January 2011

Martyn Pedler


They Live by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem’s new book -- the first in the “Deep Focus” imprint of film criticism by Soft Skull Press -- begins with caveats and apologies. He says sorry for ignoring his chosen director’s other films; he admits he didn’t try for an interview; he quotes Andrew Hultkrann as saying that “They Live is beyond scholarship.”

Is it? If so, why did Lethem write this book? And why did I keep reading it? Two words: They Live.

If you’ve never seen John Carpenter’s 1998 B-grade classic They Live, it’s one of those movies that becomes ludicrous poetry when you boil it down to a single sentence. Like this. Professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as Nada, a drifter who wanders into Los Angeles and uncovers a conspiracy -- via a pair of magic sunglasses that let him see the secret subliminal brainwashing that exists under everyday media -- of hideous alien beings.

In Lethem’s words, They Live is “The Matrix for an era of fax machines and fisticuffs” and “probably the stupidest film ever to take ideology as its explicit subject.” He adds: “It's also probably the most fun.” They Live, the movie, is often defiantly stupid, including an infamous fight scene that feels like it runs for about half a human lifespan. And yet it’s also self-consciously subversive, not only in its rise-up-against-the-yuppies plot but in striking stylistic moments that echo other, classier artforms.

Before Shepard Fairey’s electoral message of HOPE -- exactly the kind of statement you might see if Nada’s magic glasses were rose-colored, too -- his signature image was a wrestler with the word OBEY underneath. (You didn’t even need special glasses to read it.) Lethem writes:

Fairey's interventions occupy the same uneasy middle ground as They Live itself: on the one hand, the termite arts of graffiti or of the deliberate B-movie, marginal activities carry a subversive potential past the sentries of high art. On the other, the gallery-ready postures of text artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, or of the Cahirs table of “conscious” auteurs -- Hitchcock being the supreme example -- at which Carpenter may occasionally be granted a shaky seat.

Lethem’s interest in the popular will come as no surprise to those who’ve read his novels like The Fortress of Solitude and Chronic City. (This monograph could be the extended monologue of one of the more paranoid characters from the latter.) Using the zigzag logic of a conspiracy theorist, the book connects the film's ideas and iconography through popular culture. Do the powers of new sight encoded in Nada’s sunglasses make him more like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts? And that’s not accounting for the fact that Ray-Ban Wayfarers have their own cultural history, connecting Cary Grant to Tom Cruise to Bret Easton Ellis.

The book’s structured like a loose and literary commentary track, with each chapter time-stamped to match the film’s action. It has quick-jab chapters like “Bum-Bum-Bum, Waaah-Wah,” “Tiny Alphaville Homage,” and “Quip in a Bank.” (The quip in question is, of course, Nada’s oft-quoted “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”)

Lethem says he’ll “try to hold the line on jargon” -- though he demands the right to words like “diegesis,” “ideology,” and “metatextual” -- and his breezy, tangential style works wonders. It made me wonder yet again why so much academic work reads like its own bad translation; why so many ideas are brutally murdered by stilted syntax. Yet it’s equally true, I know, that this kind of popular scholarship can be lightweight or glib. This book is more proof it doesn’t have to be.

I’ve seen Carpenter’s They Live a dozen times. I’ve watched it both as a ridiculous hardbodied action flick and a too-smart-for-its-own-good piece of political agitprop. I still came away from this slim book with new ideas. Exhibit A: what does it mean to see the subliminal signs like “CONSUME” if (like They Live’s heroes) you’re broke, hungry, and homeless? Exhibit B: if the so-called “ghouls” can see through their own propaganda, then why do we witness them still reading newspapers? Are they just reading the word “OBEY,” over and over again?

Lethem doesn’t fall into the familiar trap of ignoring his subject’s flaws, like the film’s uneasy, played-for-laughs misogyny. In the middle of the film, though, are “Six (or Eight, or Ten) Minutes of Film” that he says he could choose for a time capsule of perfect cinema:

I'd pick them to stand for the eighties, and for the minor tradition of the "self-conscious B-movie," and for that side of science-fiction cinema devoted to what the critic Darko Suvin calls "cognitive estrangement" (as opposed to wish fulfillment, thrills, action, techno-lust, or horror). And I'd pick them out of affection.

There’s nothing worse than seeing the pulpy pleasures of something like They Live analyzed in the dreary tone universities reserve for Chaucer. It’s Lethem’s affection -- genuine enthusiasm that never lapses into fanishness -- that makes this a joy. I can’t speak for Lethem’s ability to kick ass, but he can sure chew bubblegum.

They Live by Jonathan Lethem
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 159376278X
208 Pages

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia, and Bookslut’s regular comic book columnist.