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