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John Carpenter’s “They Live” and Jonathan Lethem’s monograph

John Carpenter was the man for a good number of years in the 1970’s and 80’s, but he somehow lost his mojo as a feature film director the last twenty years or so. I’ve already written an ecstatic appreciation of his 1982 “The Thing” on this blog, and the inability of the recent well-intentioned Carpenter-less prequel to even approach the slightest bit of comparative quality. In a 10-year stretch, Carpenter gave us “Dark Star”, “Assault on Precinct 13”, “Halloween”, “The Fog”, “Escape from New York”, his “The Thing” remake, “Christine” and “Starman”. Throw a couple of highly regarded television movies in there(1978’s “Someone’s Watching Me!” and 1979’s “Elvis”), and you’ve got a perfect ten. How do you top making the greatest student film ever(“Dark Star”), the horror film that redefines the genre(“Halloween”), remolding Kurt Russell from child star into the King of Rock & Roll(“Elvis”)and then an action hero(“Escape from New York”), direct the greatest horror/sci-fi remake of all time(“The Thing”), AND direct Jeff Bridges to his first Best Actor Oscar nomination(“Starman”)? Well, apparently you don’t. But that 1974-84 stretch is pretty damned sweet, you have to admit. His 1986-2001 output, despite a couple of rays of light, is decidedly less inspired. The final products were either too tongue-in-cheek(“Escape from L.A.), too mismatched(“Memoirs of an Invisible Man”)or too unimaginative(Carpenter’s remake of “Village of the Damned”). So, after 2001’s tepidly received “Ghosts of Mars”, he hung up his feature film helming hat for a decade(alas, 2011’s “The Ward” was eviscerated by audiences and critics alike). But author Jonathan Lethem and an ever-growing chorus of savvy cinema voices are insisting that a forgotten gem creeps among that dry period. And that jewel is 1988’s science fiction social critique, “They Live”. Filmfreakcentral.net’s Walter Chaw is among its outspoken fans, and he calls Mr. Lethem’s monograph on the film an inspiration for his similar published work chronicling 1989’s “Miracle Mile”. There is a lot to recommend in this low-budget sci-fi winner, and Lethem’s exhaustive, almost minute-to-minute dissection zeroes in your focus on aspects that you would otherwise completely miss. It’s another essential book/film tandem that bestows an unlikely fascination with a mostly dismissed period in American film. I’m certain I’ll be diving into the Deep Focus “Heathers” monograph before long too.               The film’s hero is Nada(wrestler Roddy Piper!), a drifter who ends up working at an L.A. construction site. He quickly becomes buddies with co-worker  Frank(the incomparable Keith David), who brings Nada to the local shantytown. Nada soon discovers that the nearby church that helps the homeless is really a front for a secret society that is attempting to uncover a worldwide conspiracy. Turns out the Earth is not what it really seems to most of the population. And the only way to “see it” is with special sunglasses that the society is planning on distributing to the public. And they are also sending out semi-regular pirate television segments that interrupt regular broadcasts and inform the populace about what only the precious few seem to be aware. When the authorities get wind of the church’s doings, they raid and bulldoze the area—but Nada manages to save a box of glasses and escape. Unaware of their powers yet, he puts a pair on and sees the world as it really is for the first time in his life. Skull-faced alien creatures live among us and enact mind control through broadcasting and subliminal advertising. Billboards throughout the city that most think are simply advertising an array of products, actually contain a variety of totalitarian commands like “OBEY”, “CONSUME” and “WATCH TV”. When Nada slips the glasses off, it once again appears to be a normal, people-populated city street. Put them back on and again he deciphers that the vast majority of the rich are “not of this world”, while those tending to them are real people. Soon Nada, and an at first reluctant Frank, set out to inform the city—but only after a legendary, knock-down, drag-out super cool fight between the duo begins when Nada initially tries to convince his friend to don the glasses(Frank, understandably, has decided that Nada’s “findings” are the ravings of a lunatic). And they may have some help from a television worker(odd-eyed beauty, Meg Foster), who Nada earlier takes hostage briefly, in a wild shoot-out with a team of alien police officers who are alerted that “he can see”.               I had an instant affection for this movie from the moment I saw it on cable television, late one night—probably in 1989. It looked a bit on-the-cheap(Lethem’s monograph confirms Carpenter’s lack of funds for the project), but it was an earnest and intelligent skewering of capitalism during the rah-rah Reagan era. Of course, there’s also the wonderful “Wizard of Oz” homage of filming the “real” world in black-and-white while the “fantasy” world is presented in color. And Lethem’s book provides us with an fascinating chronicle of the making of the film, what it all means, and nifty tidbits on the cast. Lethem also has similar complaints to my own concerning the movie’s second half, when certain things get to be a bit too conventional—ultimately keeping “They Live” out of the “greatness” category. But it’s a solid, fun little genre piece that exceeds initial expectations…and the monograph from Lethem is a helluva read.     The book: a no-brainer for Carpenter cultists     The film: a solid B, with aspirations for a higher rating if I ever get to view it in its proper aspect ratio


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