Deep Focus is a series of film books with a fresh approach. Take the smartest, liveliest writers in contemporary letters and let them loose on the most vital and popular corners of cinema history: midnight movies, the New Hollywood of the sixties and seventies, film noir, screwball comedies, international cult classics, and more . . . Kicking off the series is Jonathan Lethem’s take on They Live, John Carpenter’s 1988 classic amalgam of deliberate B-movie, sci-fi, horror, anti-Yuppie agitprop.
Lethem exfoliates Carpenter’s paranoid satire in a series of penetrating, free-associational forays into the context of a story that peels the human masks off the ghoulish overlords of capitalism. Taking into consideration classic Hollywood cinema and science fictionas well as popular music and contemporary art and theoryThey Live provides a wholly original perspective on Carpenter’s subversive classic.
About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:Left Bennington College after two years
Read an Excerpt
The Opening of the Eyes
Going to the cinema results in an immobilization of the body. Not much gets in the way of one's perception. All one can do is look and listen. One forgets where one is sitting. The luminous screen spreads a murky light throughout the darkness. Making a film is one thing, viewing a film another. Impassive, mute, still the viewer sits. The outside world fades as the eyes probe the screen. Does it matter what film one is watching? Perhaps. One thing all films have in common is the power to take perception elsewhere.
— Robert Smithson, "A Cinematic Atopia"
A dream or nightmare is underway: out of darkness an ominous, admonitory phrase resolves, in hand-lettering, under the director's name. John Carpenter's They Live. The black fades up to a graffitied wall, on which the title phrase takes its place in a chaos of urban, spray-paint cartoons. It's atypical, "unrealistic" graffiti, featuring too many childish drawings — of what look like public-housing projects, a floating hypodermic syringe, a monumental Christian church — and too little flamboyant font. The wall seems flat, a "title card," just for an instant, then a leftward pan claims it as an element in a location shot: an overpass in a train yard. The camera's movement halts, shifting the title phrase nearly offscreen to the right. But the viewer's ability to calculate what's moving and what's still is complicated by the rightward drift of the train cars that now center the frame (and, in a film that will concern various kinds of public language, bring with them their own odd phrase, SHOCK CONTROL).
So: a triple optical confusion in thirty seconds of screen time. A warning — matters of competence in "reading" images will be at stake here. Now, the camera movement and the passage of the train act as sliding doors to reveal our hero, Nada, played by the possibly recognizable-to-some nonactor (or aspiring actor) "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, professional wrestler.
Garbed in default blue-collar duds and wearing a backpack, Nada picks his way out of the distance, across the tracks, toward us. Like Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, or Randolph Scott or Clint Eastwood in any number of American or Italian Westerns, our hero strolls into the story's frame through civilization's back doors, unnoticed, an entrance simultaneously suggesting modesty of means, self-reliant competency, wraithlike anonymity, and (at least to begin) neutrality as regards any preexisting conflict.
We can't be certain, but Nada's probably been riding the rails. In any event, what he does from this point is walk into Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Plays Itself
"Every film is a documentary of its actors," declared Godard. The same is true of cities, according to Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself, an essay-film on the subject of Hollywood's inadvertent enshrinement of Southern California settings as backdrops. They Live shows up in Andersen's documentary as a typical example of how the city idles in the background, candidly disclosing itself to whatever eye may care to notice. Carpenter's film neither declares its Los Angeles setting as a subject nor troubles itself to conceal it. Denver and Detroit are mentioned in passing, default locales for an out-of-work white guy and an out-of-work black guy, respectively, but the Los Angeles to which they've migrated goes unnamed. Still, the Los Angeles Athletic Club is visible in several shots. Various other buildings are framed long enough to be identified, but they're mostly unmemorable. Carpenter avoids — or can't afford — anything as distinctive as the Bradbury Building's interior. His use of L.A.'s downtown feels documentary itself, in the helpless manner dictated by the film's low budget.
The most distinctive location in the film isn't architectural, per se: the blasted rise on which the homeless compound Justiceville has assembled itself, and from which it will shortly be cleansed by an army of bulldozers and riot police. I asked Thom Andersen for more on this location's history: a marginal zone west of the Harbor Freeway, it had in fact been cleared by speculative developers in the late seventies and early eighties precisely to make way for more of the luxury towers contemplated by Nada and Frank as they gaze across the freeway in the distance. So, They Live's urban-renewal subtext embeds a bit of real urban history, knowingly or not. According to Andersen, the planned towers never exactly showed up. When the area filled in, it was with cookie-cutter, middle-class condominiums.
Left unengaged is Los Angeles's car culture; apart from the police, no character seems to even own one until Nada kidnaps Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) in the garage where she's parked. The L.A. of They Live is dominated by foot traffic, and not only that of the homeless, but also of the boisterously populated streets around the newsstand, grocery store, and bank. They Live ignores the presence of the film industry, too. The alien broadcast emanates from a TV station, eliding Hollywood, the official U.S. Dream Factory (the equivalent of setting in New York City a film about mind control, but ignoring Madison Avenue). Television is one of They Live's preoccupations, but there's no acknowledgment of the thin line between film's and television's production culture.
In fact, Roddy Piper, as a wrestler, could be seen as a version of the TV star who's attempting to move into feature film. Traditionally, that's something like a baseball player trying to jump from the minor to major leagues: a routine attempt, but still carrying a hint of embarrassing hopeful-ness, and no guarantees. Nada never uses his decoding sunglasses to peek at a movie marquee, to see whether the title of, say, Good Morning, Vietnam — the top-grossing movie in the months during which They Live was filmed — might translate to Sentimentalize War.
The musical score's entrance performs its own sleight of hand: documentary train-yard noise resolve seamlessly into a drum tick, so we can't be sure where one leaves off and the other begins. John Carpenter's most celebrated eccentricity may be his insistence on composing his own scores, which tend to feature an idiot savant repetitiveness, along with synthesized sounds that, to some ears, date badly — a thrifty man's Tangerine Dream. I treasure them, myself.
They Live's score may be the most tauntingly circular in film history, short of The Third Man's zither or Eyes Wide Shut's one-finger piano: a rootsy but menacing three-note bass line, ascending and descending along a blues scale, joined by taunting saxophone and a long-suffering, rueful, old-man harmonica: Bum-bum-bum, waaah-wah. Drum and synth join to raise the pulse when cops or guns walk through the door. The bass line is ominous enough to claim "something's happening here," undercut only by the harmonica's rebuke: "same old, same old." Ultimately, the blues motif telegraphs the film's underlying air of nihilistic resignation. It lightly mocks Nada's (and the viewer's) panic at the film's revelations. You knew this already, didn't you? No? Really? (Or, as Nada groans when he glimpses the Reagan-ghoul, "It figures it would be something like this.") If the film's opening evokes some kind of homeless advocate's public-service documentary — or at least an attempt at blue-collar vÃ(c)ritÃ(c), like Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep — the music warns that it may skip past ordinary fiction to become a kind of fuck-you cartoon: Waaah-wah!CHAPTER 2
In the movies, homeless people — or street people, or derelicts, or bums — sometimes get to play the lead in egalitarian-redemptive comedies like My Man Godfrey, Trading Places, Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Elsewhere, they're the common castoffs worth saving, or sanctifying as salt-of-the-earth: Meet John Doe, Sullivan's Travels, The Grapes of Wrath, The Soloist. They can also be terrifying, a ready, invading horde of the hungry and desperate, a kind of quasi-zombie army, or a more individual specter or nightmare, a negative mirror or id vision of the self's potential degeneration: think Ghost, or Mulholland Drive, or Carpenter's own Prince of Darkness.
Though the indigent in They Live will eventually be played by actors, or obvious extras (including a few comically implausible candidates for the street), the first few we glimpse below the credits are more than persuasive, sheltering themselves from the rain with broken umbrellas and cardboard crates or plastic tarpaulins, massed indifferently on street corners and with belongings clutched in paper sacks or garbage bags. They're also (unlike the actors and extras) all black or Latino. Mostly black. The degree of verisimilitude seen here is probably out of reach of They Live's costume department and production design — that is to say, its budget — so we can feel pretty certain Carpenter's nabbed a few oblivious conscripts for these shots.
By exhibiting these folks, They Live pushes its political context to the foreground, reminding us there's something or someone to be noticed in plain sight (at least for urban audiences). Nada, for his part, is technically homeless, but wants and finds work. In general he seems to float a little apart from the despondently indigent population so visible in the film's first half hour. In his self-reliance, alertness, and industriousness, Nada, when introduced, may recall more the kind of marginal but indomitable blue-collar type played by Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The question for that sort of character isn't how he'll ultimately find bed and board, but whether he'll either find a way out of his contingency and isolation to marriage and collective affiliation (African Queen), or descend into paranoiac dissidence (Sierra Madre). Carpenter compulsively cites the apolitical camaraderie of Howard Hawks as his model, but John Huston's splintered alliances and cynical-leftist nihilism is a lot closer to what we're given in They Live.
Carpenter shot the film in March and April of 1988; They Live was released that November. In the summer months between, Tompkins Square, a small park in Manhattan's East Village, erupted in riots — a series of semiviolent stand-offs between city authorities and the homeless occupants who'd made the park an equivalent of They Live's Justiceville. It was at the Tompkins Square Park riots' height that the invective chant "Die, Yuppie Scum!" (They Live distilled to a bumper sticker?) was invented. Within a year, Die Yuppie Scum was not only a graffiti standard, but was also a T-shirt, and "Meet me in Tompkins Square" was a refrain in a Lou Reed song. I suppose you could take this as confirmation that They Live grokked somebody's zeitgeist.
The parallel has its limits, though. Tompkins Square Park was marked, as Justiceville isn't, by defiant drug use, by countercultural — mostly punk-rock — signifiers, and by overt and quasi-political defiance (cops being taunted as Nazis, etcetera), as well as by the presence of protestors and interested witnesses from the ranks of the middle-bohemian class (including Allen Ginsberg). They Live's homeless are sheepish, demoralized, obedient, and stripped of signifiers of dissident affiliation or criminal ambition. Apart from seeking to get themselves fed in Grapes of Wrath-style grub lines, they're content to zone out and ponder television. They'd climb inside those screens if they could, much sooner certainly than they'd mass at barricades.
By depicting the homeless of Justiceville as exclusively weary and long-suffering (akin more to L.A.'s own Rodney "Why-can't-we-all-just-get-along?" King than to the chip-on-their-shoulder flash-mob at Tompkins Square), Carpenter's made certain that Justiceville's destruction can be read only as Darth Vaderish totalitarian overkill. The real threat to the overlords is in the small adjacent church, not the open-air homeless shelter. Demolishing a neatly quarantined homeless preserve serves no purpose (unless these bulldozers are clearing the way for development). In fact, it would likely displace these unsightly humans into other neighborhoods, much as the Reagan-era dismantling of the psychiatric-service infrastructure flooded urban zones with those formerly under treatment for full-blown mental illnesses.
Ironically, in the same era in which political sensitivity was demanding bums be re-euphemized as homeless persons (a shift, like drunk to alcoholic, from something verbishly active [I'm bumming, I'm drinking] to something nounishly passive [I endure homelessness, I suffer alcoholism]), the uncomfortable fact was that a highly visible layer of the people on the street in the 1980s was manifestly crazy, paranoiac, seeing things or hearing voices. Yet Carpenter's homeless are placid (except in the case of the dyspeptic Drifter, a reactionary sellout waiting for his chance). Blind preachers and down-on-their-luck construction workers see things; the homeless see only televisions. The rebel manufacturers of Hoffman lenses inside the church will never for an instant consider distributing those potential instruments of prole revolution among their immediate neighbors in Justiceville. Better the revelatory sunglasses molder in cardboard crates than be wasted on those losers.
Auteurs within Auteurs
Nor is it to be thought (ran the text as Armitage mentally translated it) that man is either the oldest or the last of earth's masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, they walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen ... He knows where They had trod earth's fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread. By Their smell can men sometimes know Them near, but of Their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those They have begotten on mankind; and of those are there many sorts, differing in likeness from man's truest eidolon to that shape without sight or substance which is Them. They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites.
— H. P. Lovecraft, "The Dunwich Horror"
The words "Directed by John Carpenter" mark the director's third appearance in the credits (after the possessive over the title, and the music credit with Alan Howarth). But if we're in the know, we'll recognize the screenwriter "Frank Armitage" as a Carpenter pseudonym, plucked from the pages of H. P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror." As we've learned an instant earlier, They Live is "Based Upon the Short Story 'Eight O'clock in the Morning' by Ray Nelson." For those inclined to trace such connections, Ray Nelson, an (extremely) minor writer even within science fiction's demimonde, was one of just two people with whom Philip K. Dick ever collaborated on a novel. So: lurking unnamed in these credits, like secret masters, are Lovecraft and Dick, perhaps the preeminent ontological paranoiacs of twentieth-century fiction — also two now-esteemed artists situated, like Carpenter, in disreputable genres.
"The Dunwich Horror" doesn't feel much like They Live. Lovecraft's story is (typically) both purple and morose, full of crypto-historical cobwebs, and a million miles, tonally, from Carpenter's urban setting, media satire, and neo-Hawksian buddy-picture motifs. What "Armitage" seems to have glommed from "Dunwich," apart from a general fascination with the invisible omnipresence of mankind's enemies, is the ominous indeterminacy of the pronoun they. Lovecraft's secret masters are octopus-headed devils from an ancient realm, as uninterested in dressing up in yuppie costumes and shopping for blue-corn tortillas as can be imagined.CHAPTER 3
They Live's first official scene puts Nada at the desk of a dourly sarcastic employment counselor. He's there just long enough to sketch his sketchy backstory (ten years working in Denver, then "things just seemed to dry up ...") before being dismissed: "There's nothing available for you right now." Adding to the efficiency of the one-minute scene's portrait of no-trickle-down economic times, a droning announcement comes over the loudspeakers: "Due to a computer error, the food stamp program has been suspended until further notice ..." A one-legged man in a wheelchair — A veteran? we might wonder, though he lacks the ironic military uniform and Willie Nelson beard-and-ponytail of the prototypical embittered Vietnam vet — shakes his head grimly as he exits, exasperated at some slight he's endured therein. Employment agencies usually turn up in films where matters of work will remain central — Straight Time, Lost in America. Nada, however, solves his job problem within three more minutes of screen time, adding to our impression that his self-reliance sets him apart from the crowd. This scene is, like the homeless people, meant to set political context, rather than to describe where this particular protagonist is coming from or bound.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "They Live"
Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Lethem.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Jonathan Lethem THEY LIVE,
What You'll Recall of the Dream in the Morning,
Note on Approach I,
Note on Approach II,
Note on Names,
Note on Diegesis and Ideology and Peekaboo,
Note on Notes,
The Opening of the Eyes (0:00),
Los Angeles Plays Itself,
Auteurs within Auteurs,
Employment Agency (3:05),
Outside the Limit of Our Sight, Feeding Off Us, Perched on Top of Us from Birth ... (3:50),
"Rowdy" Roddy Piper,
Television Made Me What I Am (4:49),
Union Sundown (5:59),
Gay Porn (6:37),
The Black Guy and the White Guy, Together Again for the First Time,
Individual Ethics under Late Capitalism (9:48),
Fake Church Conspirators (16:40),
Drifter I (20:03),
Villainous Vehicles (22:40),
Disruptions, Discontinuities, Departures,
Life During Wartime (26:26),
Half-Hour Mark (30:00),
The Next Six (or Eight, or Ten) Minutes of Film,
Cheap Sunglasses (31:18),
The Mad Flaneur (32:07),
They Colorized It,
Impossible Eloquent Cityscape (33:29),
Graffiti and Text Art,
Golf Magazine and Paperback Spinner-Rack (34:02),
A Countenance (34:32),
News Vendor (35:27),
Code and Canon,
Stunned Maid (36:25),
Grocery Store (36:40),
Into the Cheese Dip (38:01),
Is Nada the Stupidest Person in the Movie?,
We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Not Us (39:30),
Quip in a Bank (41:04),
Not a Cop-Hater as Such (42:28),
Thirty-Nine Steps (43:11),
Porn Again (54:56),
The Puzzle of Holly,
One Great Shot (49:57),
Vertical City Inhospitable to Horizontal Man (50:06),
Jump Back in the Alley (52:19),
Garbage Truck (53:45),
Fight, Fight (55:23),
Fleabag Hotel (1:02:05),
Long Night of the Soul (1:04:48),
A Recent Scourge as Old as Mankind Itself,
Something in the Water Does Not Compute,
The Futility of Collective Action (1:07:42),
Meet John Doe,
Another Alley (1:14:41),
War Movie, Science-Fiction Movie (1:16:14),
Human Power Elite (1:17:58),
Drifter's Escape (1:19:07),
Inside Television (1:24:09),
Workplace Shooting (1:24:33),
Sympathy for the Ghouls,
Pregnant Secretary with Coffeepot (1:25:04),
Tiny Alphaville Homage (1:26:35),
Holly Kills (1:27:15),
In Living Color (1:29:56),
The End (1:30:21),