“He Writes! You Read!”
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. 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.
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.
- Carpenter’s screenplay pseudonym, ‘Frank Armitage,’ alludes to Lovecraft’s “Dunwich Horror,” while the originating short story is by an obscure author best known as one of the few to collaborate with Philip Dick, thus linking “two now esteemed artists situated in disreputable genres.” I would myself add, as noted here before, that these are the two greatest American writers of the XXth century, one in each half. Lethem does note, however, the irony that Lovecraft’s trans-dimensional Elder Gods have now become yuppies shopping for blue corn tortillas.
- He also notes that in the summer between the film’s production and release saw the riots in NYC’s Tompkins Square Park, which calls to mind the homeless encampment at the start of the film. However, not so much; these are “sheepish, demoralized, obedient” and seem to want to do nothing but watch television all day, which is convenient for the plot points, of course. More on these losers later.
- The use of 50s sci-fi clips on the TV’s leads him to speculate if, to Carpenter, the 50s “seem a whole lot deeper than the 80s,” which is a nice way to put what a lot of us here have been thinking. As Lethem later says, the glasses reveal that “color is lies, black and white the truth” or, as one revolutionary shouts, “They colorized it!”
- Lethem is all upset that of the various ways the phrase “Hoffman Lenses” has been mutated in pop culture; Albert Hoffman? Abbie Hoffman? He likes pop culture re-appropriation, but like most good-thinkers, thinks some standards — his — should apply. Some people have dared to associate them with “holocaust denier” Michael A. Hoffman II, which he take as a warning to those who would set their memes loose on the world: “Free your mind, and an ass may follow.” Har-de-har-har. However, just to blow Lethem’s mind, here’s another: entheogenic drug researcher and cultural historian (and Heavy Metal theorist) Michael [no relation to Hoffman II] Hoffman. Take that!
- Now back to those hapless homeless. Lethem notes at various points one of the most interesting memes in the movie, quoting at length (as we will here) no less than NPR poster-boy, Slavoj Žižek:
[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”)
- This is in reference to the [in]famous “longest fight scene in movie history” but it also crops up throughout the film. Lethem notes that Frank is not a “Magic Negro” [even using the term!] but more of a Danny Glover sidekick, then goes on to point out that while the White hero, Nada (which makes me recall Showgirls’ ‘Nomi’) is naïve, the black guy is too-knowing in his cynicism: “a nice twist is in the works: Nada will eventually have to bludgeon his black friend into seeing the truth Frank seemingly already possesses.” The “twist” being on the now-audience-expected theme, White guy learns grudging respect for the street wisdom of black partner forced on him. In general, “knowledge in They Live is associated with head pain, grogginess and eyestrain… It’s more comfortable not to see.” Moral? Even the most obvious victims of the system are more likely to just “tune in for more” as they used to say during station breaks, than rise up and throw off their mental chains.
- If the good ol’ American family won’t rise up (I think that’s why, along with budget restraints, Carpenter makes use of suspiciously normal looking families among his homeless group), then what to do? Who you gonna call? The Männerbund!
Excursus on the Männerbund
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.
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!), 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.
- Making the film as early as 1988 gives it the look of Leftist hysteria, but in fact the process was underway, it just took 30 years and two busted bubbles to make everyone realize that while we were putting everything on the card, the real jobs were shipped out and the real money was siphoned off, not so much by yuppies (who are as mortgage-strapped as the rest of us, just with bigger houses) but the really big guys, the bankers. Frank and Nada’s car-less wanderings, and the packed streets, give the film a contemporary, not a dated, look.
- Another theme dear to the New Right: the ghouls are outright colonizers and parasites, not even illegal aliens (like District Nine) you might work up some Ellis Island sympathy for, like the sociopathic Sicilians we know welcome as “Italian American patriots,” and they’re coruscating ugly, and even worse, they want to wear our best clothes (like “Well Dressed Man”) and make it with our smooth, pink bodies. There’s no chance for the “traditional science-fiction platitude, with its overtones of Franz Boas cultural relativism.” When a ghoul cop tries the Good Cop routine and suggests “You look just as ugly to us” Nada responds with Randian certitude and contempt: “Impossible.” It reminds me of the scene where Toohey tries to confront Roark but Roark just walks away. Lethem refers to Carpenter’s 50s film outlook again, and he’s right. Not for nothing does Carpenter idolize John Ford, and admire the Ford-influenced The Thing enough to remake it. The comparable exchange in the 50s Thing: “What do you do with a carrot? You cook it.”
- Lethem contrasts this with another late 80s sci-fi film, Blade Runner, where the replicants are more sympathetic than the humans, and the controversies over whether Dekkard himself is a replicant. I would again match him with Lovecraft. Lovecraft certainly loathed furriners, especially immigrants. The Old Ones certainly seem to covet warm human flesh, and several characters are half-breeds of such couplings, who, in accordance with Lovecraft’s strict morality (or bigotry) must be evil and come to bad ends, like Wilbur in “The Dunwich Horror” that Carpenter’s pseudonym alludes to. His brother, “who looked more like the father,” is a monster killed by the scientists at the end; the narrator of “Shadow over Innsmouth” gradually realizes he is one of the fish-people himself and presumably will shoot himself at the end; the eponymous Arthur Jermyn discovers he is the offspring of an ape mother, and burns himself alive (although this might be one of the Darwinian Lovecraft’s little jokes). Poor Akeley, beset by Plutonian immigrant miners in “The Whisperer in Darkness” is fooled into joining the Plutonian race, having his brain boxed up with the promise of being shipped off to see the sights of the galaxy, perhaps the ones Roy recalls at the end of Blade Runner. Most notably, Prof. Peasley in “The Shadow out of Time” has his mind “kidnapped” and transferred into the “rugose cone” body of a Cyclopean prehistoric race — brain rape!– when he finally works up the courage to look in a mirror at his new body, he shrieks and faints, as does “The Outsider” when a mirror reveals that he is a rotting corpse. Nada, Lethem points out, never turns the glasses on himself in a mirror. But there is another vein in Lovecraft, part of his “cosmic awe.” Peaslee learns to appreciate and admire the super-intelligent cones, rugose or not; the narrator in At the Mountains of Madness sympathizes with the specimens of the ancient race dug out of the ice only to be attacked by dogs. As the Templars came to admire the Moslem warriors they fought, anyone who peers deeply into a religion or culture of his own may be able to recognize the value of an alien’s, but at such a deep, shared level that talk of conversion or “relativism” is inane. But still, not with these guys. They’re space yuppies, practicing planetary gentrification, and ugly as cheese dip from 1957. Nada kills the cop and steals his weapons.
- As a boomer myself, I find it mind-boggling that Lethem attributes the line “ten thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” to “Yellow Submarine;” in fact, since “A Day in the Life” is usually held up as some kind of “classic work of timeless genius,” to mis-attribute an image, and to such a dopey song, seems unforgivable in general; or is he deliberately thumbing his nose at the middle-brows?
- But, just a page or two later, he redeems himself with this: “it’s hard to imagine that at the ghouls’ first job fair the position of Fatuous Cocktail-swilling Jackass didn’t have willing applicants lined up around the block.” I can’t wait to use that line myself, maybe even on myself.
- Holy cow, now Lethem’s calling the same character “the cockroach of the human spirit.” He’s using my meme!
- Lethem’s giving us some freeze-dried lecture on how “post-Freudian, post-Virginia Woolf” readers demand characters that are flawed, even treacherous; he thinks this is an index of how seriously a work is intended, or even, he adds ominously, “how seriously it is likely to be received” — by the literary gatekeepers, like him, of course. If you don’t know where this is going, he tells us “If Shakespeare had written The Lord of the Rings, its title would be Gollum.” (And I guess if Shakespeare had written Hamlet, its title would have been Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.) And there, in admittedly a neat little phrase, is a perfect example of the Judaic Plan for Culture Distortion; how even already existing classic literature can be “taught” in ways that inculcate the cockroach mentality. And after all, is not the plea that “we” prefer such “complex” and twisted characters simple egotism? Does the Jew not recognize himself in such figures (just as Freud’s so-called science was an impudent projection of the Judaic domestic scene onto all mankind)? Surely Gollum is the Jew of the Ring films; did people not complain of the role’s “anti-Semitism”? It is the Jew who finds such characters “intriguing,” not the Aryan public, which is why normal stories keep getting written and filmed, since they are demanded by the public (adjusted for inflation, the all time box office hit: Gone with the Wind), and the Judaic gatekeepers keep having to push them back underwater and “demand” “more serious” ones.
- Lethem keeps trying to insinuate, in that Judaic way, that we really like the bum-turned-traitorous big-shot, Drifter, that we’d really like to be him, in fact, far more than that dumb, boring blond hero. It surfaces again when he discusses the poor Pregnant Woman with Coffee Pot who gets in Nada’s way during the shoot out, specifically connecting her with Frances Dormand’s character in Fargo, the Coen Brothers’ festival of Judaic paranoia, dividing the goyim into two groups, murderous blond beasts and simple-minded law enforcers (who, implicitly, will protect the Jews from the first group). You want to play that game, Jonathan? OK, Nada embodies both; while we know he’s a simple guy just trying to save us, to the office workers he’s just a murderous workplace psycho. Oh, and your precious Coen Bros. stole Lebowski from . . . Drifter!
- Maybe it was a mistake to try and read this all in one sitting. I’m starting to feel a little woozy, more than a little cranky. If you took my suggestion at the beginning to do this, go back, you fools! Only a few pages of the book, less than two minutes of the film, are left, and Lethem is really working my nerves. First, he quotes G. K. Chesterton — when’s the last time you saw that, outside the New Oxford Review or maybe that Catholic cable channel. But then, he follows it up some “film curator” guy who says that “we who live in the urban centers” both fear and loathe the denizens of the heartland, whom “we” perceive as “bible-thumping, gun-toting” nut jobs “like the Unabomber.” Uh, Unabomber? Harvard, brilliant mathematician, Manifesto published in the New York Times, oh yeah, that cracker dumbass. Alright buddy, Mr. “Milan Film Festival” jag-off, you’ve asked for it. I’ve run out of bubble gun . . . I mean, gum.
- But wait, as I move down the hallway for my stolen police rifle, I pass a mirror . . . look in . . . My God! The blue skin, the robotic eyes! You others, drop the book, before it’s too late… save yourselves! As for me . . . I have fallen into the cheese dip . . .