They Live, Again

they-live-200x300.gif Softskull Press is launching a new series of books called Deep Focus, dedicated to taking some of today's wittiest writers and setting them loose on the cult film classics of the 70's and 80's.

So far, I've had the pleasure of reading galleys for the first two, Jonathan Lethem's deconstruction of John Carpenter's They Live, and Chris Sorrentino's homage to Death Wish. These are fun little books - little, meaning a hundred or so pages and in a tiny fits-in-your-back-pocket format suitable for reading anywhere at anytime. And they justify all the nights spent watching reruns of these films, never sure if we were allowed to like them as much as we do - even after we see through to their obvious faults. This book series considers such films "deliberate" B-movies.

I read Lethem's time-coded analysis of They Live on an airplane while I watched the film on my phone, for the perfect DIY mini-Criterion experience. Lethem is one of my favorite writers anyway, but experiencing him wax on about Nada and the ghouls was perhaps the highlight of my summer reading. Here he is on Shephard Fairey's original OBEY campaign, which began as a reaction to the "obey" signs revealed beneath ordinary advertisements when characters in the film wore "Hoffman glasses":

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 carrying 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 Cahiers table of "conscious" auteurs - Hitchcock being the supreme example - at which Carpenter may occasionally be granted a shakey seat. Too poisted and context-aware to be claimed as primitives, too crass and populist to be comfortably claimed for the high-art pantheon, Fairey and Carpenter both oscillate dismayingly in the void between.

Or, a bit later...

Kruger and Holzer's non-sequitor interventions briefly attained a gallant purity, but they'd always needed the gallery or museum context as a quarantine against recontamination. Their work degenerated anyway, refamiliarizing into po-mo moral rhetoric or reappropriated for fashion layouts. What makes Shepard Fairey's populist gesture insipid is is how self-evidently it awaited a product retrofit, a proceed-to-checkout button. When the OBEY t-shirt or CHANGE political campaign rolled out, no one, least of all the 'artworks' themselves, even hiccuped.