NEW YORK — 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."