(4 of 4)
In the end, priest and natives can do no more than grant one another their mutual irredeemability, the dignity of their otherness. Screenwriter Brian Moore, adapting his novel, avoids anachronistic political correctness, and director Bruce Beresford refuses melodramatic imposition -- no dancing with wolves for them. This magnificently austere epic makes us too feel (and taste and smell) that otherness, the discomfiting strangeness of these lives, the authentic tragedy of their collision.
"The unfilmable Naked Lunch." Even this movie's producer called William S. Burroughs' 1959 novel that, and he was right. A gallimaufry of hallucinations, literary gossip and medical info, Burroughs' confession of a hipster junkie is its own X-rated movie, so vivid is its evocation of a mind gone bad, a soul shriveled. "Gentle reader," he writes, "the ugliness of that spectacle buggers description." Which Burroughs of course describes, in language both raw and heroically ironic. The novel is a detective story in which the private eye is desperate to forget, not learn, life's mysteries; or maybe sci-fi set in the lunar wastes of an addict's mind; or else it's a spy story, in which the secret agent is bug powder.
Bugsy could be the name of the film David Cronenberg has woven from remnants of Naked Lunch. Its main character, Bill Lee (Peter Weller), is an exterminator who sees roaches everywhere -- not least because his wife Joan (Judy Davis) has been stealing the bug powder he needs for his job; she cuts the stuff with baby laxative and injects it into her breast. "It's a Kafka high," she says. "You feel like a bug." In his daymares, Bill is visited by beetles -- big ugly things, chatting away through purulent orifices -- that send him on a spy mission into the Tangier of his delirium. Typewriters turn into bugs, and so do the humans Bill meets, who are verminous to begin with. Cronenberg, whose 1986 movie The Fly was a great parable of love and decay, takes this line as his mandate: "Exterminate all rational thought."
The movie welds snippets of scenes from the novel to elements of the writer's life: his accidental shooting of his wife Joan; his friendships with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Paul and Jane Bowles; his own sepulchral charisma. With his cracked voice and deadpan insolence, Burroughs was the Beat Generation's W.C. Fields -- a raconteur of depravity, a cracker-barrel coroner. Weller gets the haunted look right, but he can't get inside the junkie's pocked skin. Burroughs lived and nearly died there; Cronenberg and the actors are only visiting. The movie is way too colorful -- cute, in a repulsive way, with its crawly special effects -- and tame compared with its source. Instead of an insider's view of drug despair, Cronenberg takes us to the Hell Pavilion at Walt Disney World. R.C.