Naked Lunch

“Almost never” is the answer you should give to the question “how often is a movie adaptation as good as- or better than- the book?” Sure, someone like Stanley Kubrick will find a so-so book and use it as fodder for a brilliant movie, but when the novel is great to begin with, the filmmaker usually just ends up botching it up- or, at best, “coming close” to matching the original, which begs the question, “why bother?”

But sometimes, magic happens. Terry Gilliam managed it with his vibrant and insane adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but only one other film gives Terry’s work a run for its money: David Cronenberg and his filming of the un-filmable Naked Lunch. That he managed to get William Burroughs on board only adds to the sweet creative victory of this incredible project.

Read the novel, don’t read the novel, it doesn’t matter- the film stands on its own as a trip worth taking over and over. But if you do read the book- and even more importantly, if you know Burroughs’ books and life well- the film takes on an extra level of importance, as it deftly fuses Burroughs’ body of work- including bits of Exterminator! and the vibe of The Soft Machine– into this drug-induced, mad universe. More painfully, Cronenberg throws in episodes from Burroughs’ own disturbing life – particularly an infamous moment involving his wife, Joan- and makes the sum of these pieces greater than the parts. Again, bonus points go to Burroughs himself for allowing Cronenberg to mine his personal pain as creative fodder.

Reality, fantasy, drugs, the mind, imagination, the art of writing, paranoia, truth, death, deception… they are all aspects of the same universal urge that give Naked Lunch life. Ornette Coleman’s free jazz score adds yet another brilliant layer of artistry, both because it fits the mood and structure of the film, but also because Coleman’s art is itself an extension of the beats’ jazzy and improvisational aesthetic. The cast is unbeatable; led by Peter Weller, supported by both Judy Davis and Ian Holm, it breathes life into Burroughs’ words with flesh, blood, and guts. There’s a deadpan humor to this film, buried somewhere deep inside everyone’s slightly stilted performance.

But Cronenberg wouldn’t be the auteur that he is if he didn’t throw his own persona into the mix, too- bodily secretions are everywhere, as are bizarre sexual acts between humans and imaginary creatures. Detached protagonists, that sense of dread as we plunge into the human psyche… Cronenberg does what he does best in Naked Lunch– his greatest artistic achievement and, along with Fear and Loathing, one of the 90’s true masterpieces.

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