Dialogue: A Cronenbergian Conversation Part 3 — The Unadaptables: 'Naked Lunch' and 'Crash'
Taking on two screen-resistant novels by William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, David Cronenberg found his own path forward.
For a while it looked like David Cronenberg might be done making movies. Some of the long filmmaking silence that followed 2014’s Maps to the Stars was understandable. It’s much harder to finance films than the days of his low-budget first features, which were partially backed by funds from the Canadian government. In 2017 he lost his wife, Carolyn Cronenberg, and in 2020 his sister and longtime collaborator Denise Cronenberg. He still seemed interested in working, but mostly as an actor on TV series like Slasher and Star Trek: Discovery. Maybe he was drifting gently into retirement.
Then came word of Crimes of the Future, a new film that shares its name with a little-seen 1970 Cronenberg short feature and concerns a near future filled with body modification, boundary-pushing performance artists and other classically Cronenbergian elements.. Cronenberg admirers and sickos (not mutually exclusive groups, of course) pricked up their ears at rumors that it’s a shocking endurance test. As members of at least one of those camps, we decided to embark on a conversation series covering select Cronenberg films. Our conversation concludes with two of Cronenberg’s experimental adaptations, 1991’s Naked Lunch and 1996’s Crash. Plus: some final words.
Keith: William S. Burroughs’ 1959 novel Naked Lunch used to be a kind of password, a counterculture totem that could unite such diverse artists as Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, and Steely Dan. Thanks to its loose connection to narrative and its vivid descriptions of violence, drug use, and gay sex, it stood as the ultimate transgressive text of the Beat era, its reputation only enhanced by being banned in Boston and Los Angeles.. (Well, it boasts all kinds of sex, but it was the gay sex that made it especially shocking.) I don’t know that that reputation has endured, but Gen Xers got the tail end of it in the ’80s and ’90s, when Burroughs’ skeletal face and croaking voice started turning up in everything from Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy to R.E.M. songs to Nike commercials.
The Reveal is a reader-supported newsletter dedicated to bringing you great essays, reviews and conversation about movies (and a little TV). While both free and paid subscriptions are available, please consider a paid subscription to support our long-term sustainability.
Though Burroughs never really went away—you could see him on SNL in 1981, for instance—David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch was almost certainly the apotheosis of Burroughs’ late-life revival. It’s less an adaptation of the novel than a fantasia on Burroughs’ life and work, and I’m not even sure it’s comprehensible if you don’t have at least a passing familiarity with the real-life events and figures that inspired it. In part because I was already really into all things Cronenberg, I did my homework in the lead-up to the film’s release. So I found the analogues to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Paul and Jane Bowles easy to spot, as well as scene depicting an event central to the Burroughs mythos: the shooting death of his wife, Joan Vollmer.
The story, as Burroughs told it, was this: he shot Vollmer in Mexico City as part of a drunken “William Tell” game. Her death haunted him but also, he insisted, unlocked whatever it was within him that made him a writer. Burroughs’ biographers have found nothing disputing his account but, understandably, the years have brought out more skeptical perspectives about the event, especially the way it’s been mythologized and treated as a can-you-believe-this-crazy-detail part of a writer’s origin story (particularly a writer whose love of firearms and misogynistic observations were central to his mythos).
Cronenberg’s treatment of that moment—seen twice with Judy Davis playing both Joan Lee, wife of Peter Weller’s Burroughs surrogate Bill Lee, and Joan Frost, a stand-in for Jane Bowles—seems a good place to start talking about the film. It’s unspeakably ugly and sad in both scenes. He sticks with the story that Burroughs would not have written Naked Lunch if not for the death, but Cronenberg makes clear that also unmoors him, the first time from reality and the second time from humanity. In some ways the film plays like a transgressive literary superhero origin story: William S. Burroughs — who he is and how he came to be. By the end of the film he’s become an expert at writing what his bug superiors call “reports” but his crossing over to Annexia in the final moments plays like he’s moved beyond the point of no return as surely as The Fly’s Seth Brundle walking into the telepod and Dead Ringers’ Beverly Mantle taking a knife to Elliot. The Burroughs of later years almost seemed as much like a ghost as a man, a being who hadn’t so much survived decades of drug abuse and careless living as made spectral and haunting by them. I think Cronenberg’s film works as an explanation of where that ghost came from.
I’ve really only touched on one aspect of this Naked Lunch so there’s a lot more to discuss, including talking typewriters and dripping fluid and—not unrelatedly—the dry dark humor, which is analogous to Burroughs’ writing even when it’s not translating it directly. What stands out to you? And does it feel like a logical extension of the Cronenberg work that preceded it?
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Reveal to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.