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The Criterion Collection presents
Naked Lunch (1991)

"Now, repeat after me. 'Homosexuality is the best all-round cover an agent ever had.'"
- Clark Nova (Peter Boretski)

Review By: Dan Lopez  
Published: December 10, 2003

Stars: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands
Other Stars: David Silverman, Roy Scheider, Peter Boretski
Director: David Cronenberg

Manufacturer: Sony Pictures Digital
MPAA Rating: R for (mild violence, drug use, sexual content, disturbing imagery)
Run Time: 01h:55m:32s
Release Date: November 04, 2003
UPC: 715515014922
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In 1991, I stumbled upon the literature of William S. Burroughs; I honestly can't remember how. I purchased a copy of his infamous novel, Naked Lunch, and proceeded to make my way through it over the course of a few months. I had never read anything quite like it before, and probably never will; it is quite a unique beast, so to speak. It completely blew me away, having never before experienced such experimental literature; a book designed from the outset to be seemingly impenetrable, accessible only once you have explored the weird recesses in your own head. Almost everyone I knew wanted a crack at the book and, for a while, my copy of Naked Lunch was passed around my high school. Did I inadvertently corrupt the minds of dozens of high-schoolers by introducing them to the "subversive" literature of a confessed drug addict and homosexual who was once at risk of being banned and possibly deported from the United States? I would hope so. Eventually, the book came back to me in quite ragged shape, and the extent of the adventures it had been on will always remain a mystery. Needless to say, I was enormously excited when I went to my local theater one day to find a promotional poster for a film entitled Naked Lunch, and directed by David Cronenberg, no less.

A creative mixture of elements of the now-classic novel and Burroughs own personal experiences, Naked Lunch is a startlingly good attempt at creating a film that honors both. The characters and locations are all combinations of his written creations as well as his real-life companions. Anyone who has read the novel can certainly attest to the fact that it is, essentially, unfilmable. It has no real story structure and is more like Burroughs spilling out his mind onto paper. As a result, Cronenberg's approach to this film amounts to a fictional biography of the author, combining elements of what went into the making of the novel as well as parts of the novel itself (and other works by Burroughs), then creating a linear storyline similar to, say, Tim Burton's Ed Wood or Steven Soderberg's Kafka. The film deals with central character William Lee (Peter Weller), who is the cinematic extension of Burroughs (named for a pseudonym used early in his career). Lee, working as an exterminator in 1950s New York, finds himself in an interesting predicament when he and his wife, Joan, become addicted to freebased roach powder and therefore targeted by the authorities.

When Lee accidentally kills his wife, he takes refuge from his paranoia (mainly driven by his bizarre hallucinations of talking insects and mysterious beings known as "Mugwumps") by traveling to Interzone, a strange haven for those who don't want to be found, located somewhere in Africa (almost certainly Tangiers, where Burroughs spent a great deal of time in the 1950s and '60s). Once there, Lee's talking insect-typewriter, Clark Nova, insists that he make regular reports to "control headquarters" about his life there, because he's actually an agent of a vast conspiracy designed to delve into the drug trade of Interzone. What is actually going on in Lee's head? It's hard to be certain, but Naked Lunch is essentially a surreal meditation on Burroughs strange world and how he may have arrived at the final product he would eventually publish as a novel.

Despite Cronenberg's reputation as the director of very serious and often grim films, his sense of humor is apparent here as he perfectly interprets the general tone of Burroughs work, which alternates between serious and oddly funny. The casting is nearly perfect, including a wonderfully dry interpretation of Burroughs by actor Peter Weller, who does look very much like a young Burroughs. The mixture of Burroughs' real life with elements from his books is done in such a way that it really pays a great deal of respect to the writer's work. It's a little silly at times, but considering Cronenberg's surgical precision, this was unquestionably intended to prevent the audience from taking it too seriously. Cronenberg also skillfully handles Burroughs' frank sexual themes without making the film remotely "dirty." While there's all kinds of symbolism in the weird, orgasmic creatures that Bill Lee sees on his journeys, the film never once becomes burdened by sex, even though it's a major theme.

In general, the surreality and difficulty of becoming a writer has never been so well represented on film (though I'd argue that Kafka comes very close), because even though not all people sit down to write under the influence of drugs, surely the metaphors present in Burroughs' material about isolation and struggling with your writing device of choice can be applied to anyone who puts their thoughts onto paper. It's a story about the horrors of devoting yourself to an artform at which many fail, or even worse, succeed. We all have a Clark Nova talking to us, goading us on, and maybe that's the voice that drives artists such as Cronenberg and Burroughs.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1:78:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The newly remastered transfer is very nice and obviously a significant upgrade from previous versions. It's very clean and smooth, with most imperfections removed. The colors are nicely integrated into the often stark photography, and the haziness that I remember in older versions seems to have been definitely improved upon. While the movie is meant to be grimy and gritty, the cinematography is quite evocative of a dream-like state. This is a superior restoration here and I'm pleased to say that there are no issues with the image.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is a faithful reproduction of the original stereo surround track that is actually quite vibrant and alive. There is a lot of ambient material that translates directly into the main focus of the audio (dialogue and such), especially when Bill Lee hits Interzone, where the sounds of urban squalor are reproduced amazingly well. The liner notes say the audio was processed to remove hiss and other errors, and it appears to be so as the soundtrack is very clean and crisp and has absolutely no noticeable problems. Surround effects are not massively prominent, but are certainly there.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English (captions) with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Director David Cronenberg and actor Peter Weller
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Illustrated Essay on Effects
  2. Marketing Material Gallery
  3. Excerpts from Naked Lunch as read by William S. Burroughs
  4. Allen Ginsberg photo gallery.
Extras Review: Naked Lunch is a two-disc set with the supplements primarily confined to Disc 2. The feature, on Disc 1, contains an excellent 2003 commentary track with David Cronenberg and Peter Weller. While the two appear to have been recorded separately and then edited together, it's still a marvelous companion to the film. Cronenberg, who seems to have a natural talent for recording commentaries, discusses all sorts of scene-specific elements about how the film came together and certain artistic decisions he made. Weller shares his thoughts on the movie and what it was like playing the on-screen persona of such a tremendous literary icon. Both men do a great job of basically fleshing out all the behind-the-scenes details and, from their enthusiasm, you'd hardly guess they made the film a little over 10 years ago. The volume of the film itself seems confined to a very low murmur, which is a good thing, as it makes the two fully understandable at all times.
Disc 2 kicks things off with probably the most expected extra feature that any Lunch DVD could have: the London Weekend Television documentary, Naked Making Lunch. At about 55 minutes long, the documentary is an excellent and fully authorized look inside the production of the film. It features interviews with David Cronenberg, William S. Burroughs (who was closely involved with the production), effects director Chris Walas, Peter Weller, Judy Davis, and many others. It also features a great deal of biographical information on Burroughs, including some very rare footage of the author's experimental film work he did with other writers and companions, as well as a look at some of the storyboards he had worked on for an originally planned film version of Naked Lunch.
There is an illustrated guide to the special effects featured in the film, taken from Cinefex magazine, as edited by Jody Duncan. Many visual effects had to be created to make the film work properly, and this guide showcases a lot of the props and so forth that were used in the film. Cronenberg, who apparently still possesses many of the models and such, participated in supplying some of the material for this archive, although I presume this visual essay was made closer to 1991 than 2003.
There are galleries that include some nice stills from the film and a look at some of the advertising materials. The difficulties in advertising a film like Naked Lunch and make it appealing to those unfamiliar with William S. Burroughs was probably a tremendous challenge. This difficulty shows in these pictures, as it seems that the marketing people were unsure of which way to go. Adding to that is a presentation of TV spots and trailers for the film, which again, took on this challenge. The central ad campaign was a clever one that used a Burroughs voiceover (an actor, not the actual man), talking about how the book was almost banned and such, but was now made into a movie. Of course, there are also presentations from Allen Ginsberg's own archive of photos taken during his period of living with Burroughs (and Jack Kerouac), all of which are wonderful additions to the disc.
After you've looked at everything else, there's then almost an hour (if not more) of audio excerpts of Burroughs' reading from Naked Lunch. Burroughs' work is intriguing on its own, but when he reads it himself, it takes on a new dimension and one begins to hear the innate humor present that many readers often miss. I honestly do not know, offhand, if there's an audio recording of Burroughs reading the entire book, but these excerpts represent, in my opinion, the best and most memorable chapters from the novel, and it makes a superb bonus for the DVD.
The presentation of the discs is given a nice boost with the inclusion of a meaty, 32-page booklet, which includes essay material from Janet Maslin, Chris Rodley, Gary Indiana, and William S. Burroughs himself. It also has great art design, displaying an overall respect for the source material; the wonderful cover appears to be some kind of strange passport or travel guide to Interzone. The case itself follows suit with a very pleasing artistic style (certainly much better than the original VHS). This is echoed in the on-screen menus, which feature little skittering animated roaches, but it never becomes so gaudy that it makes navigation a pain.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

Finally, after a long wait, this wonderful, quirky experiement in filmmaking comes to DVD in a fantastic edition from Criterion. It's a "must have" for the Cronenberg fan as well as those who enjoy Burroughs' literature. Criterion's devotion to and respect for the original film helps create a very credible package that will definitely please.


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