MOVIES : Out to Lunch With the Guru of Gross-Out : David Cronenberg says the only way he could be faithful to William S. Burroughs’ celebrated ‘Naked Lunch’ on film was to betray it

<i> Gene Seymour is a writer for New York Newsday</i>

The man who once made James Woods stick a videocassette into his stomach is having trouble sitting up straight. Just some lower-back problems, David Cronenberg explains to a photographer who wants him to pose for pictures in what, for Cronenberg, would be an uncomfortable chair in a plush, spacious hotel room overlooking Central Park.

Still, Cronenberg, 47, obliges with a mild warning that he may not be able to sit still for very long. That’s just the kind of normal guy he is. Cooperative, courteous, calm. A happily married father of three with a thriving business.

Most people who know only the movies Cronenberg makes expect, upon encountering him, something a little . . . what? Glandular? Sinister? OK, crazed.


What is conveyed, instead, is well-modulated intensity; an analytical mind capable of articulating complex ideas with precision and dry wit. Only the occasional surreal zinger--mostly self-deprecatory--that surfaces in his cool stream of conversation gives a hint at the imagination responsible for gross-out moments like the exploding brains in “Scanners” (1980).

Or the cassette-in-stomach-distended-flesh imagery in “Videodrome” (1982). Or Genevieve Bujold drawing blood with her teeth from skin joining Siamese twins in a dream sequence from “Dead Ringers” (1986).

These and other Cronenberg films share a corrosive sense of humor, a penchant for grotesque fantasia lashed together with themes of compulsion, addiction and mutation.

In short, if anyone was born to bring the similarly warped works of William Seward Burroughs to the screen, it is David Cronenberg. Needless to say, both men are each other’s biggest fan. And when Cronenberg decided to make a movie out of Burroughs’ most celebrated novel, “Naked Lunch,” there was much anticipation--and no little dread--over how it would turn out.

It would appear that the film that resulted from this too-perfect match of sensibilities has fulfilled even its grander expectations. “Naked Lunch,” which opened last month in Manhattan and Los Angeles, the film that even Burroughs believed could never be made, is about to appear in the nation’s multiplexes on Friday--whether the nation is ready for it or not.

Already the film has won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best screenplay. Newsday’s Jack Mathews ranked it on his 10-best list for the year. Reviews have ranged from a rave by the New York Times’ Janet Maslin (“ingenious . . . by turns, bracing, brilliant and vile”), to more restrained praise from Newhouse News Service’s Bob Campbell (“brilliant, but . . . not for the faint of heart”), to the Los Angeles Times’ Peter Rainer: “Cronenberg jacks up his own career-long obsessions with glop and grunge and decay to a fever pitch. It’s a movie for people who really dig Cronenberg’s mulchy fixations--and probably for no one else.”


Cronenberg calls the response to the film “pretty good so far, pretty strong.” He is in his Ritz-Carlton suite days after the announcement of the New York Critics’ award. “Um, at the moment, I haven’t had a real audience response because people who have seen it have all been connected with the movie business. Journalists, critics, industry people. Which means other directors mostly. And the response on that level has been very good. (Director Bernardo) Bertolucci saw it in London and said it’s a masterpiece. He doesn’t say that a lot.”

Part of this acclaim may be sheer amazement that Cronenberg has filmed the unfilmable. Though classified as a work of fiction, “Naked Lunch” isn’t a story so much as a series of bleak, funny, harrowing hallucinations strung together to make up one sustained nightmare. Such a disjointed, fragmentary narrative--coupled with stark, baroque scenes of mass sodomy, defecation and death--would, indeed, be impossible to film. “You could do, maybe, a four-hour miniseries with a literal adaptation,” Cronenberg says. “And it would never see the light of day.”

So Cronenberg, with Burroughs’ blessing, avoided literal adaptation, fashioning, instead, a story about a heroin-addicted writer named William Lee (a name Burroughs frequently uses for a fictitious alter ego) who accidentally shoots his wife to death and expatriates himself to Tangier, where he fights through his many demons to write a book called “Naked Lunch.” Aspects of Burroughs’ own life, including the accidental murder of his wife Joan, are mixed together with pieces from “Naked Lunch” and Burroughs’ other novels.

Although Burroughs, now 77 and living in Lawrence, Kan., frets that incidents like the shooting may cause audiences to view the movie as straight biography, “which it isn’t at all,” he has, in a written statement, declared himself satisfied with the finished product. “I felt, and still feel, that David’s script is very true to his own Muse as a filmmaker, very consistent with the high level of artistry for which he is known.”

It wasn’t the first time Cronenberg felt compelled to bypass the source material. In his remake of “The Fly” (1986), he created a whole different plot from that of the 1958 classic. And when he was given the task in 1983 of adapting Stephen King’s horror novel “The Dead Zone,” he assembled, with writer Jeffrey Boam, a story that kept the tone of the book--and relatively little of its plot. (This method will, Cronenberg says, be employed yet again in his forthcoming adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s award-winning play “M. Butterfly,” which, in all probability, will star Jeremy Irons, who played twins in “Dead Ringers.”)

“I do think it’s paradoxical but true that, in order to be faithful to the book, you have to throw the book away. You have to betray it in order to re-create it for the screen. All the attempts I’ve seen of trying to be literally faithful to the book have been dismal failures and the reason is only that the two media are totally, totally different.” He smiles. “Maybe it’s because I’m really ruthless. And totally arrogant.”


Not many would agree with this assessment. In fact, much of what’s been said in print and elsewhere about Cronenberg’s personality is that he is everything he appears to be. A placid, easygoing Toronto resident with a fondness for auto racing.

“We mostly talked about cars when we first met,” said Peter Weller, actor and fellow race buff, who plays William Lee in “Naked Lunch.” “We both race, but I think he may be a little better at it than I am.”

Weller described the working atmosphere for “Naked Lunch” as “the most delightful and serene environment I’ve ever worked in.” He said that before doing the film, he had talked with fellow actors Woods, who was in “Videodrome” and Christopher Walken, who was in “Dead Zone,” and his assessment of Cronenberg matches theirs. (“Working with Jimmy was great,” Cronenberg says. “Although he’s the only actor I ever yelled at.”)

Besides racing cars, there isn’t much that occupies Cronenberg’s mind beyond writing and directing movies. “It’s a pretty limited world,” he says drolly. He says, however, that he still reads as widely and as eclectically as he did when he was a boy growing up in Toronto.

Books, in fact, were unavoidable in his household. His father was a writer and publisher of a magazine called True Canadian Crime Stories and contributed story lines to Canadian comic books during World War II. He also owned a bookstore during the Depression. “We lived in a small house and we had lots and lots of books with walls made out of books and corridors literally made out of books. I used to fall asleep to the sound of my father’s typing.”

Not surprisingly, he liked science fiction and EC horror comics a lot. But he also read “Little Lulu” and “Uncle Scrooge”--both of which, he said, “were pretty surreal stuff.” His youthful taste in movies was similarly eclectic.


“The stuff I got into most were works of the imagination where whole worlds were created. And yeah, that was mostly science fiction and horror. But I also liked cowboy movies and pirate movies.”

It was while coming out of a theater showing a Western--”Hopalong Cassidy or the Durango Kid or something like that”--that a pre-adolescent Cronenberg saw how movies could be something more than mere escape.

“There was a theater across the street called the Studio and it showed only Italian films. And I saw people coming out of theater weeping. Even men. And I had walked across the road because I had never known a movie to do that to people and it was Fellini’s ‘La Strada.’ That was the beginning of my understanding of the emotional power of film.”

Still, Cronenberg’s preoccupations remained literary. And scientific. “When I was leaving high school there was sort of a struggle for my soul between my science teacher and my English teacher. I thought maybe I could be like Isaac Asimov and do both. So when I went to the University of Toronto, I majored in biochemistry. And I soon realized that though the subject matter was fantastic, the way it was taught was so deadening and anti-creative that I ended up spending my time at the arts end of the campus. I changed my major in a year to honors English.”

He made two surrealistic shorts in college, “Transfer” in 1966 and “From the Drain” in 1967. His first film after graduation, “Stereo,” (1969), concerned the collision of words transmitted by telepaths. It got him noticed by the Canadian avant-garde film community and he was able to secure some grant money for “Crimes of the Future” (1970), about a plague caused by cosmetics.

All these experiments made Cronenberg anxious to, as he put it, “get away from film and start making movies.” He spent much of the early ‘70s seeking financial support from the Canadian government to make his first feature--a daunting task since it was a horror film.


The National Film Board of Canada, Cronenberg recalls, “was more involved with movies about ‘realistic’ people. Working fisherman, farmers, stores about strife with the land and all that kinda stuff which bored me. And it would have been easier to do a straight art film. Because there was strictly no tradition of horror movies whatsoever.”

Yet, finally and reluctantly, the board was able to help Cronenberg with the $1.5-million budget for “Shivers” (1975) --known in French-speaking Canada as “Frisson” and in the United States as “They Came From Within.”

Says Cronenberg, “It was very natural for me to write a genre film. I didn’t look down on it at all. What I liked were the possibilities for inventing your own science, your own biology, your own politics. Because once you’re within the genre, you’re sort of protected by it. Everything is allowed.”

This kind of all-stops-out thinking found rough, exuberant expression in “Shivers” in which a twitching, gooey, phallic parasite transforms a modern apartment complex into one big, crazed orgy.

“Part of the trick of making this kind of movie is to put yourself in the mind of the parasite. Like, how are you gonna keep the ball rolling? What do people do that’s kinda gooey? Well, there’s food, sneezing. And, then sex isn’t so bad either. So from that point of view, there’s a certain kind of opportunity involved.”

It was also, Cronenberg says, supposed to be a riff, both a parody and an exemplar of the nightmare-plague horror flick. Yet though it drew acclaim from genre aficionados, the film also drew fire from some critics who saw, in Cronenberg, a kind of unctuous moralizing.


Critic Robin Wood, for instance, “insisted on seeing the end of the film (in which the parasite wins) as being meant by me to be tragic,” Cronenberg says. “And it was as if he had to ignore this whole ironic, humorous strain which I had put in the film to put the audience squarely on the side of the crazies. But I was accused of being a puritan with an immense revulsion for sex and the human body.

“If there’s anything that’s irritated me about the kind of reaction my films get, it’s the attempt on the part of some critics to refuse to allow my characters to be characters instead of symbols of something.

“For instance, there’s been stuff said about the Genevieve Bujold character in ‘Dead Ringers’ that implies that I believe all women, all actresses, are seducers or destroyers. And I maintain I have the right to create a character that has a life beyond symbolic or political categories. If you take such thinking to extremes, you destroy the possibility of all artistic expression and replace it with only the possibility of propaganda.”

Despite Canadian film officials misgivings, “Shivers” made back the money they put in--and then some. They continued to support such subsequent slices of deep-dish gore as “Rabid” (1977), in which porn queen Marilyn Chambers played a vampire who infects all of Montreal with a disease that causes its victims to foam green slime, and “The Brood” (1979), about an embittered woman (Samantha Eggar) who spawns murderous creatures from her womb to carry out her vengeful wishes. Such films were gradually increasing Cronenberg’s fame outside of Canada, though he remained, at best, a hero of the horror-cult fringe.

Then came 1980’s “Scanners,” a science-fiction story about a generation of chemically mutated telepaths. It drew good reviews in the United States (“a pop mind-blower conceived by a remarkably keen cinematic mind,” said the Washington Post) and did well enough at the box office to draw interest from Universal executives Thom Mount and Verna Fields in helping distribute Cronenberg’s next film, “Videodrome” (1982), in which a sleazoid video entrepreneur (James Woods) starts having TV-induced hallucinations.

It was Cronenberg’s first experience with, among other things, the phenomenon of American film salesmanship known as the advance screening. The very first was in Boston during a heavy blizzard. The audience’s preview cards came back to Mount, Fields and Cronenberg. And it was clear, Cronenberg remembers, that they were not happy with the movie. “It was disastrous,” he says. “But I remember Thom and Verna as being very sweet about the whole thing throughout.”


Critics were no less confounded than the audience. Maslin, in her New York Times review, said the movie “grows grotesque and a little confused”--though, she added, “it begins very well and sustains its cleverness for a very long time.”

Cronenberg continued as he had before, writing and planning projects to be filmed independently. It was, he recalls, while sitting in director John Landis’ office at Universal that someone from producer Dino De Laurentiis’ office walked in and, upon seeing Cronenberg, asked him if he wanted to direct “The Dead Zone.” “Something,” he recalls, “made me say yes.”

For what Cronenberg says are “the usual complicated and boring reasons,” “Dead Zone” wasn’t “distributed as well as it could have been when it was released. It’s shown a lot on cable now and that’s made up for a lot.”

With “The Fly,” produced by Mel Brooks’ film company and distributed by 20th Century Fox in 1986, Cronenberg’s directorial image began to undergo considerable upgrading.

Many of the rave reviews went directly to Jeff Goldblum for his performance as the scientist who accidentally turns himself into a giant fly. Yet the film was also an apotheosis of some artistic concerns Cronenberg has sustained from the beginning of his career.

In “Shivers,” for instance, one of the victims of the parasite talks about a dream she had in which an old man is making love to her. “He’s old and dying and he smells bad. And I find him repulsive. But you know what he said to me? He said everything is erotic, everything is sexual. He tells me even old flesh is erotic. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That breathing is sexual. Talking is sexual. Even physical existence is sexual.” In other words, what repulses some can be transcendent for others.


Like his fellow Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, Cronenberg doesn’t explain these ideas so much as explore them. The erotic is, for Cronenberg, just one route for physical, emotional or mental transformation, and for Goldblum’s hitherto gawky scientist, a heightened sexuality is just one of the dubious benefits of his change.

‘In ‘The Fly,’ the disease I was talking about was aging,” Cronenberg says. “That’s the disease we are all born with. AIDS is another possibility and that’s been suggested here and there by others. But aging, for sure. Nobody’s written us a way out of that one yet.

“So as a compressed version of aging where you see this guy change into a giant fly, you kind of have to decide whether you are, in fact, a lesser version of what you were before or are you, in fact, a neater version of an entirely different thing. And dealing with this question forces you to create your own reality, which is something I deal with in ‘Naked Lunch’ and other films. That you are capable, by force of will and perception and understanding of entering a whole new reality.”

Another less exotic but no less bizarre transformation takes place in “Dead Ringers,” in which twin gynecologists, played by Jeremy Irons, both become romantically involved with the same woman (Bujold). One of them gets addicted, first to her and then to drugs, causing him to deteriorate physically and emotionally. His brother, feeling responsible, follows him into addiction and, then, death.

Drawn from the novel, “Twins,” which was based on the real-life case of New York twin doctors Cyril and Stewart Marcus, Cronenberg, as is his habit, moved the setting to Toronto and aligned the story to fit his own concerns with the mind-body schism, the nature of disease and how risky the pursuit of perfection can be without self-knowledge.

As with “The Fly,” many critics were moved to praise the performance of “Ringers’ ” lead actor. But the Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson said that “Ringers” “announces David Cronenberg’s full maturity as a major director. Not a science-fantasy director or a hyphenate of any other description.”


Non-hyphenate or not, one suspects Cronenberg will always retain a kind of perverse joy-buzzer instinct for goosing our nerve endings, for jolting our senses. In “Naked Lunch,” for instance, typewriters become twitching, mucus-secreting insects that, by the way, talk. He has his reasons for doing this kind of stuff. And they, well, sound reasonable enough.

“Basically,” he says, “I’m trying to change your aesthetic response to these so-called repulsive, disgusting things. And it’s just like my response to insects. I mean, most people find insects disgusting. They don’t want to know about them. Step on ‘em, throw ‘em away. And I’ve always thought insects were beautiful and fascinating since I was a kid. And I’m trying to convey that kind of thinking in other areas. And yet some critics insist on seeing it as revulsion on my part. I keep saying that the revulsion is theirs, not mine.”