Jun 12, 2023
What this timeless film does for all generations.
When comparing films that resonate with my generation, there’s a name that often gets overlooked; that is, David Cronenberg's surrealist piece Naked lunch. When I first watched it, the film consumed me and I have watched it countless times since. It took me a while to figure out what was so immediately gripping about the film. Then it occurred to me—its most central premise is that of a young man dealing with guilt, an emotion I feel is looming heavy over me and my generation.
Originally a novel written by William S. Burroughs, the film adaptation masterfully handles guilt in a way I have never seen expressed visually before. The way the film goes about presenting this feeling, is through three elements expressed through our main character, William Lee. William is a writer who spends the majority of the film on heavy drugs that he steals from his work, so most events take place in his head as a vision of inherent guilt. Guilt about his place as a gay man in the 1950’s, guilt over what Burroughs referred to as “The Ugly Soul” and the guilt that comes from the accidental killing of his wife. Whether it be a product of societal values, one's own inner shame, or the objective facts of action, Naked Lunch soaks both the viewer and protagonist in a vision of our internalized guilt.
William’s guilt about his sexuality is, perhaps, the most potent allegory in the whole film. While William Lee is hallucinating off bug powder, he kills his wife. I see in this a symbol for a gay man killing what is expected of him. He is abandoning the expectation to go as he is supposed to go, and remain with a woman as a man is supposed to do. After the killing, William starts seeing more and more giant bugs that tell him he must become a secret agent, go undercover and take down an evil organization. This can just as easily be seen as a gay man being forced to go undercover in straight society. Although he still courts men throughout the film, he must do it with constant pressure of police arrest, and enemy agents discovering him. The guilt weighs on. I believe the guilt, in the context of the film, tears him in half. William is disgusted by who he is, so the aliens in the film stand for a more animalized version of how William sees himself and homosexuality.
William Lee’s most fatal guilt however is, of course, the death of his wife. The actual killing of which inspired—or rather pushed—William S. Burroughs to write Naked lunch. When William Lee leaves town to escape arrest he ends up in a place called “interzone”, a fictional country. When he arrives, he meets a woman who looks exactly like his wife and is even named the same—Joan. Even when he leaves, he can’t escape what he’s done and as his life becomes more entangled with this other Joan’s. As the film progresses he is only pushed deeper into the secret agent conspiracy at the hands of the new Joan. With that, he delves deeper and deeper into hallucinations of his own shame. Even in his wildest dreams, the haunt of his actions and her presence is still there. The movie ends with no catharsis and presents us with a man just as broken as he started.
I have seen this movie an embarrassing number of times and it’s because of what it says about guilt. Mine and William’s. Guilt about his sexuality, guilt over his existence and guilt about his wife’s death. What this movie tells me is that I’m not alone: as a drug using artist who too cannot escape what he is and what he’s done. My generation will continue to re-find this gem because we, too, run from our problems using vices. We are users who run with the heavy knowledge that none of it can actually make us feel any better. Naked Lunch reminds us that the only real catharsis is to not run from your life, but to embrace it and grow as a better person. I’ve spent so much of my teen years using drugs to escape my mind, and in essence myself. I’m so tired of escaping. I want to be here. I want to be a part of it all. I don’t want to feel guilty about who I am as a person. With the help of this film and others, for the first time in a while,
I’m not escaping, I am who I am.