What could the genre be - consummately weird shit? It is impressive in many ways, but it's obviously for a small audience.

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