Tuesday, February 1, 2011

They Live: Deep Focus

It’s no exaggeration to say that John Carpenter is one of our favorite directors here at Fantasmo. In fact it’s probably entirely accurate to say that he’s in the top five, skewing toward the high end of the range. Part of this has to do with the fact that I grew up on his films. At a very early age (for better or worse) I was watching Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, etc., and was completely fascinated by his visual style. Beyond that though he is a craftsman, in many quarters characterized as an auteur, whose work is distinctive and instantly recognizable. His use of widescreen cinematography, pounding electronic scores, and snappy Hawksian dialogue and characterizations are just fantastic. His career has been interesting to watch, as it has often seen him going from critical/box office highs to lows with a rollercoaster-like trajectory. Nevertheless he mostly sustained a solid body of work up through the late 80’s, after which his output was more uneven in terms of regularity and quality.

Generally speaking most fans regard the release of 1988’s They Live as the line of demarcation where the classic Carpenter era ends. They Live possesses all of the characteristics mentioned above, as well as a wild rebellion against the status quo. Because it came at the end of the classic era, had a lower budget than previous efforts, and was perhaps the most experimental of his early work, it hasn’t received the same sort of attention as the likes of Halloween or The Thing. Thankfully the road to that being rectified has begun with an opening shot across the bow issued by author Jonathan Lethem. Mr. Lethem has written a book length analysis of They Live, published by Soft Skull Press, which is neither gushing fan praise nor lightweight commentary. Instead it is a sequential (even citing time stops) dissection of the film, which probes its context, message, and characters. The result is an enjoyable, thought provoking read, and provides new insights for even the most experienced They Live aficionado. If you have even a passing interest you should definitely check it out.

For me the best part of the book, and something I appreciate about criticisms in general, is the way in which it allowed me to see the film in a new light. Make no mistake, I have been a fan of They Live since the day I saw it at my beloved mall cinema in the fall of 1988. Although it opened at #1, it tanked pretty quickly thereafter, and outside of Carpenter fandom isn’t taken all that seriously. I’ve always felt, like many I’ve encountered, that Carpenter’s best film is his 1982 remake of The Thing. It’s a visual marvel, features outstanding performances, and a pretty good rendition of John W. Campbell’s original novella. No question about it, The Thing is a classic of the horror genre. After that most would probably identify Halloween (if not put it first to begin with), and any other number of Carpenter’s early works. While Lethem doesn’t get into ranking Carpenter’s filmography, in fact he interestingly seems on the fence about Carpenter’s talent in general, he implicitly makes the case that They Live is a contender for the top spot in the Carpenter pantheon. For what it’s worth, I think I’m sold on the proposition.

The reason for this conversion? There are actually two reasons. First They Live is arguably Carpenter’s most important work, in that he clearly has something to say beyond scares. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming his other outings are devoid of a point of view, merely that They Live is the most cohesive in terms of expression, and far and away his most personal film (not unlike On Deadly Ground is Steven Seagal’s - sorry, couldn't resist). The second reason for my conversion is that Lethem’s analysis crystallized for me the specialness of the two most notorious sequences from the film. The first of course is when Roddy Piper dons the sunglasses which allow him to see the world as it really is, and second is his epic alley battle with Keith David to help his friend see the light. Both are over the top and could be characterized as silly, but Lethem has made me realize (perhaps not intentionally) they are the very best sequences of any Carpenter film. Honestly if you took the first sequence alone as a short film, it would be a masterpiece in its own right. Here it happens to be attached to a movie that is also thought provoking and a lot of fun at the same time. Lethem characterizes the sequence as “ten minutes of cognitive dissonance as sublime as anything in the history of paranoid cinema . . . composed with the serene assurance of Hitchcock or Kubrick.” Yes!

As for the second sequence, which would seem excessive upon first glance, it is actually Carpenter in full control of the moment and his thematic content. Unlike Piper who willingly (if unwittingly) donned the glasses, David represents a second category of individual who staunchly refuses to take the blinders off. For that transformation, we must endure with him as he struggles with a truth forcibly imposed upon him. The first time I saw They Live, while I enjoyed the alley fight on a visceral level, I admit I thought it was a little ridiculous (in the best sort of way). In hindsight I understand that it fits quite well with what he was going for and, much like the earlier sequence, is the reason the word bravura was invented. For the record Lethem doesn’t make this case, and in fact argues that with this sequence Carpenter excuses “himself from the jurisdiction of . . . notions of ‘art’ or cinema’.” Even so he acknowledges its importance to the film’s reputation, citing that there are “those who love They Live for the fight scene, and those who love it despite the fight scene.” Count me with the former, as well as the aforementioned reasons.

Despite his pseudo dismissal of its critical value, Lethem does reveal something that makes the sequence so wonderful. He describes how the “incident merely unfolds, growing out of an ordinary exchange . . . more like two characters in a movie quitting the script.” Indeed that’s what makes the moment unique - plot goes by the wayside and time stands still while these two resolve an issue. It’s like they’re excusing themselves from the audience, while they work things out amongst themselves. To this day I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything quite like it, and certainly anyone I’ve come across who has seen it invariably mentions the sequence. So silly or not it has a power that resonates with people, and that’s no small achievement for a piece of filmed art featuring Roddy Piper delivering a suplex.

Did I know these two sequences were amazing prior to reading Lethem? Sure. Call it a combination of time/timing and perspective, but having lived with Carpenter's films for a good while now, the ones that inspire the most repeat viewings and respect have shifted. I still admire the craft in the early classics, but it’s the later works of the classic era that become the most interesting and experimental. In the late 80’s, following the expensive (but wonderful) flop that was Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter went back to his low budget roots and did Prince of Darkness and They Live. Neither are as polished as something like The Thing, but there’s an edginess to them beyond even his earlier films. It’s like he doesn’t care anymore about studio or public reactions, and is indulging his love for genre cinema and expressing some deeply held views. As a result these two movies never fail to be interesting, with They Live emerging as the high point of Carpenter’s oeuvre.

Following They Live, Carpenter helmed what many argue is the most un-Carpenter film ever, Memoirs of An Invisible Man. In an earlier review on the blog I took issue with that, but there’s no denying it makes an unfortunate departure from the source novel it is based upon. If Carpenter had been able to stick more closely to H. F. Saint’s tale of a businessman disconnected from people prior to invisibility, Memoirs would have made an excellent companion piece to They Live. Instead of Roddy Piper’s Nada we would see life from the perspective of one who had already sold out, in the form of Chevy Chase’s Nick Holloway. What viewers received instead was an enjoyable riff on North By Northwest, not nearly the film Memoirs could have been. It makes one wish it had enjoyed a lesser budget (losing the ILM effects on which it was sold), and had cast someone who was less of a star than Chase. If Carpenter had wanted to keep the wrestling connection going my vote would have been for Ted “The Million Dollar Man” Dibiase, who I believe would make a much more credible securities analyst than Randy “Macho Man” Savage . . . but that’s just me.

In any event, if you like They Live definitely check out Lethem’s book. I should also mention that this book is the first in a series of such analyses being published by Soft Skull. Already out is an equally interesting book on Death Wish, which is soon to be followed by books on The Sting and Lethal Weapon in February and March respectively. You have to love the seemingly random choice of titles that they’re focusing on thus far, but nothing compares to what they're coming out with in May – a book-length analysis of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. I’m no diehard fan of The Bad News Bears series, but count me intrigued. If someone has the drive to spend that much time on a lesser entry in a not-so-great-to-begin-with franchise, then how can I not support such an inexplicable endeavor : )

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