How can the duo of red and green, the charming pair that conjures up Christmas cheer possibly be associated with something as dark as heroin addiction? On the color wheel, red and green are complimentary colors, meaning when used together, achieve the highest level of intensity and contrast. Typically, I shy away from the use of red and green in my artwork because the viewer’s association with Christmas is so instantaneous and unavoidable. It is an immense undertaking to reassign that symbolic association, but director David Cronenberg succeeds in appropriating red and green as a device to illustrate the effects of heroin in the film adaptation of Naked Lunch (also a feat in itself as the novel by William S. Burroughs was billed as “unfilmable.”)
Red is a jarring color and elicits the greatest physical response in humans—it increases our pulse and awareness. Red light has the longest wavelength so the eye perceives the color as closer than it is actually. Therefore, red is used to alert us to something worthy of our attention (such as a stop sign) because it is seen more prominently than the other colors.
On the contrary, green is associated with balance. Green light falls in the middle of the visible spectrum, and has a medium wavelength. A calming color, it works best for highway “guide” signs.
When used together, green gives red even greater intensity and vice versa. Green no longer enjoys its title of the “calm color,” it has been corrupted by its complimentary counterpart: red. So, what does this have to do with heroin addiction?
NAKED LUNCH develops a complex, psychological portrayal of heroin addiction illustrated through typewriters that transform into anthropomorphic bugs. The main character and heroin addict, William Lee (based off Burrough’s own battle with heroin addiction) indulges in contact with these typewriter/bugs during his wild hallucinations. The green typewriter represents innocence, order and purity—qualities found in the natural world. The greatest disruptor of this natural order is man who rebels against nature by indulging in its most destructive vices. This rebellion and destruction are illustrated through the decisive use of red, particularly in the makeup treatment of the actors.
Joan Lee/Joan Frost, wife of William Lee and a fellow addict, wears bright red lipstick and has massive red circles under her eyes—a side effect of the drug. William Lee has very red cheeks—a conceivable look for Joan but on William is very off-putting.
William is instructed by the bug/typewriter to kill his wife Joan as part of a mission; he refuses and responds by smashing the typewriter. This green typewriter turns blood red as its innards spill out—red ultimately prevailing over green. William does not want to follow the instructions of the natural world. Soon after he kills his wife accidentally—one drop of red blood emerges from her forehead—with his gun. The bullet was intended for a glass balanced on her head. The fatal gunshot wound represents another disruption of nature by man. He is the greatest enemy to himself.
By resisting the urge to preach an anti-drug sentiment, NAKED LUNCH instead plays to the whims of the sub-conscious. Color does all the talking because it engages the viewer physically and psychologically just as the drug would. The use of color as a narrative device offers a greater range of possible emotional responses available for interpretation by the viewer in comparison to dialogue, which is far more rigid.
“As basic rules of a language must be practiced continually, and therefore are never fixed, so exercises toward distinct color effects never are done or over. New and different cases will be discovered time and again” – Josef Albers.