Reviewed by Patrick Cooper
Sitting down to write a review of the Criterion Collection’s Naked Lunch Blu-ray, I thought about how I’d probably get nothing done if my laptop had a pulsating sphincter. The film, loosely based on the infamous drug-soaked book by William S. Burroughs, may be David Cronenberg’s most unusual and least accessible film, but it also might be one of his best. I’ve seen it a couple times before and re-watching it again, I was completely sucked in by the effects and audaciousness, but I realized it’s nearly impossible to accurately describe in the words of mere mortals. It’s one of those films that have to be experienced – like Holy Mountain or Robocop.
Speaking of Robocop, in Naked Lunch Peter Weller plays Bill Lee, a failed writer turned exterminator who discovers that his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), has been shooting up his bug powder and cheating on him with Jack Kerouac’s stand-in. He decides to try some bug powder himself and shortly after, his typewriter turns into a giant bug that talks out of a pulsing, slimy butthole. It looks like it smells so bad. The typewriter explains to him that Joan is an agent of Interzone Incorporated and that Lee must kill her. He inadvertently does so through the old “William Tell” routine – a tragic incident that actually occurred when Burroughs shot his wife during a drunken night in Mexico.
Once he’s in the Interzone (which remarkably resembles Tangiers if it was a giant gay club), Bill begins to write “important reports,” although he’s never fully aware why they’re significant; he just does what the giant bugs tell him to. And like the protagonist, the audience may never know what the hell’s going on either. The film does a soft-shoe around the borders of drug hallucination and reality. Like a pulsating sphincter, it settles into this rhythm of repulsiveness and beauty – the way only Cronenberg could’ve imagined it. Could any other director successfully make a film version of Burroughs’ drug-induced vignette ramblings without it being a total mess? Don’t even try to answer that – it was rhetorical, dummy.
Peter Weller is absolutely amazing in Bill Lee’s shoes. He’s essentially playing Burroughs, with his wounded spirit and drab suits. The character himself is all too vapid and too hollow for my tastes. There’s a detachment to everything going on around him that makes him totally unlikeable. But maybe that’s just the type of tour guide we need through the madhouse that is the Interzone, with all of its horny inhabitants and jizz cocktails.
I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise to you when I say that with the Criterion Blu-ray of Naked Lunch, the film has never looked nor sounded better. And there’s a wealth of special features included, so this set is an absolute must-have for fans of the film. Let’s dig in…
The Criterion Collection presents Naked Lunch in 1.78:1 with a stunning 1080p transfer. This is the type of film Blu-ray was invented for. Every glistening bead of typewriter butthole sweat, every shiny drop of Mugwump jizz looks stunning. Any imperfections like dust, specks, scratches, etc. have been removed. The DTS-HD two-channel track sounds dynamic and natural. Absolutely nothing negative to report about either the A or the V.
Audio Commentary with Cronenberg and Weller: This is the same track from the Criterion DVD of the film. They both discuss some of the more difficult to understand aspects of the film, so anyone struggling to wrap their heads around it would benefit from checking this out.
William S. Burroughs Reads Naked Lunch: This is an audio recording from 1995 of the author reading from the novel.
Naked Making Lunch: A comprehensive 50-minute archive documentary from 1992 that takes a look at the production of the film. It features interviews with Cronenberg and Burroughs, as well as Weller, Judy Davis, effects supervisor Jim Isaac, and producer Jeremy Thomas. There’s a ton of behind the scenes footage and this is definitely worth a watch.
Special Effects Gallery: A collection of photographs and artwork focusing on the special effects by Chris Walas, Inc.
Photographs of William S. Burroughs by Allen Ginsberg: Beat Writer Porn.
Film Still and Design Sketch Gallery: Production photos and design sketches.
Booklet: Features reprinted work by film critic Janet Maslin, director Chris Rodley, novelist Gary Indiana, and Burroughs. Criterion is one of the few companies still releasing booklets and we should be thankful. I genuinely love kicking back and reading their booklets front to back after just watching the film.
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