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CRITERION

MOVIE INFO

Director:
David Cronenberg
Cast:
Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider, Monique Mercure, Nicholas Campbell
Writing Credits:
William S. Burroughs (novel), David Cronenberg

Tagline:
Exterminate all rational thought.

Synopsis:
Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs' hallucinatory, "unfilmable" novel is finally realized on-screen by director David Cronenberg. Part-time exterminator and full-time drug addict Bill Lee (Peter Weller) plunges into the nightmarish netherworld of the Interzone, pursuing a mysterious project that leads him to confront sinister cabals and giant talking bugs. The fruit of an unholy union between two masters of the hilarious and the macabre, Naked Lunch mingles aspects of Burroughs' novel with incidents from his own life, resulting in a compendium of paranoid fantasies and a searching investigation into the mysteries of the writing process.
Domestic Gross
$2.541 million.

MPAA:
Rated R

DVD DETAILS
Presentation:
Widescreen 1.78:1/16x9
Audio:
English Dolby 2.0
Subtitles:
English
Closed-captioned

Runtime: 115 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 11/11/2003

Bonus:
Disc One
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director David Cronenberg and Actor Peter Weller
Disc Two
• “Naked Making Lunch” Documentary
• Special Effects Stills Gallery
• Film Stills Gallery
• William Burroughs Reads Naked Lunch
• Marketing
• Allen Ginsberg Photographs: William Burroughs

• Booklet


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RELATED REVIEWS


Naked Lunch: Criterion Collection (1991)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 19, 2003)

”I can think of at least two things wrong with that title” – Nelson Muntz after a screening of Naked Lunch

Can you blame the Simpsons bully for his confusion? Naked Lunch includes almost no nudity and very little dining. The film opens in New York City circa 1953 as we meet part-time exterminator and one-time writer Bill Lee (Peter Weller). He hangs out with intellectual struggling writers Hank (Nicholas Campbell) and Martin (Michael Zelniker) in between jobs.

Lee runs out of bug powder in the middle of an assignment. It turns out his wife Joan (Judy Davis) uses it to shoot up and get high; she describes this as “Kafka high – you feel like a bug”. She convinces Bill to try some, and he becomes addicted.

Soon narcotics cops Hauser (John Friesen) and O’Brien (Sean McCann) arrest Bill for possession of a dangerous substance. We learn he has a long record of drug arrests. The police don’t believe that the powder is for bugs, so they produce an enormous insect on which to test it. The bug talks to him and says it’s his case officer. It gives him instructions from “Control” and tells him his wife is actually an agent of Interzone Inc., “a notorious free port on the North African Coast”.

Bill smashes the bug and flees. A fellow exterminator sends him to Dr. A Benway (Roy Scheider) to help him with his problem. Benway gives Bill a compound called the “black meat” to mix with the powder to wean off the powder, but he simply gets addicted to that after a while. Back at the apartment, Bill tries the “William Tell Routine” with Joan and shoots her in the head.

He then heads to a diner where he meets a creature called Mugwump. He tells Bill to get a particular sort of typewriter to complete the report on his killing of Joan, and the Clark Nova talks to him. The Mugwump also instructs Bill to leave town, and Interzone seems like the best place for him to go.

The rest of the film follows his various adventures in the North Africa site. There he meets a mysterious German named Hans (Robert A. Silverman), Americans Tom Frost (Ian Holm) and his wife Joan (Davis), and the fey Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands). Much weirdness and confusion ensues.

I went into Naked Lunch with exceedingly little foreknowledge of its tale or circumstances. I knew that it came from a source novel apparently viewed as “hallucinatory” and “unfilmable”, but I never read it. I had some minor information related to author William S. Burroughs, but not enough to really have much of a clue what to expect, other than to anticipate something bizarre. Given the oddness of so many David Cronenberg films, that’s a given with his work, but Lunch promised to take that to another level.

On one hand, I can note that Lunch definitely presents an unusual experience. With its collection of talking bugs who also operate as typewriters and other strange occurrences, this isn’t a true-to-life tale. It looks at life through the drug addict’s point of view and deliberately and heavily blurs the lines between reality and hallucination.

However, in many ways it makes those two sides all too distinctive. When Lee encounters something surreal, those shots inevitably follow a scene in which he ingests some narcotic. Lunch works best when we feel disoriented and can’t tell what’s real or imagination, but the structure usually makes it too clear when Lee enters a fantasy state.

Cronenberg brings his usual flair for the memorably grotesque to Lunch, and its finest moments come from the surreal interactions between Lee and the various creatures. He infuses those with a nice combination of nastiness and wry comedy that makes them creative and amusing as well as creepy.

However, the rest of the movie seems less compelling. Part of my disinterest in Lunch may from my lack of familiarity with the source material. As I perused this DVD’s extras, I gathered that Lunch the movie owes less to Lunch the book than it does the writing of Lunch the novel. Cronenberg seems to focus more on elements of Burroughs’ life and doesn’t deal so much with parts of the original text.

I really wish I know more about the book, though, for it’d be more interesting to compare and contrast the movie with it. Granted, one shouldn’t need to know a book to enjoy a movie – God knows the Lord of the Rings films are terrific with or without knowledge of the texts – but sometimes such prior information can make a big difference. With something like an apparently convoluted source such as Lunch, I get the feeling that the movie would work a lot better with that background in place, even if it does depart strongly from that text.

Overall, I think Naked Lunch provides a sporadically intriguing experience, and it certainly offers something unusual and visually grotesque. In a weird way, I find it to be a disappointment because it doesn’t seem quite as off-putting and bizarre as I expected. No one will ever mistake a movie with talking insectoid typewriters to be anything other than odd, but Lunch doesn’t capitalize on its creativity frequently enough to turn into something really compelling.


The DVD Grades: Picture A-/ Audio C+/ Bonus B+

Naked Lunch appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Lunch offered a surprisingly terrific visual presentation.

At all times, I found sharpness to appear excellent. Never did I discern any signs of softness or fuzziness. Instead, the movie consistently stayed detailed and well defined. No problems with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and I also failed to discern any signs of edge enhancement. Print flaws remained nicely absent. Due to the many low-light situations, I saw mild grain through much of the film, but that stemmed from the natural structure of the source material and shouldn’t be viewed as a problem. Otherwise, I detected no marks, specks, grit or other issues.

Lunch favored dense and sickly colors. Its palette tended toward browns, greens and crimsons, and the DVD demonstrated these with good fidelity. The hues stayed appropriately ugly and appeared to portray the intentions with nice accuracy. Blacks were tight and concise, and shadows came across as well developed. As noted, the movie presented quite a few low-light sequences, and these looked clear and appropriately visible. Overall, I found little about which to complain with this solid transfer.

The Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of Naked Lunch seemed acceptable but lackluster. The soundfield remained fairly restricted through most of the film. Music dominated the use of the various channels. The score and songs demonstrated reasonable stereo spread and also branched into the surrounds for mild reinforcement. Effects stayed wholly with general ambience. Not much occurred in that domain, as I heard vague atmospherics and little else. Vocals occasionally bled to the side channels, which caused a few minor distractions.

Audio quality appeared decent but unexceptional. Speech sporadically betrayed a little edginess, though the lines mostly seemed distinct and clear. Effects played a small role and demonstrated no problems. Those elements came across as fairly realistic and concise, though they never taxed the system. Music was reasonably dynamic and clean, as the score and songs presented acceptably firm elements. None of this ever kicked into life with much vigor, but the audio seemed strong enough to merit a “C+” for its era.

On this two-disc set, Criterion provide a bunch of supplements to accompany Naked Lunch. The sole component for DVD One presents an audio commentary from writer/director David Cronenberg and actor Peter Weller. Both recorded separate running, screen-specific tracks that were combined for this edited piece. Criterion always produce good commentaries, and this one falls into that positive category.

The pair cover a lot of intriguing issues. Some of the time they address specifics about the movie. Weller talks about how he got the role and his approach to it since he essentially played William Burroughs. Cronenberg discusses shooting Toronto for Tangiers, the score, and comparisons between the novel and the movie. Much of the time the pair talk about Burroughs and connect the film to his life. They also add a lot of introspection about the story and their take on it. They offer a consistently rich, intelligent and insightful examination of the subject that stands as an excellent piece.

When we move to DVD Two, we start with Naked Making Lunch, a 48-minute and 49-second documentary about the flick’s creation. Shot for London Weekend Television, “Making” includes the standard assortment of movie clips, behind the scenes materials, and interviews. We hear from Cronenberg, Weller, author William S. Burroughs, producer Jeremy Thomas, Burroughs historian Barry Miles, special effects supervisor Jim Isaac, and actor Judy Davis.

A sporadically traditional program, “Making” covers a mix of subjects. It gets into casting, adaptation issues, Burroughs’ writing, early attempts to make Lunch, insect symbolism, Burroughs’ drug use and their presence in the film, Cronenberg’s emphasis on various elements, and visual effects. “Making” presents a more introspective examination of its subject than usual, and that makes it worthwhile. We get a moderate amount of redundant material after the commentary and it also shows more movie clips than I’d like, but it still includes a lot of new perspectives and creates a useful program.

Another audio piece presents William Burroughs Reads Naked Lunch. Here we get about an hour of the author as he narrates parts of his book. Mostly he concentrates on parts that don’t make the movie, and this includes a lot of pretty extreme sexual material. Burroughs’ nasal voice grates at times, but it’s nonetheless very interesting to hear excerpts from the novel, especially for those of us who never read it.

Inside the special effects still gallery we get an “illustrated essay” from Jody Duncan. This combines text, photos and art to go over these topics: “Mugwumps”, “Mugwriter”, “Bugwriters”, “Sex Blob”, “Kiki and Cloquet”, and “Fadela”. It’s an informative examination of the various puppets and visual effects from the flick.

Next we get the film stills gallery. Through its 117 images it offers “Portraits”, “New York, 1953”, and “Interzone”. These mostly display photos, but we also find a few pieces of art as well in this decent little collection.

The “Marketing” domain includes a few additional features. We get the film’s trailer plus two TV spots. A period featurette lasts a mere six minutes, 11 seconds and shows movie snippets and comments from Weller, Davis, Cronenberg, and actors Roy Scheider, Ian Holm, and Julian Sands. It provides a rudimentary look at the film’s creation but doesn’t substitute for the longer documentary found elsewhere on the DVD. It’s good to hear from some actors who don’t appear there, but it remains pretty superficial.

”Marketing” also presents a B-Roll Montage. This 184-second segment consists of behind the scenes shots from the set. Nothing terribly fascinating appears, but it seems moderately intriguing.

After this comes a collection of Allen Ginsberg Photos: William Burroughs. Only 17 pictures appear, but they’re cool to see. The addition of some original Ginsberg captions makes them more compelling.

Finally, Naked Lunch presents a 32-page booklet. This includes a few essays related to the film. We get a 1991 review from New York Times critic Janet Maslin, and writer Gary Indiana offers a discussion of the work of William S. Burroughs. We also get an excerpt from Chris Rodley’s Everything Is Permitted: The Making of “Naked Lunch” that looks at the connection between Cronenberg and Burroughs. Lastly, we get the introduction to that book, one written by Burroughs himself. Taken together, these add invaluable reflection on the film, especially for those of us with very little foreknowledge.

The lack of foreknowledge makes Naked Lunch a bit more difficult to fathom than otherwise might be the case. The movie attempts something different and occasionally succeeds as an intriguing piece, but not with much consistency. The DVD presents very good picture quality plus fairly average sound and a positive package of extras. Naked Lunch seems far too off-putting for a mass audience, but fans will clearly like this well executed DVD release.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.1739 Stars Number of Votes: 23
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