Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: They Live by Jonathan Lethem

They Live by Jonathan Lethem. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2010. Paperback. $13.95. 163 pp.

Any author who devotes an essay to Donald Sutherland’s buttocks has already won me over, so I may be biased in my judgment. All the same, novelist Jonathan Lethem now invites us to sort through our hidden cache of late ’80s couture, find our old pair of Hoffman shades, and join him as he revisits John Carpenter’s distinctive mix of B-movie motifs, Reagan-era paranoia, and bulging pecs in They Live. Lethem is compelling enough to inspire his readers to consume this compact book in one sitting, even as the scope of his commentary will leave them feeling like they’d just finished an all-night conversation with one of those brilliant college friends whose love of movies is only matched by his love of a fine, well-rolled spliff.

A big part of Lethem’s appeal comes from how his critical approach is inseparable from his distinctive format. Early in the book he admits that Carpenter’s film has its share of flaws, even as its incoherent moments have their own interest: “In fact, this tension between the film’s simplicity and its strangeness, between its thunderous stolidity and its abject porousness, is probably what compels me most. No offense, but They Live is probably the stupidest film ever to take ideology as its explicit subject. It’s also probably the most fun” (7). With this in mind, Lethem wisely avoids adopting any singular, restrictive model of ideology critique, or even worrying whether all his observations fit within some logically consistent road map of central claims. Instead, he takes his broader cue from the Mythologies of Roland Barthes, whose more flexible interrogation of ideology as “what-goes-without-saying” in cultural texts offers him not so much a strict method as a guiding sensibility: “My efforts here, like They Live itself, are energized by the gloriously rudimentary pleasure, not, I suspect, unknown by Roland Barthes, of peekaboo: the giddy thrill of unmasking what may from some vantages be regarded as howlingly obvious, yet goes by common consent unspoken” (7). While this orientation still allows Lethem to explore the film’s proto-Marxian themes, it also allows him to address many other layers of the film’s surprisingly rich semiotic texture.

Meanwhile, the format of the book is a striking hybrid of the standard “analog” BFI monograph and the scene-specific DVD commentary track: Lethem’s minute analysis unfolds in short titled segments, each of which corresponds to a designated time-signature drawn from the video screen that displays the film while he composes his text on the keyboard. This “real-time” review format — which has emerged as a genre in its own right within certain online communities of fan-based movie criticism — not only pays tribute to a subculture with which Lethem identifies, but also sets up a serial grid that paradoxically allows him all the more freedom to pursue his eccentric, multivalent Barthesian project from one segment to the next. In the spirit of other online venues that “go without saying,” Lethem thus establishes his own bridge between a rarefied, often stifling world of academic film scholarship and a vibrant community of enthusiastic (if no longer young) film geeks whose critical acumen is not incompatible with, say, owning a souvenir pair of Hoffman lenses from the Rowdy Roddy Piper Web site.

If Lethem can’t defend They Live as a masterful critique of late capitalist ideology, where does the fun come in? As he demonstrates, a key source of critical pleasure in They Live comes from how its affective charge of paranoia tends to exceed the containment imposed by its narrative frame, such that the film has further implications that are all the more revealing above and beyond the filmmaker’s apparent intentions. If this dynamic arises in countless other genre films with conspiratorial plots — The Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be the classic example — Lethem makes a strong case for They Live by taking its reader-response bait and vigorously running with it. Noting that Carpenter’s “narrative of interpretation . . . both begs and systematically deranges the interpretative impulse” (78), he extends his own unruly gaze to consider the how the film exhibits a range of cultural codes that are hidden in plain sight, thereby expanding our appreciation while also exposing the multiple, often contradictory layers of the film’s political unconsciousness.

In doing so, Lethem offers a wealth of insights. For example, in a fine sequence entitled “Bums,” he focuses on Carpenter’s portrayal of street people in the early scenes of the film. Here he notes how They Live is haunted by its historical moment, particularly in light of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots (which initiated the slogan “Die Yuppie Scum!”), the Reagan-era downsizing of public health services that led to an increase in indigent citizens with psychological disorders, and the seemingly humane — yet effectively passive — re-labeling of “bums” as “homeless people” in public discourse at the time. Yet in this context we see that the film’s imagery is all the more significantly constrained: even as Carpenter will inspire revulsion towards his yuppie ghouls, his unwashed masses are notably lacking in either politicized rage or paranoia-infused vision; instead they are portrayed as hopelessly enslaved by the same televised signal that ensures their marginality. Any possibility for broader collective agency is further undercut by Carpenter’s brief jab at organized labor when Nada’s job request is initially rejected by a union foreman; likewise, the underground resistance to the ghoul conspiracy is soon revealed to be much less organized or effective than one might hope. While such scenes have their own narrative function in establishing Nada as a strong, individualized hero, they also project a constricted political vision that suggests the director’s true ideological forerunner in the auteur pantheon: “Carpenter compulsively cites the apolitical camaraderie of Howard Hawks as his model, but John Huston’s splintered alliances and cynical-left nihilism is a lot closer to what we’re given in They Live” (17-18). Even so, Lethem still gives significant treatment to how the film subordinates, displaces, or otherwise transforms social codes of class struggle and racial inequality through the classic Hawksian cult of male bonding, while also foregrounding those few moments when the film both evokes and abandons its sweaty, throbbing homoerotic subtext. Thus when we first see the black construction worker, Frank, approaching the conspicuously buff and shirtless Nada, his friendly invitation — “You need a place to stay? Justiceville’s over on Fourth Street. They got food and showers. I’m goin’ there if you want me to show you” — not only prepares us for their (conventionally assymetrical) heroic partnership across racial lines, but oh-so-momentarily offers another fugitive code for Lethem, and us, to register through its suggestive gay porn overtones.

If Lethem’s main inspiration comes from Barthes’s defamilarization of cultural codes, he also summons Slavoj Žižek at certain points, which would seem par for the course in light of the thinker’s public praise of the film. Here Lethem avoids the potential trap of Lacanian jargon while still inspiring further reflection on the film’s treatment of ideology. In addition to offering some indispensable epigraphs from Žižek’s 2008 presentation at the New York Public Library (“They Live! Hollywood as Ideological Machine”), Lethem goes one step further in his treatment of a key scene in Carpenter’s film: Nada’s account of his abusive father, which leads Frank to wonder if “they” have been with us all along (“Maybe they love it — seeing us hate each other, watching us kill each other off, feeding on our own cold fuckin’ hearts.”). It’s one of those fine moments where They Live suggests that the real problem cuts much deeper than the externalized threat of alien invaders, which in turn allows Lethem to deploy Žižek for a renewed defense of the film’s subversive trajectory:

Paging Slavoj Žižek! The Slovenian philosopher’s conflation of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxist politics equips a viewer to consider the notion that human consciousness, forged in familial psychodrama, yearns innately toward totalitarian ideological control (the most recent incarnation of which, according to Žižek and Carpenter, is the inverted totalitarianism of late capitalism, with its injunctions toconsume and enjoy). In other words, maybe Big Daddy and Big Brother are more or less all one problem. Poor Nada’s got an inkling; though outfitted only for rampage, his fury’s more revolutionary (in Žižekian terms), not less so, for having bundled outrage at the ghouls together with recollection of both Judeo-Christian paternalism and his own father’s monstrousness. (124)

No doubt some readers in the fandom contingent of Lethem’s audience will find this amusing, whereas some readers in his academic audience may wish he’d gone even further — for the rest of us, though, Lethem’s deployment of theory is both incisive enough to highlight the significance of such moments and selective enough not to lose a broader readership outside the academy.

As a counterpoint to these well-aimed shotgun blasts of post-Marxian theory, Lethem also engages in the finer guerilla tactics of intertextual infiltration through a broad range of cultural references. For the film historian, he links Carpenter’s satire of television to a broader tradition of Hollywood attacks on the medium (ranging from Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows to Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream); in turn, he addresses Carpenter’s occasional visual echoes of Hitchcock and Ford while establishing the filmmaker’s references to multiple genre codes: the science fiction film, the war film, the Western, and — as noted above — the porn film. For the sci-fi fiction aficionado, he offers an incisive comparison of Carpenter’s motifs and the left-wing Gnosticism of Philip K. Dick, whose paranoid-critical vision the author has praised elsewhere in his writings. For the cultural historian, he draws upon Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself in his treatment of the film’s locations, considering them both as fantasy projections of urban space and partial, documentary images of social reality. For postmodern art critics, he provides an especially insightful account of how Carpenter’s defamiliarization of consumer-culture discourse resonates (both in its logic and its limitations) with the work of street artist Shepard Fairey and such high art provocateurs as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holtzer. And for those with a more promiscuous love of pop-culture folklore, he considers, among other things, the rhetoric of Ray-Bans and the classic, painfully protracted fight between Nada and Frank — which gets a fine epigraph from both Žižek as well as South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Through all these delightful detours, Lethem’s combination of critical intelligence and colloquial humor leaves one wondering why we can’t see more of this in published film scholarship.

Ultimately, Lethem offers what we find in the best academic film criticism as well as the best fan-based movie reviews: a compelling, painstaking account of the film text that not only enlightens us but expands our pleasure in the process. Like Barthes and Žižek in their own fashion, Lethem understands that when it comes to unmasking the codes that have become all too familiar in our everyday experience, such a task doesn’t simply short-circuit our enjoyment but rather re-directs it in new, unforeseen ways. So heed this injunction: grab a copy of this book, put a rolled towel under the doorframe of your room — and enjoy.