Gay Times, May 1992, p.35-38

david cronenbergs naked lunch

Al Weisel meets the canadian director who has turned William Burroughs´ 'unfilmable' novel into a major movie.


William Burroughs´ Naked Lunch had been bandied about Hollywood for so long that many had long since concluded that the novel was unfilmable. When David Cronenberg announced his intention finally to bring the novel to the screen it seemed like an intriguing match at first. He shared Burroughs´ alternate fascination and disgust for the dark side of human sexuality, have already made films that featured sadomasochism (Dead Ringers), sexually spread parasites (Shivers), vagina dentata (Videodrome), and ambisexuality (Stereo and Crimes of the Future). But in Naked Lunch Cronenberg has taken Burroughs´s unbashedly gay novel and made a film that is extremely abashed toward gayness, if not outright gaybashing. One of the least repressed books ever written, Naked Lunch has been transformed into a movie whose main theme is, curiously enough, repression.

He has scrapped most of the novel and its frank depictions of gay sex and made instead a pseudo-biography of Burroughs. While the first retains his tone and wit it almost completely obscures his sexuality. The film´s protagonist, William Lee (Peter Weller), is based on Burroughs, who like Lee worked as an exterminator and accidentally shot his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), while re-enacting William Tell. After the shooting he embarks on a hallucinatory odyssey to Interzone, a country that resembles Tangiers, where Burroughs wrote much of Naked Lunch. Here Lee writes his novel goaded on by a typewriter that he imagines is a talking cockroach. When the typewriter tells Lee that "homosexuality is the best allaround cover story an agent ever had," Cronenberg transforms his line from Burroughs´s book, an ironic comment on many gay men´s double lives, into an excuse to render his homosexuality nearly invisible.

Lee encounters a couple, Tom (Ian Holm) and Joan Frost (Judy Davis, in a double role) based on Burroughs´s friends Paul and Jane Bowles, but Cronenberg inexplicably invents a love affair between Lee and Joan, despite the fact that the real Jane Bowles was a lesbian. The only gay love interest for Lee is a hustler named Kiki (Joseph Scorsiani), whom Lee is never shown to have sex with, though there is one scene that hints at a tryst, which could easily have passed the Hayes Code´s censor. The most disturbing aspect of the film is the invention of a character who does not appear in the novel. Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands) is an effete, predatory homosexual who murders a young man while fucking him in the film´s most overtly homophobic scene, which recreates every straight man´s worst nightmare about gay sex.

"I´m not gay," protests Cronenberg to explain why he could not deal with homosexuality more forthrightly. It´s a strange excuse coming from a man who had no problem making a film from the point of view of a man who changes into a giant fly. He consistently shrinks back from portraying gay sex in the film. He can show heterosexual couples rolling around on top of each other, but he can´t depict two men fucking without transforming one of them into a giant centipede and turning it into a brutal, violent, antierotic act. He can´t even violate the old Hollywood taboo act of showing two men kissing. While the film is often witty and inspired, for gay viewers who don´t often get a chance to see their literature on the screen it is ultimately a crushing disappointment.

David Cronenberg

Weisel: Why did you make Lee basically heterosexual?

Cronenberg: I don´t think he is basically heterosexual. Burroughs was asked about the muted homosexuality in the film and he said, "He´s queer enough, don´t you think?" I set the movie in 1953 when attitudes towards homosexuality were different. Some people thought it was a sickness that could be cured. Burroughs has even said he thought that writing Naked Lunch cured him of his homosexuality. Those are his words not mine. Now if you read the book you won´t get a feel for that, except maybe by implication. But I wanted to get some of the context of the times in the writing of the book. That is why I have this ambivalence about his sexuality rather than the fully formed understanding of his own sexuality that you get in later Burroughs. I have as my main character an exterminator. He´s exterminating a lot of things besides insects. He´s exterminating his own homosexuality. He´s exterminating his desire to be creative and to write and he´s doing both because to face those things in the context of the times was too painful and too difficult and yet they eventually needed to be expressed.

W: Attitudes to homosexuality certainly were different in 1953 but you made the film in 1991.

C: Yeah, but I think if I´m going to examine the process of a man becoming a writer and to connect that with coming to terms with sexuality, I´m starting from a historical perspective. I can see that coming around again, you know, for different reasons. This is something a gay writer in Toronto said to me. Now young men are going to be afraid to be gay because of a fear of Aids rather than any sort of disapproval of the official reality like in the fifties. The end result would be the same. 1993 might be very much like 1953 in a bizarrely different way. This is my attempt to get a handle on a lot of things. I don´t make a movie to express a political stance. I´m exploring things. So it was interesting to me when he also was exploring things. The conflict is of the interest not the resolution.

W: You´ve said that the film is about repression, that when Lee is drinking mugwump jism he´s really sucking a boy´s cock. But we do step back and see reality. For example, we see that the cockroach is just a typewriter. Why don´t we ever step back and see a real boy and a real cock?

C: Like in Burroughs the hallucinations are willed. When you get these glimpses of things, what I´m trying to suggest is that Lee can only allow himself slight little bits of things. Maybe in Annexia he´s sucking a boy´s cock.

W: But why is it specifically homosexual reality that we never see?

C: You don´t see it with regards to heterosexual reality either. In the scene where Lee and Joan are on the floor, we don´t see any flesh, you don´t see her naked. What I tried to do is give the sexuality to the creatures. And to make it metaphorical and not actual. None of the actors takes their clothes off. In fact the closest it ever gets is Kiki with his top off.

W: However we see the heterosexual act represented but never the homosexual act except in the scene with Yves Cloquet.

C: You´ve got fifty mugwumps with men and women sucking their cocks. I don´t think there are any depictions of heterosexual sex either.

W: What are Hank (a character based on Jack Kerouac, played by Nicholas Campbell and Joan (Lee´s wife) doing on the couch?

C: You´re right about that, but then Martin (based on Allen Ginsberg, played by Michael Zelniker) turns to Lee and says shall we join them, which is clearly a homosexual invitation, and yes, Lee declines, but he declines because at that point in his life heterosexuality is socially accepted and the homosexuality isn´t.

W: But how is the audience to know that Lee is suppressing his homosexuality rather than that he is not really gay? What clues are we given?

C: You have to understand the film. The hallucinations he sees are really his unconscious mind telling him things he doesn´t want to hear, telling him he should engage in homosexual acts, but telling him it´s for spy reasons, and in a way it´s the only way he can allow himself to do it. But of course, he´s telling himself to do it and he´s created Interzone because Interzone is a place where you are recognized for who you are. So when he´s in Interzone they know he´s homosexual. They say you can jump into bed with this one, you can sleep with this one. And he keeps saying, Why are you saying this? You know I don´t want to do this. Why are you saying this? In the same way the creatures are telling him he should get a typewriter and he says I don´t want to write, I´m not a writer. But in Interzone you´re seen for what you are.

W: But the only time we see gay sex represented is when the Yves Cloquet fucks Riki [sic].

C: No, because it´s supposed to be a surprise when you see Lee typing and he sits on the bed and you see Kiki on the bed like he´s been in the bed for a long time.

W: But we don´t see them having sex.

C: To me the interference is very clear.

W: But why is homosexuality only seen through interference?

C: The whole film is about repression. Everything is shown through interference in the movie.

W: But even when Lee and Joan Frost are together it´s very clear that they are fucking. It´s an erotic scene. The only equivalent gay scene is when Yves is fucking Kiki.

C: I don´t think it´s an equivalent. At that point Yves is a centipede.

W: But it´s the only time the homosexual act is even represented in the film.

C: But again, him typing and drinking the semen of his typewriter, it´s very obviously a male organ. It´s pretty straightforward. What is it that you´re really saying? It´s obvious you´re unhappy about something. I ´ll tell you that Burroughs saw the relation between Lee and Kiki as a homosexual one and he said that ironically enough in his relationships in Tangiers there was something missing that´s on the screen, which was a sense of tenderness and affection. He said that in Tangiers they were doing it for the money that they were very macho about it.

W: Do you think that William Burroughs is without some homophobia?

C: No. If I say this I could get nailed, but I think there´s nothing that he doesn´t have conflicts about. There is a sense when the Lee character shoots Joan he is killing his own heterosexuality. He´s trying to kill the female part of himself. And I think it´s some interpretation about that that´s what haunted him in his own life. I think he´s endlessly conflicted about every part of himself. But I have to say that one of the things I wanted to get out on the table with William is that while I don´t think it´s evident in my films that I have any fear of dealing with homosexuality on the screen, I´m not gay and therefore I said to him I don´t know what the sexual sensibility is going to be, it won´t be yours because it can´t be. That´s probably what you´re reading on the screen. I admit to that, but it´s an admission that it´s coming from a particular individual.

W: You´re not a fly or a twin gynaecologist, yet you made The Fly and Dead Ringers, so why is it just the sexuality that you are altering?

C: But it´s only one of many things. I talked to Burroughs about an afterlife for example. He believes in an alterlife and I don´t. Even our attitudes toward insects are different.

W: But Naked Lunch is an overtly gay novel.

C: In Naked Lunch the sexuality is so extreme that it´s beyond gay, in fact it´s beyond heterosexual into a sort of alien sexuality. It´s not really gay. It´s beyond gay, when I talked to Burroughs about this he agreed. Burroughs doesn´t think of Naked Lunch as his overtly gay novel.

W: Whatever Burroughs thinks about his book or his sexuality is not really germane. His book has been accepted as having a gay sensibility, whatever that means. To take a book like that and alter the sexuality, how is that different from, say, altering the race of the characters in Native Son?

C: One of things Burroughs wrote in the preface of the book The Making of Naked Lunch is that he´s reminded of a story about Raymond Chandler. Someone said to him "How can you stand what Hollywood has done to your books" and he said, "Hollywood hasn´t done anything to my books. They´re right there on the shelf." I haven´t altered the book.

W: But you´ve called your film Naked Lunch.

C: Would you react differently if it were a different title and you knew it was based on Naked Lunch or the writings of Burroughs? It´s something else. It´s a sense propriety of Burroughs as an icon and his work.

W: But you are sensitive to the problem of taking a gay book and making a film out of it that is not gay. Would you make a film of Native Son or Soul on Ice or the Autobiography of Malcom X and change the protagonists into white men.

C: Well, you´re loading the dice. These books are specifically about being black in America. When I gave a tape if the film to Ornette Coleman to see if he would be interested in doing the score, he loved it and he said this movie is about being brilliant in America. He identified with the outsiderness of it and suddenly it had nothing to do with race or sexuality. Naked Lunch is not as easily categorised as a book like the Autobiography of Malcolm X. There are other books we could compare. Ulysses. Could one make a gay-oriented film of Ulysses. Would I think that would be valid? If it were wonderfully done, of course it would be valid. It´s like a new performance of Hamlet in the light of feminism. Is that valid? Sure it´s valid. Naked Lunch is something that has so many levels to it that you can´t encompass it in another work. I hate to think that´s a disappointment to anyone´s expectations. The truth of it is, and it´s a tough truth, that if you´re making a movie of anything, you have to divest yourself of worrying about what your mother is going to think and I´m not being facetious, there are some writers who have held back publication until their mothers died. You have to strip yourself of all that. You have to divest yourself of what critics are going to think, what are the semioticians going to think.

W: You´ve said that the artist´s responsibility is to be irresponsible. But what if he defames blacks or Jews or gays? Does he have the right to be reckless and destructive?

C: Well you know Celine who wrote Journey to the End of the Night was antisemitic, he was fascist, but his book was brilliant. He was misantrophic, the fact of being human disgusted him. If you´re going to say burn that book ...

W: I´m not saying burn that book. I´m asking whether the artist should be held accountable.

C: I think "accountable" is an interesting term. Right now we´re having a discussion where you are taking me to account for a specific aspect of the movie. I think that, yes, I am willing to be taken to account and to be attacked for it, but not to be suppressed. I don´t believe in censorship and I don´t believe in self-censorship. The end results of those two things are always worse. My film can be found wanting on just about every political front, I would imagine, or not. It´s such a strange situation, but you can´t make your film in accordance with what you think everybody else´s expectations will be. If you do that you paralyse yourself and that´s one of the subjects of the film. So you´re getting my version of Naked Lunch, there´s no doubt about that. It´s not Burroughs´ version and it´s not yours but mine. To me that´s a pure act. It´s not malicious it´s not destructive. It´s as pure as I can make it. So if it´s only by omission of certain things that people find it bad, well that´s pretty weak. It´s not like there´s a positive attack on homosexuality in the film.

W: What about the Yves Cloquet character?

C: He´s probably one of the most Burroughsian characters in the movie because as you know in Naked Lunch you don´t get characters per se you get caricatures, almost cartoons or stereotypes and the stereotype of the decadent, predatory, expatriate, British, Swiss, I don´t know what...

W: Homosexual.

C: Homosexual. You know I could find you versions of that in Burroughs.

W: But even if you could find versions if the character in Burroughs, can you see how the character is still problematic?

C: Yes I can, and it´s sheer force of will that you don´t worry about it, I mean let´s say if you were to say this shows a definite homophobic of my nature, I might argue with you because I don´t think it´s true, but ultimately I might say, if it does, then so be it, it´s an expression of me, and if that´s a part of me, then there it is on the screen. It´s not a statement of a political agenda, it´s a statement of an inner state of mind on my part. That´s the worst thing I could say. I think that´s a part of all art.

W: You´re a white heterosexual filmmaker and you have a certain amount of power because of that.

C: It doesn´t feel like power when you´re batting your head against the wall trying to get the movie made.

W: I understand that it´s difficult to make a film, but you are probably to make a film a bit easier than someone who is gay or someone who is black. Are you aware of the fact that you have power...

C: I don´t think that´s true, if I had come to [film producer] Jeremy Thomas with this project. He´s talking to Gus Van Sant...

W: That´s one filmmaker. You can name on your hand successful openly gay filmmakers.

C: But that´s not my... I´m a completely self-taught filmmaker I came from nowhere. I have no connections with the film business. I came from absolutely nowhere to make my films. It was hard. So are you saying because it is harder for a homosexual filmmaker to make a movie I should have made my films more overtly gay?

W: Because the messages of gay filmmakers and black filmmakers are not often before the public, if you are approaching these subjects, you have to aware of what kind of message you are sending out. If your film is homophobic, say, and a gay filmmaker´s is not going to get out there, then homophobia is the only message that the public will see. Does that bother you? Do you think about that?

C: When you start thinking about that, you´re talking about something that´s beyond art. I don´t think that´s an artistic question.

W: So you´re just throwing up your hands.

C: No, what you´re talking about is a sort of survival of the fittest on the artistic, social stage, but that´s not where art comes from, that´s not where it is created, that´s not what its purpose is. I´m not saying it´s not a valid discussion.

W: Do you think art is completely divorced from politics, from society?

C: No, I think the creating of it is. I mean if you´re talking about propaganda or political writing that´s very clear, but if you´re talking about art and society it´s not clear, it´s very complex. And it´s not a simple discussion. If you reduce art to power struggle and manifestoes then it´s no longer art anymore it´s something else. Maybe propaganda, maybe something else, but it´s not art. So it´s a confusing issue. I can´t be clearer than I´ve just been. There´s not an easy answer. Art is not created in a vacuum by people born in a vacuum, so I´m not saying that, but I do think if you listen only to the social demands of the moment then you destroy yourself as an artist. It´s an absolute paradox and a lot of artists have destroyed themselves by all those things.

W: What is your attitude towards homosexuality. Do you have gay friends, for example?

C: My first couple of films were made with a gay friend as the lead actor, Stereo and Crimes of the Future. In fact I was perceived as a homosexual because of those films. It didn´t bother me because it wasn´t literally the case. But I think of my heterosexuality as not rigid and not easily confined. I think there´s a sense in which I talk about omnisexuality in Stereo and the subject of Crimes of the Future is exactly the female part of male sexuality. The topic itself, not just of homosexuality but of human sexuality in general, really is central to my work. I think homosexuality is the purest kind of sexuality because it´s completely divorced from procreation. I think we´ve evolved much beyond the point where sexuality has much to do with reproduction anyway and that´s more obvious in homosexuality than anywhere else. So I have no aversion to homosexuality even as a subject of my own films, but obviously it has to come from my own sensibilities as that evolves. I guess that´s up there on the screen in one way or another.