Of Our Time

David Cronenberg and the Political Underground

Naked Lunch

It would be a willful misreading to suggest Naked Lunch fits perfectly into this consistent portrayal of political movements exerting secret influences on society. At its core, Naked Lunch is a work adapted from William S. Burroughs’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, even to the point that protagonist Bill Lee (Peter Weller) has Burroughs’s pen name. Bill’s wife Joan (Judy Davis) also shares her name with Burroughs’s late wife, while she meets the same end as the real Joan with Bill accidentally shooting her during an attempted “William Tell” trick. Coupled with an exploration of his guilt over the shooting incident, his descent into writing, his use of drugs, and the hallucinatory vision laid out in his “Naked Lunch”, Naked Lunch is about a lot of things, but not explicitly political conspiracy.


Yet, the conspiracy is there. As opposed to Videodrome or eXistenZ, which toe the line between the conspiracy being entirely in the protagonist’s head and actually being real, Naked Lunch comes right out and tells the audience that it is entirely in Bill Lee’s head. Envisioning a world in which he is a secret agent sent to the “African free port” of Interzone, Bill stumbles upon a conspiracy led by a mysterious Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), finds his wife Joan in another woman named Joan (also Judy Davis), and envisions his typewriters coming to life as bugs. The film has sparks of reality in which his friends see the depths of his addiction. Showing them his tickets to Interzone and his smashed typewriter, they only see drugs he stole from his work as an exterminator . While the reality the film may portray as being reality could actually be just another layer of hallucination, it is always abundantly clear that the political conspiracy angle is entirely in his head.

The main element retained from Cronenberg’s other works is in the portrayal of mind control and of paranoia. Frequently, Bill Lee is visited by his contact agents – always envisioned as bugs in the form of typewriters – and told that he is the perfect agent with the right mentality for the job. He is the type of agent described to him by Dr. Benway, a man so deeply hidden within his cover identity that he has come to believe it to be true. In this case, his real self is that of a writer, whereas his role as an exterminator married to Joan was all a cover. He somewhat knows this, but even later learns that the agency often uses him for purposes he is not aware of, since “an unconscious agent is an effective agent.” With parallels to films such as The Manchurian Candidate, Naked Lunch shows Bill Lee as a man who is constantly unaware of his own actions. In “reality”, he does not even know he is writing a novel, as the words are written whilst he is high and traveling through “Interzone”, involved in this international espionage, trying to find out makes the “black meat”, and trying to get closer to Dr. Benway.

This idea of control is far more sinister. His actions are rarely his own. A rant in which Bill tells a man about a guy he once knew who taught his asshole to talk captures this fear. The man was forced to slowly watch as the asshole took power, realized that it did not need the entire body, and utilized just the eyes, shutting the mouth and the brain away. Similarly, Bill is under the control of his asshole and is unable to shake the influence of drugs in his life, creating this world of Interzone and paranoia as a result. The drugs’ influence is felt greatly in his daily life. They inspire him to write his novel “Naked Lunch”. They put him in a position where he can no longer tell what is real and what is not, to the point that he kills his wife and comes to believe she was an enemy agent. He even envisions bug agents making contact with him, as his hallucinations blend with reality (akin to the “reality bleeds” in eXistenZ). In this case, whoever makes these drugs has all of the power. It is their version of a television show or a video game. They seek to make a profit and to control the populace by giving them addictive drugs, while introducing new ones to keep them coming back for more. Whether this is actually Dr. Benway – and it very well may be – Naked Lunch nonetheless shows the power and control held by drug companies and manufacturers, capable of turning society into zombies in one hit.


One of the earlier films from Cronenberg that showcased his affinity for these underground movements, Scanners is also one of the more upfront with this depiction. Unlike  the other film discussed, Scanners never obscures reality and makes it abundantly clear that this is all happening, with a war being waged as the focus of the plot. At the center of the conflict are “scanners”, who are people capable of not just mere telepathy, but with the ability to control every function of a person they “scan”. On one side of the war is a company named ConSec with Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) trying to study and control every person who is a “scanner”. Opposing them is the “Scanner underground” led by Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside). After many years, Dr. Ruth finds his secret weapon in Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a very powerful, but unaware, scanner.


Of course, both sides of the conflict have very similar missions. While Dr. Ruth wants to control the scanners, he also believes that these special individuals harness a great power, one that bring a greatness to society that has never been seen before. Meanwhile, Revok wants to harness the power of all the scanners as well, concentrating it in order to take over the world. Though Ruth works for a major corporation that would typically make him bad in Cronenberg’s films, it is revealed that Revok himself also collaborates with a high-ranking member of ConSec. Both utilize ConSec’s financial resources, influence, and production capabilities in order to advance their movements, attempting to unite the scanners of the world for their own selfish purposes.

Through this plot setup, Scanners touches upon many of the same ideas as these other films. Specifically, it shares an examination of drugs with Naked Lunch. Explaining that every scanner was created after a drug known as “Ephemerol” was released and marketed to pregnant mothers- only to discover that it had an unknown side effect of making the baby a scanner- the film shows the same concern as Naked Lunch. It was Dr. Ruth’s company that originally made Ephemerol, with his “success” from the drug leading his company to be brought under the ConSec umbrella to continue studying the scanners. This unintended side effect and the control that is sought in its aftermath is precisely what Cronenberg was so often paranoid about, as this drug is able to not only create scanners, but it dooms the children to a life of immense struggle. In the case of all scanners, they are unable to adjust to society, often becoming homeless as they are driven insane by the voices inside their heads. Revok himself was described as “self-destructive” after he drilled a hole in his head to make room for all the voices, only to later graduate to just being “destructive”. He, in forming his movement, similarly looks to control scanners since most scanners cannot control the insanity lurking within themselves.

Thus, they look for a leader. Dr. Ruth and Revok both hope to be a part of this, using the corporate infrastructure in order to carry out their respective political agendas. Their desire for power and control is similar to that of companies such as Spectacular Optical or the gaming companies in eXistenZ, as they seek to foster a dependence from the scanners. Dr. Ruth gives them a drug that silences the voices in their heads while teaching them how to use their abilities. Revok promises power and purpose by giving their idle minds something to accomplish. All the while, the scanners that both helped to create fall in line, unwilling to stand up to either for fear of reprisal, along with a shared desire for revenge against a society that looked down upon them as freaks. While scanners may not be real, drug side effects most certainly are. As with all of the aforementioned works, Scanners shows a paranoid vision of a world in which drug companies have immense power and use it to control the population in order for a larger political agenda.


For David Cronenberg, all of these competing political movements, underground forces, companies with hidden agendas, and cults demonstrate dangerous shifts in society. The characters in Cronenberg’s films brush shoulders with these hidden forces that truly hold power and the forces that oppose them, all the while existing as a pawn used by both to carry out some agenda. They are simply too distracted, whether by television, video games, or drugs, to ever wake up and realize what is happening. When they do, they can barely make sense of it, switch sides unwittingly, or are unable to even tell if it is actually happening or yet another figment of their imagination.


The blending of reality with these forces of distraction is key to understanding Cronenberg’s usage of these powerful elements, as the characters wind up accepting everything. As stated in Videodrome by Nicki Brand, everybody wants stimulation. If someone is getting that and can keep their mind occupied, they are quite willing to accept nearly anything. They receive the stimulation put forth to them by powerful entities and remain unconcerned about the impact the images or messages have on their minds and worldview. It is a submissive society, one that could care less it is being used and one that is almost overjoyed to be deemed worthy of manipulation. Thus, while these major conglomerates exercise control and slowly manipulate their consumers to do what they want – even if it is only to consume more – consumers blindly agree, watching more television, playing more video games, and using more drugs. All the while, their sense of reality is gone and their actions no longer seem their own, instead blindly guided by these forces into actions beyond control. In a way, society has become the man from the asshole story in Naked Lunch. Each individual is the brain, locked away in the skull with no control over the body and only our eyes functioning as usual. All the while, the asshole (corporations) guides everything until the life behind the eyes finally fades away into nothingness.

It’s a chilling portrayal, one that serves as a science fiction version of society in which movements or shady individuals utilize media and other means to manipulate audience members into carrying out some kind of mission, all with them remaining blissfully unaware. It is hard not to see Cronenberg’s films as rather predictive of modern society, but their relevance is rather timeless as he never portrayed a new concept. Those in power have always sought to manipulate and obscure the truth, and they have always lurked in the shadows in order to do so covertly. Cronenberg’s original touch is the method used by these forces, able to tap into new mediums of entertainment or indulgence in ways that few could have ever anticipated. These are films that love new technology, but are rightfully wary of how it can be used to alter vulnerable and impressionable minds. In hindsight, this concern is certainly justified.

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