Sunday, March 3, 2013

Signifying Nada: THEY LIVE (Carpenter) and THEY LIVE (Lethem)

In a converse of the usual advice, I proclaim: Watch the film, then read the book.

1988's They Live, which seems to beg for a concluding exclamation (in like fashion to the superior 1954 monster flick Them!), is a shaggy John Carpenter construction, a B-movie masquerading as a better B-movie than it turns out to be, a story of an alien invasion that turns out to be not a metaphor or symbol but the underlying truth about class warfare in the '80s.

And then there's Jonathan Lethem's They Live, the first book in the Deep Focus series, a set of books about film written by terrific writers who aren't film critics. Lethem—who loves the movie both in spite of its defects and because of the way the defects themselves entertain you and raise interesting questions—walks you through the film, breaking it into small segments, slowing down for key moments, analyzing oddities of plot and character and concept. It's a pleasure, and the film itself provides fertile ground for some weedy reasoning.

Though aware of the film (I still remember the original ad campaign, and I knew the basic premise that one man can suddenly see that the world has been taken over by "ghouls" who walk among us), I'd never seen a frame of it, and I started reading Lethem's book in the belief that I didn't need to watch the film to appreciate the text. But Lethem's details, and the way he describes his own love for the film, made me seek it out. There it was, in HD glory, on youtube. I thought I would go back and forth between film and book, but Lethem gives away key plot elements (few though there be) before he gets to them, so I watched the rest of the movie in toto, then turned back to the book.

I can't, in this space, comment as fully on the film as Lethem does, but I would like to provide some response to it. The difficult thing to get my head around is that this was made by the guy who did one of my favorite films, The Thing. Though that movie has a few tell-tale moments of awkwardness, mostly in the dialogue, by and large it's tight, professional, and utterly involving. The actors are great, the space feels real, and the threat is believably horrifying. There's a minimalist soundtrack that's effectively haunting. The practical effects remain a hallmark of how to make the fantastic believable in the age before CGI. How did Carpenter go from that to They Live? Certainly the low budget is one factor, and Lethem constantly mentions budget as a means to explain the narrow set of locations for the on-location shoot, the unimpressive "ghoul" makeup, and the lack of acting talent (aside from Keith David (of The Thing fame), who's mostly quite good, and Meg Foster, who is flat and unreadable). But is that valid? Hitchcock intentionally shot Psycho on the cheap, using his TV crew and a smaller budget. Does Psycho look like it was shot by undergrads? No.

Even when They Live is at its smoothest—smart framing of a shot, a nice pan, a seamless use of its one clever effect—it feels off. "Rowdy" Roddy Piper is partly to blame; from the first shot, he is so obviously a person trying to act rather than an actor. (As Lethem comments—or, if he didn't, he thought it—the character's lack of a name, only revealed in the credits as "Nada," suggests not only that he's a blank slate but that Piper's casting is a nod toward a kind of lumpen, amateur-hour verisimilitude.) Other non-actors litter the set, screaming with their very presence, "A friend of somebody's sister!" The script, pseudonymously by Carpenter, is built entirely of leaden lines. The sound is muddy and the editing jumpy. There's one great shot setting up one surprising moment; otherwise, it's like a toss-off TV movie from the '70s. And the story is oddly structured, taking its time in the first half hour, lurching into a shoot-'em-up for a few minutes, retreating into slackness, inserting the longest two-man fight in film history (purportedly; it certainly feels like it), seeming to build toward greater excitement, drifting instead into lazy sci-fi blahness, then ending weakly (and with a sardonic, poke-in-the-eye coda).

Lethem captures all of this and helps you see what's worth discussing about the film. He does it, too, with a minimum of "film language" (diagetic being the one exception; he unhelpfully, for non-film people, defines it in the notes at the back rather than at the time he uses it) and a minimum, too, of mere snarkiness or cleverness. He honestly wants to understand what's compelling about this misbegotten creature, and he wants you to join him on the sofa to talk about it.

I look forward to reading more books in the series. And I look forward to watching that goofy film again sometime with a bunch of friends.

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