William Lee (Peter Weller) is an exterminator. When he runs out of the bug powder he uses to spray for roaches he asks his boss for more. Since the power is rationed out carefully his boss tells him that he should have had enough to do his latest job. Lee mentions the exchange with his boss to his friends Martin (Michael Zelniker) and Hank (Nicholas Campbell). They tell him that he should see his wife. When Lee gets home he finds his wife Joan (Judy Davis) shooting up using his bug powder. Lee is also addicted to the powder from inhaling it while working.
Lee is arrested by a couple narcs, Hauser (John Friesen) and O’Brien (Sean McCann). They leave him alone with his bug powder and a giant bug. The bug starts talking to him telling him that he is being recruited as a secret agent and that his wife is an inhuman agent for Interzone. The bug tells him he must kill his wife. Lee kills the bug and rushes home. He tells Joan about the bug and that he is hallucinating. Someone at work gives him a card for a Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider). Benway gives him black centipede powder to mix with his yellow bug powder. He says it will help get him over his addition to the bug powder.
When he gets home he finds Joan having sex with Hank while Martin is reciting prose. Bill injects himself and Joan with the combination centipede and bug powder. He then tells Joan that it is time for their William Tell routine. Joan puts a glass on her head. Lee ends up shooting Joan.
Lee goes to a bar where a giant bug tells him to go to Interzone and report back using a Clark-Nova typewriter. Interzone is in North Africa. Lee goes there and begins writing reports on the typewriter that has turned into a giant bug. While in Interzone Lee continues to spiral down using drugs alcohol and sex, both homosexual with a man named Kiki (Joseph Scoren) and heterosexual with a woman named Joan Frost (Judy Davis) who looks like his dead wife. Joan is the wife of another writer Tom Frost (Ian Holm).
All of this was fuel to his obsession of being a secret agent. His hallucinations are mixed with bouts of black outs and all the time his bug typewriter is giving him instructions telling him that Benway is the mastermind of a giant drug operation. Everyone he meets becomes part of his fantasy and his mission to continue writing reports as a secret agent.
“Naked Lunch” was released in 1991 and was directed by David Cronenberg. It is a science fiction drama and is based on the novel by William S. Burroughs. It was made in an international cooperation among Canada, Britain and Japan. The film basically bombed when it was released. It has since become a cult film. It is a visually surrealistic film and very much a freak show. The book and the movie are a sort of semi-biographical story of Burroughs life at a particular point in time.
It includes some accounts of his real life. Like the main character Bill Lee, William S. Burroughs was an exterminator and drug addict, who accidentally shot his wife during a drunken game of "William Tell" while in Mexico City in 1951. After Burroughs returned to the United States, he was convicted of manslaughter in absentia and received a two-year suspended sentence. Joan Lee is based on his deceased wife Joan Vollmer. For awhile Burroughs moved to a section of Tangier, Morocco, known as the "International Zone". In the movie it is referred to as "Interzone". Tangier is where Burroughs wrote “Naked Lunch”.
Some of the characters are loosely based on people Burroughs actually knew. Hank and Martin, Bill's fellow writers, are Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Tom Frost is based on Paul Bowles, and Kiki was the name of a young man Burroughs had a same-sex affair with in Tangier, while writing "Naked Lunch". Even the name William Lee is a pseudonym Burroughs used for his first novel “Junky”.
In order to understand “Naked Lunch” you have to be in the right mindset. Actually out of it. I don’t know that anyone could really understand it since it comes from a fractured mind. Just watching it as a movie it is a collage of images that are grotesque and steeped in drug induced paranoia. To come to some understand of it you need to know a little bit about Burroughs. This is what a writer puts onto paper when there are no filters and the body dictates what to write without the brain fully comprehending.
The novel “Naked Lunch” was banned for years in the US. In 1983, Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1984, he was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France. Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the "greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift".
Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg are credited with creating the Beat generation, which started as a literary movement in the 50’s. It was a time where people experimented with things outside the acceptable norm and rejected everything mainstream. Drugs, alternate forms of sexuality and new ideas were part of this new counter culture, as well as some really freaky writing.