Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Don't Do Drugs, Kids: The Lesson to be Learned in Naked Lunch

There is a lot of stuff about David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch I still can’t explain with complete certainty. It is a bizarre movie and at first it is seemingly incomprehensible. However, underneath the giant bugs, the weird aliens, and the surreal international conspiracy, the story is really one about drug addiction. It is certainly an unusual approach to discussing the subject of drugs and how they affect people who take them.

The obvious approach would normally be to clearly show the person's degeneration and how they affect everyone and everything around them. Cronenberg instead opts for a slightly different method by getting inside the head of an addict, and presenting to us how he experiences the effects of taking these weird drugs. The result is a surreal, possibly incomprehensible but strangely brilliant film about just why you shouldn't take any of the weird and unusual drugs people have come up with.

Naked Lunch involves plenty of weird drugs. The whole thing gets started when exterminator Bill Lee (Peter Weller) finds his supply of bug powder mysteriously running short and runs out after starting a job. Turns out his wife Joan (Judy Davis) is the one responsible for its disappearance. She has been injecting the stuff into herself, which according to her produces “a literary high”. It is fitting that something designed to kill bugs is the first of many strange drugs to be introduced. Bug powder is generally meant to kill bugs, and drugs are often known to lead to the deaths of those who become addicted to them.

As Joan describes it “It’s a Kafka high… you feel like a bug.” The reference to Kafka is an early clue to what we are going to be in for with this film. Joan’s remark obviously refers to Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, which centers around a travelling salesman who wakes up to find he has inexplicably transformed into “a monstrous vermin.” The result of the transformation is often depicted as a giant bug-like creature, sometimes with a human face. Later on we encounter many large and similarly grotesque bugs, some of which are merged with typewriters similar to how the hybrid creature depicted in some illustrations of Kafka's story.

Bill tries to consult a specialist, Dr. Benway, for help with Joan’s addiction. He gives him a powdery substance called “blackmeat” made from giant centipedes, explaining the interesting idea that it is to be mixed in with the bug powder. According to Benway, it will gradually block out the part of the brain that gets stimulated by the drug which makes the addict cease to be addicted. If only breaking habits was so easy, and as you would expect, it proves to be too good to be true.

All that really seems to be accomplished is that Bill ends up getting addicted to the stuff himself. He begins hallucinating, and things get weird. He gets “busted” by the cops for having bug powder, and they don’t believe him when he explains he is an exterminator. The two of them note that they have “a bug” in the office and decide to see how it reacts to the powder. What they bring out is a giant box containing what looks like an oversized beetle that begins talking to Bill Lee through the mouth on its anus.

This beetle seems to be completely unaffected by the bug powder. If anything, it actually enjoys it and even asks Bill to pour some on its lips. The bug in question tells Bill that he needs to kill Joan, and suggests that she isn’t even human. Bill quickly realises he is probably hallucinating, which leads him to kill the bug with his shoe and make a run for it. Still, he hasn't broken the habit, and ends up trying to do a “William Tell routine” that results in him accidentally shooting Joan in the head anyway. As if that wasn’t enough, to rub salt on the wound, the glass Bill had meant to shoot off of Joan’s head is the one thing that remains intact.

This is about the point where it starts to become hard to tell where reality ends and hallucinations begin. It looks as though the bugs somehow influenced him to do the deed of shooting his wife, but at the same time, he was hardly thinking clearly. Even stranger is how Joan immediately complies with Bill’s statement, as though they had done it before. Neither was in their right minds at the time, however, given they were both high and possibly drunk.

The possibility of it all being coincidence becomes even stronger when you consider the fact that it this scene was inspired by a real incident in the life of William S. Burroughs, the author of the book the film was (loosely) adapted from. The actual incident happened in Mexico City, but like the movie, it involved Burroughs getting drunk and accidentally shooting his common-law wife while trying to imitate William Tell (a Swiss folk hero said to have shot an apple off a child’s head with a bow and arrow).

Bill Lee ends up meeting an alien creature called a "mugwump" who recommends he buy a specific typewriter and travel to “Interzone” (a shady port somewhere on the African coast). This begins a strange pattern in the narrative. Bill is clearly shown to receive a flight ticket from the mugwump, but later when asked to present it, he pulls out a bag filled with drugs, and similar interactions happen throughout. The fact that he is this confused seems to suggest he is hallucinating encounters like this one with the mugwump. Later on, typewriters appear normal one moment and as living creatures the next. It all ties into that theme of the inability to tell when reality ends and hallucinations begin, very much the sort of feeling an addict might go through.

The big question is whether there is in fact any truth to the existence of "Interzone". We did see that the "ticket" he presented was a bag of drugs, not exactly something that could get him onto a plane. We also never see him actually arriving at the port. It is possible (and perhaps even likely) therefore that he never actually left his home. Interzone, like the bugs, is all a product of his hallucinations.

he ends up encountering an exact duplicate of his wife in the form of Joan Frost (also played by Davis), along with her husband, a writer by the name of Tom Frost (Ian Holm). One thing about these two is that while these people may exist (and indeed were based on a couple Burroughs met in Morocco), their interactions might not be what they seem. There is one scene early on where Tom walks with Bill through a marketplace and tells him (and by extension, the audience) to watch his lips and listen to what he is saying. Sure enough, his mouth is out of sync with his dialogue, and it remains that way throughout the film. 

This suggests that what Bill thinks he hears Tom say does not actually line up with what he is really saying. Taking this logic into account, it seems that Joan Frost may not actually be a doppelganger to Joan Lee, but rather the result of Bill projecting her image onto another person. Perhaps something about Joan Frost reminds Bill of his wife, and in turn with all the other hallucinations going around, he sees her as resembling the latter. This would also justify why his “controller” (a weird typewriter-bug hybrid) insists that he complete his “mission” by seducing her.

Bill borrows a Martinelli typewriter from Tom, only to find it getting murdered by his own. They show an image of the two bugs fighting but in Bill’s delusional state, he could have easily smashed the typewriter without realising it, and that is probably exactly what happened. He is then told that it was an “enemy agent”, which appears to be from his typewriter in its supposed bug form when in truth it is simply his mind trying to rationalise a spur of the moment piece of vandalism.

The idea that these bugs are more or less hallucination is enforced when Bill goes to see Joan, who reveals that Tom also has an Arabic typewriter. He talks her into writing something but everything seems normal at first. Nothing actually happens until Joan is convinced to try some of the black meat. It is only after she does that the machine begins to transform into a bizarre centipede-like creature, and as soon as it falls out the window it turns back into a typewriter. Also note how the housekeeper Fadela (Monique Mercure) shows no surprise or confusion about the presence of such a thing or how it got there.  

The real question is why did she feel the need to throw a typewriter out the window? Well, later on, we see Fadela at a stall in the market selling black meat. Perhaps she is the one who really has the power in the household, and only pretends to be servatile. This is supported by the later scene where she is overseeing the distribution of Mugwump juice and the reveal about who she really is.

Tom then arrives demanding his Martinelli, only to find it smashed. What becomes really strange is that Bill’s typewriter is in its bug form throughout this scene, and yet when Tom goes to take it hostage he never seems to acknowledge that fact. He never questions the fact that the typewriter is talking and desperately trying to get away. Either he is used to seeing typewriters that can move on their own, or he is seeing something very different from us. The most likely explanation is that Bill is hallucinating, and Tom is in fact stealing a normal typewriter.

Bill ends up passed out in an alleyway and spending some time with a local boy named Kiki, who helps him “fix” the Martinelli. However, instead of being a normal typewriter, it comes out resembling a Mugwump’s head. The keyboard is apparently in its mouth, and it is not clear how Bill is supposed to fit the paper into it, but that does not stop him. Adding to the apparent hallucination is one scene where the “mugwriter” seemingly comes to life, transforming into a full mugwump, and begins talking to Lee before turning back into the weird-shaped typewriter.

Bill has to go see a strange man named Yves Cloquet and is accompanied by Kiki when they ride in the former’s “wonderful car”. During the ride, Bill relates an anecdote about a man who somehow taught his anus to speak as part of a circus show, only for it to eventually develop a mind of its own and eventually seal his mouth shut. This is a weird anecdote, even for this movie, but it might just explain a few things.

It is not clear if this man was someone Bill knew or if it was just a story he heard from someone else, but either way it would explain where that one detail about the bugs came from. The bugs seem to have mouths on their anuses throughout the film, and if they are hallucinations, that means they were created by Bill’s own mind. Having a story like that would explain where Bill’s mind got that idea.

At Cloquet’s house, we get to one of the strangest parts of this narrative. Kiki shows affection towards one of Cloquet’s parrots, and is talked into going upstairs to “play with” the others he owns. Meanwhile, Bill tries to get information about Dr. Benway. After the two spend some time talking, Bill walks in on Kiki being gruesomely murdered by Cloquet, now taking on the form of a giant centipede inside a bird cage. I still do not have a solid explanation for this scene.

Finally, Bill decides to get his old typewriter back by giving the mugwump typewriter to Tom Frost, which he accepts with gratitude and returns Bill his old device. One thing that is worth noting is that Tom refrains from opening the case containing the typewriter on-screen, so we do not know for sure if what he will pull out is in fact the mugwump head or if it is just a regular-looking typewriter. As noted before, the mugwump head was likely a product of Bill’s delusions.

Unfortunately, when Bill opens the case containing his typewriter, he finds it tortured and apparently dying. If there is no international conspiracy going on, than why would Tom Frost resort to torture in an effort to extract information from a regular typewriter? However, Tom did have every reason to be mad at Bill. The man was responsible for smashing both of his typewriters and showed no sign of remorse. It would not be inconceivable that Tom, who in his frustration might not have been thinking clearly, smashed the typewriter in a fit of anger (or possibly as an attempt at revenge). The mugwump typewriter was supposedly forged from Tom’s Martinelli, so in a sense Bill is returning it to its original owner. This in turn allows the two men to reconcile their differences, and as a result by returning Bill his own typewriter he is coming clean about what he had done.

The climax of the film comes up when Bill arrives at a factory filled with mugwumps who are all chained and hanging from the ceiling. Numerous people are drinking some kind of milky fluid out of the tubes in their heads, including several we have seen at different points in the film. Fadela is shown overseeing the process, establishing that she is evidently the one in control and not the other way around (ironic given she was established as the Frosts’ house keeper).

There is one thing about Fadela that comes up, though, which is that she is actually a man in drag. It turns out she is none other than Dr. Benway, the man behind everything. He gave Bill the black meat knowing it was a highly addictive drug and with the intent of drawing him into all kinds of weird things. Apparently black meat is going out of style and mugwump juice is the new industry. Bill agrees to work for Benway in a place called Annexia as long as Joan Frost can go with him.

At the borders of Annexia, Bill ends up in a strange situation. A group of patrol guards pull over his car and ask for some identification. They demand proof that he is a writer by telling him to “write something”. Bill responds by waking up Joan Frost telling her it is time for them to work on their “William Tell routine”, much as he did with Joan Lee. The results are also the same, he shoots her in the head, while the glass on top remains unharmed. The border patrol guards then welcome him into Annexia.

It is harder to pinpoint exactly what goes on in this final scene, but it is possible that Bill is still delusional. The patrol guards’ outfits do look Eastern European, so it is possible he could have ended up in a real country thinking it was Annexia. The real question is why they let him in after watching him shoot a woman for no apparent reason. I’m afraid I don’t know for sure.

Nash and Tara of the website Radio Dead Air have a series called W.T.F.I.W.W.Y. (I’m not spelling out the full title) in which they discuss weird and bizarre news stories that often leave you wondering what the people involved were thinking. As a result, they have developed a few “rules for life” that make sense when you see their show, and one of those rules is “the old drugs still work”. That’s not to say that they encourage drug use, just that the stuff some people get high off of makes things like weed seem mild by comparison. I’m not sure there is a film that better exemplifies that rule than David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch

Really, though, it is something that is likely to deter anyone with the slightest interest in any kind of drug use. We should stop showing drug PSA’s to the kids and instead just do screenings of Naked Lunch. That will keep them away from illegal and harmful drugs. Don't do drugs or you'll get dragged into a surreal international conspiracy with giant talking bugs.

This post was written for the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Kristina at Speakeasy. and Ruth at Silver Screenings


  1. I applaud you for your analysis of this one because it generates reams of criticism and theory. It's not my thing but I watched it, and can see its place in surrealist modern art. Peter Weller is a good actor and this has to be one of his best (if weirdest) performances. thanks for covering Cronenberg for this event!

    1. Even better is that I still have one more. You should be seeing that one on Thursday.

      This is definitely not a movie for everybody, but I did find it a very interesting film to pull apart and dissect.

  2. Whew! What a mind trip! I've shied away from this film, feeling that I wouldn't "get" it. But I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this film – and I liked your conclusion to replace "Don't Do Drugs" PSAs with this film!

    Thanks so much for bringing David Cronenberg to the O Canada party!

    1. No problem. It was a great blogathon to be part of. Admittedly I had to turn down participating in several others (and cancel one or two I had already signed on for) to make sure I had time for this, but it was worth it.

  3. I love it when you write...and then it gets weird-lol-I was on a mind trip just reading about this film! Cronenberg, while brilliant, is just on the other side of weird. No matter what he loves, violence, sex and the truly nuts. Kafka would be proud

    1. Indeed he would. There certainly was a bit of Kafka influence on this movie. The best part is if you think the movie is weird, I've been told the book makes even LESS sense and actually was literally written on drugs.