They Live by Justin McNeil

“I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.” Justin McNeil reviews Jonathan Lethem’s non-fiction book,They Live, an examination of the movie of the same name.

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For people who have read Lethem’s recent novel Chronic City, the sentiment behind his new non-fiction book They Live will be immediately recognizable: Perkus Tooth Lives! Translation: Lethem is at heart an endearing and noble movie geek, and when he writes you can feel his best fictional characters (Perkus Tooth being one) elbowing into his work and egging him on. They Live is one of those rare books that is more honest and naked than most autobiographies, though the subject is not Lethem, but instead the John Carpenter ’80s cult movie.

Part of a series published by Soft Skull, the Deep Focus books look at semi-forgotten cult-movies. They are an even mix of film criticism and cultural wondering: most of us are not really obsessed with the cultural artifacts that peek in on us periodically like parents, however we still go back to them again and again and dreamily think, Why that?

They Live is the closest that you will ever get to hanging out with Jonathan Lethem. It’s an intimate invitation, akin to Lethem asking you to come over to watch a movie (and to bring your good weed and a pizza). It could be argued that that level of self added to a non-fiction book is bad; if it’s good for shining light on the author’s self, it’s bad for the book. But, what else would’ve led to writing this book at all? What reason besides love would someone undertake a study of Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live? Maybe monomania, but that would’ve led to a much less interesting book.

Lethem’s approach to criticism is refreshingly easygoing and deconstruction-lite. He pledges no big words, no philosophical sleight of hand, no highbrow name-dropping (Deleuze!), no lowbrow in-jokes (WWF!), in fact there’s not even a requirement to form an opinion. Like any curious person, Lethem addresses the movie’s flaws and oddities (no fan-boy here extolling the once great, always irritable, and sometimes skirt wearing “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), and the form of this book lends itself to easy reading by preceding its small chapters with the time code of the movie in sequence, just daring you to watch along with the book for maximum effect.

Longtime Lethem readers will recognize his friendly style of criticism from Lethem’s earlier essay “Defending The Searchers,” from his book The Disappointment Artist, but with a big leap in maturity. This older essay was an attempt to nail down the importance of the John Wayne classic, however it’s written from the point of view of an outsider, a Lethem that could never quite get at its center. They Live is Lethem’s antidote to those outsider feelings. It is a book written from the inner circle—from the point of view of a devotee of the work, discussing its loveliness and its many incongruities. In They Live you can see Lethem’s respect for that illusive inner circle. You can sense a teenage Lethem trying to talk to you, trying to pause the movie and say, Did you see that part?

They Live is available now from Soft Skull Press.

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