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.


  1. My favorite part is where Roddy Piper and Keith David kick the living crap out of each other for fifteen minutes. Each blow delivered would be enough to kill a man, yet they keep trading them back and forth for what amounts to an eternity in a street fight. 2×4 against the head, swung with skull crushing force? No problem. The same with a lead pipe? Again, no problem. Wonderful.

  2. Hah! I thought I was the only one who note the Fairey ‘They Live’ homage.

    Subtsitute Republicans for the Rolex-wearing aliens and you have a good metaphor for post-modren Amerika.

    1. “Subtsitute Republicans for the Rolex-wearing aliens and you have a good metaphor for post-modren Amerika.”


  3. What a funny coincidence,… I was just thinking of this movie recently after seeing the picture of Hillary through the viewfinder.

  4. Big fan of THEY LIVE, so thanks for bringing this to our attention, Doug. I thought I was the only one who noticed the glasses are called “Hoffman lenses,” and only once in passing. Does Lethem postulate that’s a reference to Abby, Albert or another Hoffman?

    1. haha, i never thought of hoffmann as in abbie, i was thinking albert, the link between dark sunglasses (and ultraviolet light) and lsd and all that. but hey, abbie hoffman also links back into lsd with his famous idea of dmso mixed with lsd, immortalised in the dead kennedy’s song… there’s no doubt in my mind that all of the above played a role as source material that created that genius movie.

      and that fight scene, it’s the most absurd piece of fight choreography ever seen in a movie. probably qualifies as the most awesome b grade scifi horror thriller movie ever made. oh yeah, the bank scene is brilliant too, i recall someone posting the speech he makes at the beginning before blowing away the aliens recently in a comment thread somewhere here on boingboing:

      ‘i am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and i’m all out of bubblegum’

  5. Wow, this guy sounds SUPER pretentious. Great movie though. I wanted to make a fake website for the church in the movie and then have it subvert into a resistance front.

  6. Why does the subtext of every academic analysis seem to be, “Here’s why I, the reviewer, am superior to what I’m discussing.”

  7. And I just watched this movie on Netflix the other night… WIN. I’ll get the book when it comes out next month.

  8. These books remind me of the old TREK paperback collections of Star Trek fan analysis, or Mad Norwegian’s ABOUT TIME series about Doctor Who. Same idea, less celebrity status.

  9. If I remember correctly, THEY LIVE held the record for longest fight scene (between Rowdy Roddy Piper & Keith David) in a movie for over a decade. I was every bit the target audience at the time, and let me tellya, that movie freaked me the F out in the best possible way!

  10. Reads like someone who is high but has retained an ability to cite references. Yeah we get it — anything produced in a capitalistic system that criticizes capitalism is ironic. Now shut up and enjoy your joint.

  11. The writer of the short story the film is based on, Ray Faraday Nelson, was a longtime friend of Philp K. Dick. He was allegedly PKDs LSD supplier and collaborated with him on the the novel “The Ganymede Takeover”. He has also done a number of interesting sci-fi novels including “Blake’s Progress” and “Then Beggers Could Ride”. Oddly enough, Nelson was also the inventor of the famous propeller beany.

  12. To Anon # 9 as well: “Pretentious” is just the hip rock and roll version of what the Tea Party/National Review crowd means by “elitist.” The ideocracy is descending upon us from all directions.

  13. To be fair, I picked a particularly dense passage. Most of the book is much more plainspoken.

  14. I believe the “Hoffman Glasses” are references to the E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose stories concerned human dopplegangers & automota. “Spin, dolly, spin!” Very creepy stuff.

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