08 January 2005

mise-en-scene Analysis of Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991)

I'm in the midsts of writing an analysis of Moments before Exodus when I realise that I haven't put any of my essays up here, so I thought I'd rectify that (and also to procrastinate some more). Below is an essay I wrote for the first year of film and video, a Mise-en-scene analysis of David Cronenberg's cinematic take of William Burroughs' 'Naked Lunch'.


Mise-en-scene analysis
Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991)

“Almost all great novels are unfilmable, because they're so interiorized.” - J.G. Ballard

In this essay I shall be performing a close-analysis of a ten minute segment of Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991), focusing on Dialogue, Performance, Setting/Location and Lighting, but with slight detours into other elements of mise-en-scene. I shall also be putting the film into a cultural context, paying special attention to the life of William Burroughs, his work, and his involvement with the Beat Generation; specifically Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

It seemed unlikely that Burroughs’ seminal novel. “the naked lunch”, a paranoiac plummet into Burroughs’ twisted imagination, a ‘junk’ fuelled allegory of the world as he saw it, would ever be made into a film. Never-the-less, In 1991 David Cronenberg released his filmic interpretation into the world.

The film concerns itself with a character called Bill Lee.
Bill is an exterminator who, one day, runs out of bug powder whilst on the job. He is recruited by the mysterious Interzone Incorporated who tell him his wife is a double agent and must be killed. He kills his wife and flees for Interzone, a Freeport in north Africa (Actually Tangiers) Where he writes reports and becomes involved with the local bohemians, eventually meeting Doctor Benway who turns out to be the head of Interzone Incorporated.

I will be analysing the first ten minutes of the film, which unfold thus;

Bill runs out of powder during a job. He goes back to headquarters for more but is refused. He meets Hank and Martin who are busy discussing writing techniques. He tells them about running out and they laugh saying that it may be a domestic problem. Bill returns to his apartment to find his wife Joan injecting his bug-powder. She persuades him to try it, describing it as a “Kafka high”. Back at headquarters he shoots the breeze with the exterminators. He is arrested whilst trying to leave. They bring up his chequered past to which he replies “I’m married now, straight.”

The film is based on the novel “Naked Lunch” by William Burroughs, but only very loosely. It is an amalgamation of the writer’s shady life, elements and themes from the book, as well as his other work, most notably “Junkie” and “Queer”. It could be described as a fictional biography where truth and myth are entwined, which also ties into Burroughs’ work. This is most visible during the diner scene, where Bill meets his friends Hank and Martin, who are based on Burroughs real-life friends and beat luminaries Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. When they are talking about writing techniques each takes the point of view of the people on which they are based, with Hank (Kerouac) shunning the urge to re-write as “…censoring your inner-most thoughts” and Martin (Ginsberg) rejecting Hank’s “Catholic Interpretation” of his compulsive urge to rewrite every single line until it is perfect. When Bill arrives they ask him what he thinks. “Exterminate all rational thought.” is the conclusion he has arrived at, reflecting Burroughs own writing philosophy. “What is the man talking about?” says Martin, “I was being serious!” To which Hank states, in a very serious voice, “So was he.” This, again, is biography.

Hank and Martin (Especially Martin, as Ginsberg was madly in love with Burroughs) turn up at key moments throughout the film, to help Lee, or to make another beat trio connection. The best example of this happens towards the end of the film where Hank and Martin find Bill, completely wasted, sleeping in an alley. They help him up to find he is carrying a plastic bag. “What’s in the bag, Bill?” they ask. “My typewriter,” he replies. They look inside to discover a cornucopia of psychoactive and narcotic substances. This actually happened, according to beat legend, and even if it didn’t it is the perfect allegory for Burroughs’ writing philosophy.

The lighting in the Diner is very Noir. Sunlight pours in through frosted glass and Venetian blinds. When Bill arrives, helping himself to coffee and sitting down with the pair when they’re mid-flow, half of his body is cast in shadow with faint horizontal lines, shadows of the Venetian blinds, cast across the other half. Whenever Bill is on screen there are shadows, Cronenberg using the film noir signifier as a trope for Bill’s character.

The dialogue in the scene, as I have already noted, is a dialogue between Hank and Martin, tying these characters to their real-life counterparts. Cronenberg draws on the legends and biography of the trio (Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs represented the core of the beat generation) through-out the film. Later in the scene Hank and Martin try and persuade Bill to start writing pornography. Again, this ties into reality. Burroughs wasn’t writing when he met Ginsberg and Kerouac and the two would often encourage him to do so (On a personal note, I have often found writing to be like drinking, in that you never want to do it alone). Bill simply replies that he has found his profession, he is an exterminator.

William Burroughs worked as an exterminator in the summer of 1942. He instantly took to the job, enjoying the solitude it afforded him. "I go into an apartment and I know where all the roaches are," he would claim.

The film opens in a close-up on a door. Slow deliberate footsteps can be heard approaching and then the shadows of someone’s head fills the frame. “Exterminator,” says the unseen figure. This immediately sets us up for the feel of the film. The use of shadow making connections with the signifiers of Film Noir, the close-up instigating feelings of claustrophobia and paranoia. Typically, the first shot in a film is an open establishing shot and although it is a CU and not a LS, it is still an establishing shot. It sets the mood. There is free jazz as non-diagetic sound, crazy scales and bebop notes. The next shot is again in close-up, reinforcing these feelings. There are shadows everywhere. The d├ęcor of the room also reinforces this. Faded pattern wallpaper in vertical lines again typing into conventions of film noir but also makes a cultural connection. This is the time of the cold war, a time of great paranoia and intellectual oppression in North American history. All of this goes together to create a feeling of unease, Hinting at a seedy ‘underworld’, which the film undoubtedly plunges us into.

The next scene, which takes place in the exterminator headquarters, is very darkly lit and dingy. Wire grids and faint artificial lighting appear everywhere - The film is constantly reinforcing a feeling through the use of these noir conventions. Bill’s costume reflects that of the typical noir anti-hero; the hat, the suit and the long coat and it is actually what Burroughs’ wore in real life.

There is a feeling of the ‘alien’ throughout the film which is represented not only by mugwumps and talking insect typewriters. The use of foreign characters is also particularly strong. In this scene we have two foreign characters; the chink and the exterminator controller. Neither come across as nice people with the controller speaking with a thick Slavic accent and threatening to spit in Bill’s face. This use of foreign characters to heighten the sense of another world is taking to the extreme in the Interzone segment of the film, which is literally another world; “..a haven for the mongrel scum of the earth,” filled with sleezy pushers and strange alien creatures.

The final scene I shall be analysing takes place in Bill and Joan’s apartment. Burroughs became involved with a woman called Joan Vollmer in 1944). He walks in to find her ‘shooting up’ his bug-powder and a dialogue between the two ensues. She encourages him to try it in a slow stoned drawl. “It’s a Kafka high… it makes you feel like a bug” This reference to Kafka, whom Burroughs’ work has occasionally been compared to, reinforces the literary thread that runs thorough-out, starting with the diner scene. Their apartment is dingy, dilapidated, untidy and ‘roach infested. Browns, olives and beiges decorate the place, this sepia colour scheme being the canvas on which the film takes place. The apartment would have been similar to the apartment in which Burroughs’, Joan, Ginsberg and Kerouac experimented with drugs and pushed the boundaries of their experiences.

Back in the darkness of headquarters Bill listens as the other exterminators shoot the breeze. They come across as quite degenerate characters, specifically in the timbre of their voices and the sound of their laughs.

In the final scene I will analyse we learn of Bill Lee’s past involvement with narcotics whilst they go through the ‘old cop routine’, offer him a cigarette and question him. The room again is filled with shadows and sepia.

William Burroughs was a drug addict for most of his adult life, opiates being his favoured tipple, and his writing would revolve around it (to the extent that he doesn’t remember writing Naked Lunch because he was ‘under’ for most of the process). The film is heavily influenced by this and a metaphoric triad between drugs, writing and altered states is highlighted repeatedly.

Drug and Criminal slang is used all the way through the film, making effective reference to Burroughs’ work and life. The inclusion of the Hank and Martin characters also reflect the close relationship between Burroughs’, Ginsberg and Kerouac, and the way this relationship affected their writing. ‘Naked Lunch’ could well be described as a film noir, through its use of the visual conventions and themes of the genre; crime, drugs and degeneration, and the disturbing experience that affects the viewer. It effectively uses mise-en-scene to reinforce both this and the literary/cultural connections that were the focus of Burroughs’ life.


Film: an introduction (1999) by William H. Philips.

Some film noir book

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Junkie by William S. Burroughs

Queer by William S. Burroughs