I wrote this for the 1001 Movies you Must See Club.
I think I was predisposed to like Naked Lunch more than most people. I love David Cronenberg, I’m fascinated by explicitly sexual experimental imagery, and I have an annoying habit of trying to counteract popular opinion. There are a lot of things that don’t work in the film, but when you approach it like a drug-induced dream state, there are some interesting uses of narrative at play.
The film stands at an awkward injunction between experimental/abstract filmmaking and conventional narrative. There is a loose plot structure that you follow pretty much linearly complete with mystery and suspense. But I don’t really see a point in following that structure. It’s pretty clear that Bill (Peter Weller) is hallucinating for the entire film, so it seems more helpful to look at the film as a random set of images. Each image interacts, not to form a complex symbol, but to distort any potential of symbolism.
Some themes stand out. Like how Bill is unable to express his sexuality in this 1950s setting until he’s ridiculously high. Even then, his sexuality continues to assault him, violently and always with disgust. (His typewriters talk with asshole-like mouths, a phallus protrudes from the machine and intrudes on Bill’s heterosexual attempts, homosexual sex is transformed into two bugs destroying each other, dungeon alien blow jobs, etc. etc.) Writing feels compulsory. Bill is obligated to “make reports” on his hallucinatory life. He’s not trying to invent a narrative…he doesn’t seem capable of writing fiction. And his more steady friends, Ginsberg and Kerouac, understand his compulsion more than anyone.
I think people assume that Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ novel is accidentally silly. That it’s alluding to meaning that a viewer can’t figure out because of bad filmmaking. I disagree. I don’t think there is any concrete meaning to uncover. I think it’s supposed to be silly. It’s obviously a parody of fifties detective movies – jazz music in the background, exaggerated costume design – and while Naked Lunch isn’t a comedy, it’s not meant to be taken so seriously. It’s a series of moods that continually make fun of the source material and the main character/author.