John Carpenter’s They Live, a cult film originally released in 1988, has gone on to grow a considerable cult following in the decades since its release, perhaps in no small part due to the resonance of its storyline in these economically uncertain times: pro-wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper stars as “Nada,” a down on his luck, blue-collar everyman whose accidental discovery of a pair of magic sunglasses reveals hidden collusion between human society’s elite and a race of alien overseers, leading to popular rebellion and a mass unmasking of a system that has been rigged against Joe Average from the very beginning.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem tackles this entertaining but sometimes frustrating film in a lively and frank manner in They Live, the first volume of Soft Skull Press’ new Deep Focus series. The result is a short treatise that not only acknowledges its subject’s shortcomings, it also discusses their importance as possible signifiers, both of the late eighties cultural landscape, and the director’s own sometimes reactionary and contextually contradictory political impulses. Viewing They Live through Lethem’s eyes is to see not only the overtly leftist political message, but to also acknowledge and attempt to reconcile this with the film’s more deeply buried and infinitely more troublesome racial and gender politics.
Rest assured that Lethem’s insights go beyond standard post-modern politicization. He’s a shrewd observer whose multiple viewings of the film have provided him with an obsessive’s eye for detail. Ever really studied the graffiti in the background of many of the scenes? Lethem has and can discuss it within the context of the graffiti art movement of the eighties. Ever noticed that the blind street preacher in the first reel of the movie appears to be “channeling” word-for-word the message of the resistance movement when they hack into the ghouls’ television feed? Neither did I, but Lethem did. Fortunately, Lethem doesn’t get bogged down in trivia. The film’s biggest and best known scenes receive pages of interpretation. Lethem seems little invested in maintaining an illusion of expertise, and is quick to remind readers that his interpretations are not in any way authoritative, stating at least once that he’s “flying by the seat of [his] pants,” partially in part due to the lack of scholarship that has been devoted to the film in the past.
Overall, most of his insights ring true – at least to me – and even when they don’t, they provide plenty of food for thought. Decoding the film’s legendary (and according to some legendarily stupid) six minute fight sequence as sly meta-commentary on the irony of a wrestler (who “fights” are staged, and is thus an actor of sorts) being paid to “act” out a fight that is literally “staged” is something I’ve never considered, having perhaps superficially consigned it in the past as a necessary bit of pandering to Piper’s then current wrestling career. Now I’ve been forced to reconsider.
Whether or not you hold with the mass of Lethem’s interpretations, it’s likely that you’ll still walk away from this book with a greater appreciation for both the film and a strong sense of admiration for the author’s considerable critical ability.