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This essay by filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley originally appeared in the 1992 book Everything Is Permitted: The Making of “Naked Lunch.”
The realization of David Cronenberg’s version of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch constitutes not only a cinematic inevitability; it is also the latest stage in a filmic experiment that has spanned some twenty years. Like Seth Brundle emerging from the telepod in Cronenberg’s film The Fly, Peter Weller—as Burroughs’s alter ego Bill Lee—stands before the camera in Naked Lunch as the most explicit and successful result to date of that experiment. Brundlefly becomes Burroughs-Cronenberg.
Separation can be a terrias engineered a disintegration and reintegration by embracing the colonizing influence of Burroughs’s sensibility in his own life and work. In the process, he has been ruthless with the source material; control is the essence of artistic life.
The influence of Burroughs on Cronenberg extends much further than Cronenberg’s cinema and operates on several levels. As an aspiring writer, Cronenberg was so influenced by the work of Burroughs and Vladimir Nabokov that he felt unable to produce original work as a novelist. For Cronenberg the consumer, Burroughs’s work was irresistibly appealing; for Cronenberg the would-be writer, it proved stifling.
From the outset, Burroughs’s influence was like a neurological connection. Beyond its startling language and literary form, beyond its “forbidden” subject matter and obsessions (and sympathetic reaction to the repressive era in which it was written), the work spoke most immediately to Cronenberg’s viscera. More an infection than an influence.
To coexist with an infection, you have to be ingenious or it can subsume all of you. An artistic cure is essential to the creation of work that is intrinsically one’s own. Cronenberg’s particular antidote emerged in the act of filmmaking. He felt free to invent his own cinema, to be original in a way he could not with his writing, while many other filmmakers of his generation struggled with cinematic atavism under the towering shadows of Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, and so on.
Cronenberg is no cinephile. To Cronenberg, what separates Fellini from Paul Brickman, director of Risky Business, is the auteurist impulse: the drive to create a discernable, hermetically sealed world consistent from film to film, an instantly recognizable sensibility or vision. There are no direct cinematic influences on Cronenberg’s work. His heaviest influences are literary, and Burroughs is perhaps the strongest.
Similarities between the work of Burroughs and Cronenberg arise as much from the sheer force of imagery as from the imagery itself. Finding a cinematic equivalent for a literary vision is one thing; equaling its power in the context of another medium is something else entirely. Cronenberg’s compulsion is to “show the unshowable, to speak the unspeakable,” and even his relatively subdued and mainstream The Dead Zone (1983) is filled with images not easily erased from the mind. His ability to imagine and create the impossible in ways truly shocking, without compromise—a remarkable feat, given the commercial demands informing so much of cinema—is what binds the Cronenberg-esque to the Burroughsian. Both artists have suffered from often hysterically adverse reactions to the powerful images they have unleashed, and the impact of their visions has been overshadowed for some audiences by the “disgusting” nature of the subject matter.
It has never been Cronenberg’s intention to create an exact translation of Burroughs’s writing into film. As he has observed, there exists no possibility of direct translation into filmic language of Burroughs’s work. Techniques such as cut-ups, fold-ins, or, as in the case of Naked Lunch, the montage method are formal strategies that remain unexplored in cinema outside of the so-called avant-garde film. The filmic equivalent of Burroughs’s manipulation of literary form can be found in the experimental films of Antony Balch, who made several shorts with Burroughs in the early 1960s and who also made extensive plans for his own version of Naked Lunch in 1964, but failed to raise the necessary finances.
The Balch-Burroughs collaborations, which prefigured certain elements of the New York underground film movement, were of great interest to a young Cronenberg in the sixties. Despite the appeal that these films (which spoke of sex and drugs and rock and roll) held for Cronenberg, living in the repressive state of Ontario, his first two short features, Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), were not experiments in film as film. The Burroughsian influence in these two remarkably original early films was not reflected in the visuals, nor did they break with conventional form. Rather, it was echoed in the films’ voice-overs and the world those voices described. If Stereo and Crimes of the Future signal the beginning of Cronenberg’s own philosophical inquiries in film, they also clearly show where that inquiry has been influenced by or overlaps with Burroughs.
Certain elements in these films and Cronenberg’s subsequent commercial features seem to be virtually direct references or homages to Burroughs’s work. These surface currents of a neurological connection—symptoms, if you will—are iconographic and thematic. Both Stereo and Crimes of the Future take place in a kind of future that might also be the present and are dominated by tales of control and conspiracy. Control of the mind by drug use, brain surgery, and sophisticated telepathic techniques are central to Stereo, as they are to Burroughs’s texts.
Conspiracy, another key theme for Burroughs, abounds in Crimes of the Future, as strange renegade institutions and groups, most notably a heterosexual pedophilic conspiracy, battle to control an alien situation: most of the female population has fallen victim to a fatal dermatological disease brought on by the use of cosmetics. Conspiratorial institutions crop up frequently in Cronenberg’s cinema, most explicitly with Consec in Scanners (1981) and Spectacular Optical in Videodrome (1983). Most of Cronenberg’s commercial films feature institutions involved in advanced, covert, or mysterious activities that impact unpredictably on the lives of the protagonists.
Stereo and Crimes of the Future introduced the first of Cronenberg’s absentee scientists: Dr. Luther Stringfellow (a parapsychologist) and Antoine Rouge (a mad dermatologist), respectively, fantastic characters not dissimilar to Burroughs’s curious and ambitious Dr. Benway (a forensic psychologist) and Dr. Schafer (a compulsive lobotomizer and experimental surgeon). Cronenberg’s roster of doctors includes as well Emil Hobbes (Shivers, 1975), Dan Keloid (Rabid, 1977), Hal Raglan (The Brood, 1979), Paul Ruth (Scanners), and Professor Brian O’Blivion (Videodrome), to name but a few.
Having studied science in college, Cronenberg at one time considered pursuing a career in biochemistry. His interest in scientific endeavors runs deep and is by no means inherited from Burroughs. His various incarnations of scientists as charismatic, eccentric, and, at the worst, morally misguided in their sincere efforts to short circuit, aid, or improve the body and the evolutionary process is tinged with more than a little Burroughs. As Schafer says in Naked Lunch, “The human body is scandalously inefficient. Instead of a mouth and an anus to get out of order why not have one all-purpose hole to eat and eliminate? We could seal up the nose and mouth, fill in the stomach, make an air hole direct into the lungs where it should have been in the first place . . .”
The body is the site where Cronenberg and Burroughs overlap most perfectly in concept and image. Both are very body-conscious; both are fascinated with the potential of transformation and independent revolution of the flesh; both evince a puritan disgust with the flesh (although at least one of them might deny it); both delve into sex, violence, virus, and disease. And each has focused readily on the threatening or repulsive, rather than the redemptive, aspects of physical revolution, with a very fortunate sense of humor. Burroughs’s fascination with mutation, hybrids, regeneration, and, to a lesser degree, reincarnation finds a striking visual afterlife in Cronenberg’s commercial movies.
Burroughs speaks in Naked Lunch of “undifferentiated tissue, which can grow into any kind of flesh . . . Sex organs sprout everywhere.” In Crimes of the Future, at the Institute of Neo-Venereal Disease, Adrian Tripod (Ronald Mlodzik) meets a friend who is indeed growing mysterious, functionless organs. And in Rabid, Rose (Marilyn Chambers) develops a penislike syringe in her armpit as the result of a radical plastic surgery technique that treats patients with morphogenetically neutral skin grafts. Disciples of “Psychoplasmics” in The Brood develop all manner of fleshy manifestations; most notably, Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) creates little monster children, complete with cleft palates, air sacks, and direct telepathic connection with the “mother ship.” In Videodrome, Max Renn (James Woods) hallucinates an abdominal vagina, a hand gun and grenade, and flesh-ripping death by internal cancer explosions.
Burroughs first came across the name of Cronenberg on the release of Scanners. He found the idea of the exploding-head sequence intriguing. The movie returns to the primary theme of Stereo: telepathy. Much of Burroughs’s work revolves around the power of the mind to control the flesh of others and to affect the physical world in dramatic ways, and around the power of writing. The political side of Scanners, too, finds a parallel in Naked Lunch. Just as Cronenberg’s telepathic mutants are appropriated by intelligence organizations or oppositional terrorist groups as Darryl Revok and his disciples aim to control the planet, in Naked Lunch Burroughs’s Senders have apparently gained this ability. With Dead Ringers (1988), the conjoined interests of Cronenberg and Burroughs reach their ultimate, as the movie unfolds the story of identical twin gynecologists, Elliot and Beverly Mantle: two bodies, two minds, one soul.
In Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (1986), Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) slowly mutates into a new life after having been accidentally fused at the molecular level with a housefly. Although Burroughs usually uses insect metaphor to describe the soulless or inhuman and, by contrast, Cronenberg finds a strange beauty in insect life (hence the sympathy elicited for Brundlefly), the interface between human and insect is remarkably similar for Cronenberg and Burroughs. Cronenberg’s original working title for Rabid, a modern vampire story in which Rose finds herself able to digest nothing but blood, which she sucks up through her newly acquired penile appendage, was Mosquito. Characters transform into giant centipedes in Naked Lunch. Perhaps Brundlefly said it best in The Fly: “I’m saying I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over and the insect is awake.”
Burroughs and Cronenberg share the view that disease is an intelligent life form, not merely something that must be destroyed before it destroys. Burroughs sees it as a basic part of life (“What came first, the intestine or the tapeworm?”) that takes many uncommon forms. In Cronenberg’s Shivers, Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) relates a dream in which she has been told that “disease is the love of two kinds of alien creatures for each other.” A notice in the surgeon’s waiting room reads, “Sex Is the Invention of a Clever Venereal Disease.” And the fecal-phallic parasites in Shivers bear a strong resemblance to Burroughs’s lecherous candiru in Naked Lunch: “small eel-like fish or worm . . . long patronizing certain rivers of ill repute.”
Seth Brundle asserts in The Fly that contagion isn’t the problem, because he “knows what the disease wants.” What it wants is to turn him into something else, something that never existed before. Cronenberg’s interest, like Burroughs’s, is not only in the disease’s point of view (Shivers earned Cronenberg the accolade “King of Venereal Horror”) but in its function as an agent of change, as a factor in the evolutionary process. In Burroughs’s story “Astronaut’s Return,” an ancient parasite—“what Freud calls the unconscious”—is spawned in the caves of Europe on human flesh irradiated in a nuclear explosion some thirty thousand years ago. Declaring that “the descendants of [these] cave-dwelling albinos are the present inhabitants of America and Western Europe,” Burroughs credits a virus with the entirety of historical, political, cultural, and evolutionary processes.
To some extent, explicitly Burroughsian imagery has gradually been exorcised from Cronenberg’s work. Critic Mitch Tuchman asserted in 1984 that “without Burroughs, Cronenberg may be without imagery.” Despite this harsh assessment, Cronenberg had by then already entered a new phase in his development as a director: a more interior, melancholic, and mature period, less concerned with special effects and altogether divorced from his “schlock horror” past. Cronenberg continues to pursue an increasingly personal vision, as is abundantly clear in his version of Naked Lunch.
Although both were raised in middle-class North America, Burroughs and Cronenberg couldn’t be more different. And while they share numerous common interests, there remain great differences in their work. None of Burroughs’s impassioned moralism and belief in an afterlife appears in Cronenberg’s work. In the Cronenberg universe, there are no external forces; man alone creates and re-creates the world. Nuclear holocaust, should it happen, is our natural end. And yet the vital neurological connection between Burroughs and Cronenberg has resulted in some of the most unique cinema to have emerged since
In 1981, Cronenberg told Omni magazine, “Some part of me would love to make a movie of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.” As one critic observed three years later, some part of him already had.