There is nothing short of reading William S. Burroughs that can prepare you for Naked Lunch.
Self-destructive visions like this are not easily grasped.
Burroughs' 1959 cult classic is captured in spirit, though not necessarily in form, by writer-director David Cronenberg, an illusory master in his own right.
What emerges is a superbly executed, though excruciatingly paced, meditation on addiction, hallucination, insects, homosexuality and the creative process. Naked Lunch, playing exclusively at the Mission Bell in Tampa, is for a limited audience.
The movie is not as much a recreation of Burroughs' "beat generation" tome as it is an interpretation of the process that Burroughs underwent writing it.
Most of the story takes place in the mind of exterminator/writer/junkie Bill Lee (a pseudonym Burroughs once used).
Peter Weller plays Lee with Burroughs' mumbling, ultra-detached presence. It's like having a corpse for a tour guide. Weller is excellent.
Naked Lunch is set in New York City in 1953. Lee works as an exterminator, having found writing too painful a profession. One day, he discovers he's short on bug poison.
His wife, Joan (Barton Fink's Judy Davis), happens to be shooting the stuff into her right breast. She's hooked on the powder and sharing it, along with her body, with Lee's writer friends.
By this juncture, a bug the size of a beehive has told Lee that his wife is an enemy agent and that he must kill her. The bug speaks from its posterior _ a typically repulsive Cronenberg touch _ which also serves as its mouth.
Lee does kill his wife, in the same manner Burroughs dispatched his real-life mate, playing William Tell with an unsteady arm.
Fleeing the police, he slips into a bar where he's first propositioned by a man, then given a ticket to Interzone by a man-sized insect that appears to be in its pupa stage.
Interzone happens to be more a state of mind than a country in Africa. But it looks like Tangier, which is where Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch.
In Lee's delusional state _ he also is addicted to insect powder _ he envisions himself a secret agent who's required to write reports about what he experiences in Interzone.
Lee must type these reports. When he doesn't, his typewriter metamorphoses into a gooey beetle that coaches him along.
Telling Lee to pretend he's gay _ "It's the best cover a secret agent can have" _ the typewriter/bug suggests Lee keep tabs on Tom and Joan Bowles (Ian Holm and Davis again). Tom Bowles, a novelist, is meant to represent Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky.
The story gets decidedly weirder as it progresses, introducing Lee to a housekeeper (Monique Mercure) of uncertain nationality and sexuality who keeps Joan in line with a leather crop; a gay Arab (Joseph Scorsiani) who helps resurrect Lee's typewriter after it is crushed; and a Swiss aristocrat (Julian Sands) who's deeply into arthropod S&M.
Cronenberg, the director of Scanners, The Fly and Dead Ringers, demonstrates more restraint than usual although Naked Lunch has enough viscera to repel most moviegoers. His movie is alternately engrossing and tedious. Its brilliance isn't easily embraced.
Nudging Naked Lunch along is a superb score by jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman who, with Burroughs, was a pivotal figure in the beat movement that flourished in America during the early 1950s.
The music, performances and the movie's shadowy brown-toned settings _ existing somewhere between New York, the Sahara and the subconscious _ are all outstanding. Yet, this drug-induced vision is difficult to follow and even harder to enjoy.
If you've read Burroughs or explored your own personal Interzone, you're bound to appreciate Naked Lunch's more than anyone who hasn't.
+ + +
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider
Screenplay: David Cronenberg, based on William S. Burroughs' novel.
Rating: R, violence, drug use, sexual situations
Running time: 115 minutes