“Rowdy” Roddy Piper Has A Posse
This, then, is the concept:
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.
And first off the blocks we have Jonathan Lethem writing about They Live, “John Carpenter’s 1988 classic amalgam of deliberate B-movie, sci-fi, horror, anti-Yuppie agitprop.” It is an unusual book, a flicker book of thoughts that often reads more like an extended blog post than a conventional work of criticism, despite rather grandly opening with the claim that this is “the first monograph” on the film. Lethem acknowledges Raymond Durgnat’s A Long Hard Look At Psycho as an aspiration but at the same time makes clear he lacks the space and skill required for such a project.
The book opens with five epigrams. Then five introductions. Then dozens of short chapters of only a couple of pages or so. These chapters are split between scene-by-scene dissections of the film and digressions on mood, theme, symbolism and anything else that pops into Lethem’s head. In his second introduction, Lethem notes that They Live is “howlingly blatant and obvious on many levels” yet “marvellously slippery and paradoxical”. I watched the film on Saturday night and it really is a deliberate B-movie, a bizarre collision of high and low art of the type you just don’t see any more in mainstream American cinema (Darren Aaronofsky’s Black Swan is the only recent example I can think of). Lethem deftly unpicks these contradictions and establishes Carpenter as a sort of gutter auteur.
Lethem is usually good and always readable, only occasionally collapsing into self-congatulatory praise for suriving his umpteen re-watches or going slightly stir-crazy from his intense focus. After commenting perceptively on the “bifurcation” of the film – not just high/low but, let’s be honest, the good first half and the bad second half – he closes the chapter by saying: “Or is it something between the two? Am I hedging here? Sure I am!” He is talking to the walls here.
Perhaps, though, Lethem never betters the concision of his very first page where, after a brilliantly brisk synopsis, he notes the two totemic sequences of the film that ensure its continued appeal:
One, when the wrestler first dons the sunglasses and, exiting an alley, walks through a city revealed. Ten minutes of cognitive dissonance as sublime as anything in the history of paranoid cinema, shot partly in black-and-white, and composed with the serene assurance of Hitchcock or Kubrick.
Two, a fistfight in the same alley: crass, bruising farce stetched to an absurd limit, wagering the film’s whole stakes decisively on a pop-culture/”termite art” bet.
He concludes with another five quotes, a grading (B+) and – as if his thoughts hadn’t wandered freely enough – a selection of notes on his notes. That probbaly sums up exactly what Deep focus where after and, while none of the forthcoming titles (Death Wish, The Sting and Lethal Weapon) grab me in the same way as this book, I will definitely be keeping an eye on the series.