Conversation with David Cronenberg

William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” was “unfilmable,” but Canadian wizard David Cronenberg went ahead and adapted it to the screen anyway. Discerning fans of altered states of consciousness will delight at the matter-of-fact way in which Cronenberg has incorporated a Mugwump here, a Sex Blob there, a very proficient talking anus and word processing machines whose software hearkens back to the primeval slime.

Cronenberg’s version of the story (“Le Festin Nu,” out March 11) is based on grief and the conundrum of redemption. The performances are excellent across the board and the atmosphere is, in a word, perfect. There are fewer icky viscous things than the director of “Rabid,” “The Dead Zone,” “The Fly”, “Dead Ringers,” etc., usually incorporates, although sensitive viewers might be put off by a few critters who most definitely did not come from Central Casting.

Peter Weller, as Burroughs surrogate Bill Lee, is a gravel-voiced hipster so low-key you want to have his pulse notarized.  Weller’s skull looks a bit like that of the unfortunate fellow in Munch’s “The Scream,” redeemed by the sensual planes of sculpted lips. With its cool jazz score and all the right pastel colors to evoke the ’50s, “Naked Lunch” specializes in sexual ambiguity and literary fireworks.  A lot of typewriters – but none of the book’s integrity – are sacrificed in the course of the film.

Cronenberg, who is lanky, cordial and well-spoken in addition to being immensely creative, spoke about alternate realities and why gore is gorgeous during a visit to the Cinémathèque Française back in November 1990.

Q. It’s been announced that you’re going to bring “Naked Lunch” to the screen. Isn’t that a particularly difficult book to adapt?

A. It’s more than difficult to adapt. It’s impossible. And that’s why I’m attracted to the project – because it’s impossible. Which means I have to create something new.

Q. “Videodrome” is my favorite film of yours so far. Do you think TV is a drug?

A. I’m interested in reality and how there can be different realities for different people at different times. One of the ways in which it can be illustrated that reality is not an absolute is the taking of drugs. And this, of course, was one of the rationales for drug-taking in the ’60s.

We become accustomed to something called “reality” when, in fact, it’s constantly changing. My one LSD trip in the ’60s was a striking moment for me because it showed me, in no uncertain terms, that you really can live in a completely different reality. If you had been born with a biochemistry that includes LSD – and I think that’s possible – your reality would be completely different.

I think that television does completely alter the perceptions of people who watch it. It’s irrelevant whether it’s addictive or not for, in fact, it affects everyone who sees it. I do think the nervous systems of people who know about TV are completely different from those who have never seen it, because TV is an electronic extension of one’s nervous system. And once you realize that, it completely changes your perception of the world. That’s what I mean by “the New Flesh.” We are affecting our own evolution. There is no longer any such thing as “natural evolution.” I mean this physically – I don’t mean this emotionally.

Q. Why do you think it is that transformation is such a powerful idea?

A. I don’t think we have any imperfections. We are perfectly what we are. The problem is that we can conceive of something different, so we try to create that. And what we are seems imperfect by comparison.

The problem is that human beings can never accept what is given. So it’s our destiny, I think, to always regard ourselves as imperfect. We try to understand things so we can control them so we can change them. I’m interested in that impulse in my films. It’s most obvious when you deal with doctors and scientists.

Q.Some people have suggested that your early work was prophetic about the emergence of AIDS.

A. I think that any good art is prophetic in some way. Before AIDS there was syphilis. There have always been diseases connected with sexuality. If my films are only good for anticipating diseases, then I’m in trouble.

Q.Would you have liked to be a surgeon?

A. I am a surgeon. It’s scalpel cinema. I feel like a surgeon when I make a film.

Q.What is your reply to people who say that there are too many macabre scenes in your films?

A. I’ve seen much more macabre scenes in life. For me, the scenes in my films are not macabre, they’re very real. I’m not obsessed by gore and I’m very capable of making a film without any gore. It depends on the subject. “Dead Zone” has no gore. “The Fly” concerns transformation and that calls for different methods.

What is gore, after all? We’re really talking about our own bodies. Blood and bile. It is, after all, what we’re made of. I’ve never understood the reluctance. We have no aesthetic for the insides of our own bodies.


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