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Labor Day Special! 
They Live

[1]2,965 words

“He Writes! You Read!”

Jonathan Lethem
They Live [2]
Soft Skull Press, 2010

Constant readers will know that I not infrequently make use of images or lines from John Carpenter’s schlock-cult classic They Live [3]But it was only the other day, my financial situation being but a few steps away from Roddy Piper’s in the film, that I had to luck to find a $1.99 proof copy of Jonathan Lethem’s excellent book, part of the “Deep Focus” series, from which I also recommend the one on Death Wish [4].

Both are written from the Default Liberal Position (otherwise they wouldn’t be published) but both is relatively free of ideological cant and more than a little willing to contemplate, for example, whether Bronson’s vigilante might have a point or two to make, so they make easy enough reading for those who might actually have a Bronson poster on the wall.

It’s only 200 pages, and moreover it’s a small-sized book, so you can probably read it in one relatively short sitting. In fact, a movie time code appears throughout, so you can probably read it along with your NetFlix stream. So in the spirit of such brevity, let’s do so, and I’ll just make a few bullet points along the way.

[I]t totally turns around the usual new age idea of critique of ideology, which would be: “in everyday life we have ideological glasses, learn to put down, take off, the glasses, and see with your own eyes reality the way it is.” No, unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this. Liberation hurts. You have to be forced to put your glasses on.” (Slavoj Žižek, “They Live! Hollywood as an Ideological Machine”)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqKFadyJxwg&feature=player_embedded [9]

Excursus on the Männerbund

[10]Lethem starts off by calling to our attention that once we get away from the homeless camp, the LA scenes, especially Holly’s apartment, look like porn sets. True, but I’d just say that all of Southern California looks like a porn set to these New York eyes and leave it at that; Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example, looks like a porn shoot to me; but Lethem wants to use this to set up his notion that there’s some kinda homoeroticism going on between Frank and Nada. Noting their obvious racial polarity, he trots out the tired Huck and Jim thesis of Judaic critic Leslie Fiedler, who tried to reduce all American literature to variations on boys on the raft.

(The ne plus ultra of this was probably the Penguin English Library volume of Moby Dick, where critic Harry Beaver [!] created a 300 page text with 200 pages of endnotes detailing line by line Melville’s “phallic imagination” — Harpoons! Coffins! Peg-legs! Oysters! Dogs and cats living together!)

I take Frank’s invitation to introduce Nada to the homeless encampment (hot food and showers!) as recruitment not into a sexual liaison but into a proto-Männerbund of working class types banding together in the economic chaos (though, as we have seen, not a very lively one, but serving to get him across the street to the fake church were he meets the real revolutionaries). Nada will return the favor when he later beats the truth into Frank, Fight Club style.

Lethem would have saved himself some idle speculations, and real puzzlements, such as why Nada later takes a younger version of himself under his wing, if he had understood better that, as he says: “If it’s not that kind of hookup scene, it’s still a hookup scene.” As he says later, when Nada spews stupid, supposedly clever one-liners about ugly female ghouls, “this man of the people is more of the male than the female people.” And later, during the shoot-em-up at the Cable 54 offices, “He really shouldn’t be looking for Holly; he’s got no knack with women.”

The Männerbund theme continues even when Nada “hooks up” with Holly, played by the “eerie” and ineffable Meg Foster [11].


Meg Foster

Lethem is correct to point out she is indeed strikingly “mannish” for a nevertheless attractive woman (originally cast in TV’s Cagney and Lacey, she was dropped because she made Tyne Daly look too feminine [13]!), which may have something to do with Nada’s oddly unmotivated rage against how ugly the female ghouls appear to him; he has firm though offbeat ideas about beauty.

And though dark haired she has eyes that “are such a pale shade of blue they’re nearly a special effect” by themselves. He alludes to her roles in The Scarlet Letter (19th century American lit again!) and The Osterman Weekend, but I find it more interesting to compare her role just the year before in the otherwise atrocious Masters of the Universe, where her hard face and unearthly eyes work well for the straightforwardly and extra-dimensionally evil character called Evil-lyn (it’s that kind of movie), playing against another muscular blonde hero, Sam Jones as He-Man.

Mannish though she is, Holly will, of course, turn out to be the femme fatale to infiltrate the group and betray everyone, even killing Frank. Lethem nicely points out that this unexpected turn makes it seem like genre conventions are attacking our poor heroes; like Full Metal Jacket or The Shining, halfway through the sci-fi metaphysics stop and suddenly it’s an action flick, then a film noir.

Throughout the book, Lethem comments on the oddly pedestrian, that is, walk-around, flâneur -like LA in the film, so unlike the freeway-LA we think we know, and comes up with various explanations, including budget restraints. To me, the answer is simple; Carpenter sets the whole film in some kind of post-Reagan hyper-recession; jobs have disappeared, workers are migratory (Frank from Detroit, Nada from Denver), riding the rails, working under the counter, etc. Who can afford to drive, except the “Well Dressed Man” at the newsstand, who’s a ghoul, or Holly, who’s a mole for the ghouls. The supposed “real face” of Reagan’s Morning in America.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Lwlx3GnLGs&feature=player_embedded [14]

Source: http://jamesjomeara.blogspot.com/2011/09/he-writes-you-read-jonathan-lethem-they.html [18]