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American Cinematographer Magazine

Naked Lunch (1991)
Dolby Digital 2.0
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

Adapting literary works for the screen is always an exercise fraught with peril, but director David Cronenberg took the ultimate plunge with Naked Lunch. His source material was the infamous counterculture novel by William S. Burroughs, a surreal tsunami of paranoid, stream-of-consciousness wordplay that was generally considered to be unfilmable. In penning the screenplay, however, Cronenberg decided to fuse elements of Naked Lunch with "tones and tropes" from other Burroughs books (including Junkie, Exterminator and Queer), while also incorporating biographical aspects of the author's life. Although this complex undertaking was not fully appreciated by critics or audiences - Cronenberg concedes that Naked Lunch is "certainly not a mainstream film in any sense" - Criterion's two-disc special edition will be of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about Burroughs and his oeuvre.

Indeed, the film's dual audio commentary (featuring Cronenberg and actor Peter Weller, who plays Burroughs' alter ego, Bill Lee) is essential listening for anyone who is not already familiar with the author or his writings. (Those without a working knowledge of Burroughs, or at least an appreciation of his pitch-black humor, may well find the movie's bizarre narrative to be off-putting or even impenetrable.) Cronenberg details his methods with openness and his usual droll intellect, but Weller more than holds his own; the actor clearly took this commentary seriously and came to the table well prepared, and his insights are consistently informative and perceptive. Likening Burroughs to a "prophet" and a "shaman," Weller notes that the author used drugs as a metaphor for those things that "each of us, individually and sociologically, are hooked on - [the things] that we obsess on that keep us from ever knowing ... ourselves." Assessing Cronenberg's cinematic worldview, the actor observes that the unifying motif was "the solitary sojourn of a melancholiac, of someone who felt a penetrating sadness for something or other that they didn't think they could overcome."

An adventurous thespian, Weller found the combination of these two sensibilities irresistible, although he initially felt that Cronenberg's screenplay might be excessively dense in its fetishistic attention to detail. To be sure, Cronenberg shares many obsessions with Burroughs (physical mutation, polymorphous perversity and a fixation on manipulation and control, to name a few), and his splicing of their interests resulted in a film that pushes the limits of "literary cinema."

Cronenberg initially planned to shoot the bulk of the film on location in the Middle East, but the outbreak of the first Gulf War led him to scrap that plan and create the story's mystical mindscape within Toronto soundstages. The filmmaker justifies the more controlled use of stages by noting that the story's main setting - Interzone, a hallucinatory hybrid of Tangier and New York City - is "a state of mind and not a real place." He respectfully credits the physical realization of this nefarious setting to both production designer Carol Spier and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, ASC, BSC. Noting that he has collaborated with Suschitzky on every picture since 1988's Dead Ringers, Cronenberg calls the cinematographer "a fantastic lighting cameraman," adding, "Peter's work is just so subtle. Often I can barely get to the actors when we're shooting a close-up, because there are so many cutters and flags and ... light-diffusing devices in the way. But the result is beautifully three-dimensional, sculptural, subtle lighting, which is what I absolutely love about working with Peter."

The handsome, faultless transfer on this DVD preserves the lushness of Suschitzky's images, which render the tale's phantasmagorical world primarily in tones of forest green, chocolate brown and jaundiced yellow. Some of the film's creature effects may seem a bit quaint by today's standards (the talking-bug typewriters and narcotic-secreting "mugwumps" required intricate, hands-on construction and puppeteering), but both the director and Weller express their fond preference for the old-school methods, which allowed the performers to interact directly with these fantastic creations.

The package includes a wealth of background information on the production and Burroughs. A 32-page booklet features essays by film critic Janet Maslin, journalist Chris Rodley and culture critic Gary Indiana, as well as a piece by Burroughs; Rodley's TV documentary Naked Making Lunch puts the cinematic undertaking in lucid perspective; and an illustrated essay by Cinefex magazine editor Jody Duncan details the movie's special effects. The second disc serves up a collection of 20th Century Fox's original marketing materials (including the exceptionally artful and eye-catching theatrical trailer), a gallery of photos from the film shoot, and selected photos from the collection of Beat poet and Burroughs friend Allen Ginsberg, whose personal notes precede each shot. Last but not least is an additional audio treat: recordings of Burroughs reading select passages from Naked Lunch.

All in all, this DVD excursion goes well beyond the film itself to offer what amounts to a master class in the weird, wired world of William S. Burroughs. It's a trip well worth the taking for those who enjoy provocative detours from conventional thinking.

- Stephen Pizzello

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