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Film / Naked Lunch

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I've heard of actors playing against type, but come on...

"Exterminate all rational thought."
Naked Lunch tagline

"I can think of at least two things wrong with that title!"

David Cronenberg released a 1991 film adaptation of Naked Lunch that used very little of the book's material, claiming a literal adaption would be not only impossible, but "banned in every country in the world".

Instead, he creates a heavily fictionalized biopic about author William S. Burroughs, in which Burroughs' long time avatar, William Lee (Peter Weller), is working as an exterminator and gets high off his bug powder. He later flees to Interzone after the now-legendary shooting of his wife, Joan Vollmer, where he becomes tangled in a world of surreal espionage, through contact with several giant bug-shaped, alien typewriters who talk out of their asses. You read that right. It's a really weird movie.

This film provide examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Lee accidentally kills his wife during a failed William Telling performance.
  • Adaptation Amalgamation: The screenplay is based not only on the novel, but also on Burroughs' other fiction (in particular, the opening scene is based on The Exterminator, some of the dialog is taken from Queer), and autobiographical accounts of his life.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: Played with. While William Lee is shown to be bisexual, his heterosexual side is emphasized to a much greater degree than in Burroughs' fiction or in his life. Also the case for Joan Frost, a stand-in for Jane Bowles. The portrayal of Lee's sexuality also has strong But Not Too Gay trope aspects.
  • Almost Dead Guy: Towards the end, Lee's rescued typewriter utters some final clues before dying.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: "No glot, C'lom Fliday" (which is the final line of the novel).
  • Author Avatar: William Lee is the Avatar of William S. Burroughs. Throughout the movie he's actually writing Naked Lunch.
  • Big Creepy-Crawlies: Centipedes appear throughout the film - as the source of the "black meat" being peddled as Interzone's main illicit drug, infesting Lee's apartment, and of course Yves Cloquet's final transformation.
  • Bio Punk: Via The Beat Generation, with sentient typewriters, giant bugs, and monsters who give you tremendous creativity in exchange for blowjobs.
  • Biography à Clef: The film is about William S. Burroughs shooting his wife and traveling to Interzone on the orders of insects that talk out of their asses. Cronenberg didn't even attempt to faithfully translate the even more bizarre book to the screen (a virtual impossibility), instead opting to make it an amalgam of Burroughs' work and life.
  • Body Horror: Some of the weirder scenes edge into this ("Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk?"), but it's actually toned down from the book, where junkies deliberately allow their open wounds to fester so they can just put the heroin in with an eye-dropper.
  • Bury Your Gays: Played straight in one example, averted in another:
    • The Camp Gay Kiki is eaten by a giant centipede Julian Sands.
    • The equally camp Allen Ginsberg stand-in makes it out alive.
  • invokedCreator Breakdown: Burroughs always said that he would never have become a writer if not for Joan's death. This is portrayed in the film... sort of.
  • Content Warnings: One of the reasons the film was rated R by the MPAA is "bizarre eroticism".
  • Cover Innocent Eyes and Ears: In the trailer. The film itself (which is still a Mind Screw in it own right) is more of a Pragmatic Adaptation with the most nausea-inducing content of the book left out, which Cronenberg noted to be "unfilmable".
    William S. Burroughs: When I started writing Naked Lunch... people offered their opinions. "Disgusting" they said, "pornographic", "un-American trash", "unpublishable". Well, it came out in 1959 and it found an audience. Town meetings, book burnings, and an inquiry by the States Supreme Court. The book made quite a little impression. Now thirty years later Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, has turned it into a movie. Thirty feet tall, in living color. Cover your eyes, America, run for your lives!
  • Creepy Cockroach: The cockroaches in the opening scene as well as the typewriter bug.
  • Creepy Crossdresser: Benway. He doesn't really wear women's clothing so much as wear a woman.
  • Creepy Housekeeper: Fadela when she finds her mistress with Lee.
  • Creepy Jazz Music: The jazz soundtrack creates an unsettling atmosphere.
  • Creepy Monotone: William S. Burroughs's legendary voice, imitated by more than one character in the movie (mostly the beetles and the Mugwump.)
  • Depraved Homosexual: Yves Cloquet is initially impressed by the young men William Lee manages to attract. Later, he arranges a sexual tryst with Kiki before Lee walks in on Cloquet having turned into a giant centipede and in the process of raping Kiki to death. One interpretation is that Lee is hallucinating this deranged scene because of internalized homophobia.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: In the movie, the Mugwumps' semen is sort of a metaphor for Burroughs' own narcotics use. It gives him brilliant creative ideas, yes, but it's also destroying him.
  • Dull Surprise: Bill's default reaction to much of the bizarre things that begin cropping up around him. His first encounter with a talking bug provokes a vaguely-confused expression; meeting the alien-esque Mugwump earns simply a subdued "My God" while his face remains essentially unchanged.
    • One of the only aversions is when he comes face-to-face with Centipede-Cloquet raping and mutilating Kiki, to which he responds with dumbstruck shock and horror.
  • Eccentric Exterminator: William Lee, making this Truth in Television in the case of William S. Burroughs. He is chronically addicted to the bug powder he uses in his line of work as a poor man's drug, and even gets his wife hooked on to the stuff.
  • Epigraph: The film opens with two quotes.
  • Fantastic Medicinal Bodily Product: William Lee trades a typewriter to a rival author with the following comment: "Tom, I've brought you a new typewriter (actually an alien head) which conveniently dispenses two types of intoxicating fluids when it likes what you've written."
  • The Film of the Book: The novel is un-adaptable, for a variety of reasons. (Chief among them; semi-obscene, no coherent plot.) Cronenberg's solution when doing the film adaptation was to graft a few scenes and ideas from the novels onto a Roman à Clef version of author William S. Burroughs' life.
  • Foreshadowing: When Lee buys the Clark Nova, the typewriter's vacant spot in the shop window is taken by a strange sculpture of a Mugwump clinging to a hanged man which foreshadows Kiki's fate later in the movie,
  • Forging Scene: Played with, as it's done with a typewriter instead of a sword. Lee's writing machine is taken back at gunpoint by the guy he borrowed it from and his old one gets smashed to pieces. Kiki then takes him to a blacksmith who uses the old pieces to forge a new one.
  • G-Rated Drug: The drug-fueled, hallucination-laden madness that is Naked Lunch (the film, at least) revolves around Lee's addiction to... extermination powder? Granted, it was meant as an indirect adaptation of the original novel, in which heroin was the culprit.
  • Higher Understanding Through Drugs: Used heavily throughout with a wide variety of drugs: beginning with an exterminator's bug powder of all things, William Lee then moves onto powders made from the meat of giant centipedes, then a local Moroccan hash resin...and then the fluid that emerges from the skull-mounted tentacles of the alien head that has replaced his typewriter. All of these things may or may not open your mind to the fact that the world's being controlled by giant bugs that speak out of their anuses. But then again this may have something to do with it being loosely based on a book that was written almost exclusively under the influence.
  • Hong Kong Dub: Enforced and lampshaded. In one scene Tom Frost notes how his lipsyncing is off because he's currently communicating with William telepathically.
  • Identical Stranger: These show up throughout the film with a lot of the actors portraying supposedly unrelated characters. Given the mindbending nature of the plot, it's hard to tell if they're actually the same people or not. For instance, Joan Lee (Bill's wife) and Joan Frost (Tom Frost's wife) are physically identical. The two NYC policemen near the start of the film reappear at the end as two Annexian border guards. The actor who voices the bugs (and sounds a lot like William S. Burroughs, for that matter) has a small role as an exterminator colleague whom Lee questions on the subway.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: Subverted. In the film, Clark Nova explains that Lee was 'programmed' to shoot his wife, Joan. Although this is based on a tragically straight Real Life example.
    • Burroughs went on to write the book for The Black Rider, a stage musical (with songs by Tom goddamn Waits) whose plot also revolves around a man being supernaturally manipulated into shooting his own wife. In the opera on which it's based, Der Freischütz, the bullet is deflected by the wife's wedding wreath and there's a happy ending. In the Burroughs' version... not so much.
  • Interspecies Romance:
    • Cloquet transforms into a giant centipede during his tryst with Kiki. Cloquet looks human first.
    • Lee and Joan almost have a threesome with their insect-like typewriter before Fadela interrupts them.
  • Latex Perfection: Doctor Benway disguises himself as Fadela with a perfect bodysuit to remain incognito in Interzone.
  • Mad Doctor: Doctor Benway, a random general practitioner that Lee visited once in New York, turns out to be the Diabolical Mastermind behind an international drug ring operating out of Interzone. This incredulity is one of the many reasons why Lee might be insane.
  • Metafictional Title: Naked Lunch turns out to be a novel Lee is writing throughout the film.
  • Mind Screw: The film is a lot less disgusting than the book it's named after (it actually borrows from a large part of the works of William S. Burroughs), but only slightly less confusing.
  • Mockspiracy: There's a "conspiracy" involving fantastic monsters and talking typewriters that exists only in the drugged mind of the protagonist.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: William Lee becomes a writer, as is his creator Burroughs.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lee is an obvious stand-in for Burroughs himself. Hank and Martin are pretty clearly Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, while Tom and Joan Frost are stand-ins for literary couple Paul and Jane Bowles.
  • Organic Technology: Bill's contacts in Interzone are giant bug-shaped typewriters on which he writes his reports.
  • Out with a Bang: Kiki is raped and torn to pieces by Cloquet, who during the sexual act transforms into a giant centipede.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Bordering on In Name Only adaptation, in that few if any scenes from the novel make it into the film. Cronenberg's adaptation of the unfilmable Naked Lunch took some characters and quotes from the novel (and William Burroughs' other fiction) and melded them together with parts of the author's biography.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: Joan's entry wound on the forehead is surprisingly small.
  • Ruritania: In the brief bit of it we see in the film, Annexia's border guards are wearing little fur hats and speak in Russian accents.
  • The Shrink: William Lee tries consulting Dr. Benway about his wife's addiction to his bug spray. His method doesn't help much, and he turns out to be just as crazy as everything else in the movie.
  • Straight Gay: William Lee.
    "I remembered the simpering female impersonators I'd seen in bars. Could it be that I was one of those sub-human things?"
  • The Stoic: Lee, who reacts to pretty much everything with nothing but Dull Surprise.
  • Surreal Horror: What you get when you combine Burroughs with Cronenberg. Homosexual rape by giant centipede mutants, anyone?
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: It's strongly implied that Lee is fairly off his rocker. He hallucinates about giant insects compelling him to shoot his wife and traveling to Interzone, and the bizarre plot twists make no sense unless he's insane. Near the end, it's implied that the events that he visualizes are simply things he's writing down on paper. There are a couple of Cutting Back to Reality shots of the real typewriter to clue us in to the hallucinatory nature of those scenes.
  • Title Drop: Naked Lunch turns out to be a novel Lee is writing throughout the film.
  • Two-Timing with the Bestie: William walks into his apartment to find his wife Joan having sex with his friend Hank. William is seemingly as non-plussed about this as he is about everything; however, he shoots Joan shortly afterwards in what appears to be an accident. It's left ambiguous if he killed her as revenge or if it truly was an accident, though William is convinced it's the latter.
  • Undiscriminating Addict: The film kicks off with the discovery that William Lee's drug-addicted wife has started using his bug powder as a substitute drug. Lee himself proves no slouch in this department, beginning with the bug powder, then moving on to "The Black Meat," an opioid powder derived from giant centipedes. Then, when Lee's source in the Interzone goes missing, he's forced to move onto a local Moroccan hashish resin spread just to deal with the withdrawal. Then he starts drinking the fluid that emerges from the skull-mounted penises of the alien head that has replaced his typewriter. It's worth noting that this film was loosely based on a book that was written entirely under the influence.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film isn't as much based on the book, as it is based on Burroughs's own life with elements of the book incorporated. Then again, Burroughs very heavily drew on his experiences traveling abroad, and that's the scary part.
  • William Telling: William Lee is shown shooting a glass of whiskey off of Joan Lee's head in what they called their "William Tell act." That's...basically how it happened in real life. He does it again at the end, with similar results.

"Welcome to Annexia."