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Important Book Alert #2: THEY LIVE (DEEP FOCUS #1) by Jonathan Lethem

tn_theyliveOne day several years ago I was waiting for a bus near a book store, and in the window there was a book about the philosophy of THE MATRIX. There’s more than one book like that, and I can’t remember which one it was that I saw that day, but it got me thinking: there should be a book like that, except it’s entirely about THEY LIVE.

There’s a long-running series of books called 33 1/3, little pocket-sized book length essays about classic albums. I have one for Stevie Wonder’s Songs In the Key of Life, for example. And I’ve long thought there should be a series like that for movies, and I should write the one about THEY LIVE.

Well, too late, buddy. Soft Skull Press is starting a series just like that, although if I understand correctly they’re all gonna be written by novelists. #2 is on DEATH WISH, #4 is gonna be LETHAL WEAPON. THE STING, HEATHERS and THE BAD NEWS BEARS IN BREAKING TRAINING are also coming up, but it all starts with THEY LIVE by Jonathan Lethem, author of the novels Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. His approach is very different from what I would’ve done/could still do some day, but it’s an interesting, quick read and makes plenty of points that I hadn’t thought of before, making it a good first book about this particular subject.

mp_theylivedeepfocusI like the format he uses, one that seems obvious but somehow I’ve never seen before for a movie essay. He starts by explaining basically where he’s coming from on the movie (“I genuinely like THEY LIVE”) and what some of his terminology is gonna be (for example he calls the aliens “ghouls” since that’s what they’re called in the credits). Then he proceeds chronologically through the movie starting at (0:00) and marking each little chunk of essay with the time code so you can follow along at home.

He’s coming from a different point-of-view than most of us here. He’s only a part time John Carpenter fan – he likes THE THING, DARK STAR and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK but says he had to “labor” just to find HALLOWEEN and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 “interesting.” He talks about Keith David as a not-quite-recognizable character actor with a career of “half memorable roles,” which is probly true for many people but to us he’s a legend just for this, THE THING and arguably MARKED FOR DEATH.

Lethem also uses words like “metatextual” and “diegesis,” and his references range from LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD to Frederick Wiseman, “text art,” William Eggleston, Philip K. Dick, and at one point he describes the movie as having “a theatrical-allegorical quality, like a Beckett play or a Budd Boetticher western…” I definitely think some people will consider some of these comparisons “pretentious,” and the thought definitely crossed my mind at times. But honestly I kind of like that about it. I think by talking about this great John Carpenter/Roddy Piper sci-fi ‘n wrestling movie alongside the hoity-toity, the respectable, the academic and the holy god damn that is one beautiful looking movie that I will never, ever be able to watch even half of without falling asleep you are asserting that yes, fuck you but in fact this movie is worth discussing and not laughing at.

I think THEY LIVE is more accepted by the mainstream than Seagal is, but that’s kind of what I tried to do with Seagalogy. I tried to be a little academic (as much as I know how, anyway) and had completely unnecessary footnotes because I thought it was kind of funny but also just correct. I believe these movies do have something to offer besides a punchline that some smarmy dickhead can wisecrack about on a VH1 list show, so I’m gonna mention them in the same breath as things that those dicks would be angry that I would mention them in the same breath as. That’s just how my breath rolls. So I’m in favor of this approach.

Lethem also makes a lot of comparisons to classic cinema: DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE SEARCHERS, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, DIAL M FOR MURDER. He reads a few shots as references to Hitchcock, including the overhead shot of Holly hitting Nada with the wine bottle, which he compares to that great overhead shot from PSYCHO. That might be kind of stretching it, but it’s worth considering I guess. He’s also aware of Carpenter’s love of Howard Hawks, and makes some interesting points about that.

It’s not worshipful. He points out some possible contradictions or hypocrisies of the movie that hadn’t really occurred to me before. For example he notes that movies like this or ROBOCOP often criticize TV but let movies off the hook. Lethem wonders what would happen if Nada looked at a movie marquee wearing the glasses. What sort of “it figures” bullshit would the ghouls be trying to brainwash us with there?

He also sees a contradiction in Carpenter believing Piper has more authenticity as this character than some Hollywood leading man would. After all, aren’t wrestlers just actors too? They make their living faking and playing characters just like actors do. But of course that ignores that Piper is “real” in the sense that wrestling really is a painful, physically and mentally demanding job, that he really does have to be a tough guy to do it, that part of it is not a role. And in his autobiography In the Pit With Piper: Roddy Gets Rowdy (Includes Color Photos) Piper talks about his early wrestling days when he would sleep in a park, or live in a guy’s gym for a while, or rent out a lady’s porch in Winnipeg. So he could relate more to Nada’s homeless drifiter lifestyle than most actors. Although there is that whole thing about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck sleeping on people’s couches. I guess it depends on which actor would’ve played Nada if it wasn’t Roddy Piper.

Of course the politics of THEY LIVE are the main reasons it’s so legendary, the way it finds a cool sci-fi metaphor for a point that has such a strong ring of truth to it, where we completely agree that “it figures it would be something like this.” Obviously being released in 1988 it was commenting on the Reagan years, but many of us saw it reflected again in the Bush years, and now I think there are Reaganites who are able to see it in today’s post-Wall-Street crash, post bail-out atmosphere and not connect it with “trickle down economics” and all that shit. I guess it doesn’t matter which side you’re on, you’re still gonna see the other side as friends of the rich and all that. Unless you are the rich, which you’re not.

Lethem of course goes into the politics and talks about the context of the time it was made. For example he compares the police raid on Justiceville sequence to the Tompkins Square riots that took place in New York between the filming and release of the movie. He mildly criticizes what he sees as a cynicism about unions and misogynistic tendencies (mainly because alot of the ghouls Nada singles out and insults are women, I’m not sure I agree with this). He seems to overall see it as a left wing message though.

I think Lethem’s best insights in the book are the questions he brings up about ghoul civilization, their motivations and how it all works. If the magazines and newspapers are propaganda for brainwashing humans (OBEY, MATE SPAWN AND DIE, etc.) then why is one of the ghouls browsing the newsstand? Or one watching TV in a bar? Do they see what we see, or do they see the “OBEY” signs, or some special ghoul channel that we can’t see where they actually tell the truth? Lethem theorizes that maybe they like becoming a part of this made up world, it makes them feel important, makes them feel human. Maybe it’s like Joe P. in THE MATRIX, they would rather live in this happy (for them) fake world than the real one. After all, Lethem points out that there’s still some amount of ranking in ghoul society that could cause bitterness and resentment. Not everybody is the politician making the speech or the ladies in the fur coats. Some of them have to be cops.

One weak point that Lethem hits on several times is a supposed “gay porn” feel or homoerotic subtext. I don’t give a shit if something really is gay, but I think this one is a dumb and hopefully obsolete cliche of action movie dissection and criticism. Like back when John Woo was still in Hong Kong the American critics always claimed his movies had the “homoerotic undertones” or whatever. Sometimes they threw this at the action movies as an insult, they assume that the macho individuals who are in action movies and who enjoy them are homophobic and that the ultimate way to show them a thing or two is to point at them and say ha ha you don’t realize it but actually you are gay, ha ha and then run away and hide behind a bunch of books in a library, panic room or secret nerd cave. In the case of the John Woo characters or Nada and Frank I actually think this line of thinking is kind of offensive. I guess what I’m about to write will be accused of having homoerotic undertones itself, but oh well. I know it’s pretty much the prevailing world view now, but I disagree with this idea that there’s something unusual or wrong about men being friends or respecting each other. You respect a man so you gotta call it a “mancrush” or say that you’re “gay for” somebody when really what you mean is that you admire them or want to be like them, not that you actually want to fall in love with them and be their life partner. Everything in this society has to be about fucking, so according to this view Nada and Frank can’t just be a couple of dudes who met on a construction site and fight aliens together after beating the shit out of each other in an alley, it all has to be symbolic of fucking each other. I don’t think there’s really anything to this type of argument, it’s just a corny and overused attempt at some kind of shock value or something.

On the other hand he has a point that when they check into a hotel together Nada says “Ain’t love grand?”, as if pointing it out himself. Oh well. Lethem doesn’t make a huge deal about it really, I just wanted to bring it up because it’s one point I disagree on.

My biggest problem with the book would have to be its wishy-washy, fence-sitting stance on what is obviously the crucial scene of the whole movie, the legendary alley fight scene. Lethem starts that chapter with opposing quotes from others about the brilliance or wrongness of the scene. Instead of taking a stance himself he begins, “How to legislate between these great constituencies: those who love THEY LIVE for the fight scene, and those who love it despite the fight scene?” If he really was a legislator we’d call this triangulation or equivocation. He doesn’t pick a side, not wanting to offend anybody.

Not trying to start an alley fight, but I think for years a whole lot of people have just been plain wrong about this scene. In recent years the conventional wisdom has turned around on it somewhat, but it used to be laughed at and made fun of and people thought it didn’t make sense that these two guys are fighting so long over a pair of sunglasses. But of course the absurdity of the length is the whole point. The sunglasses aren’t just a stylish way to protect your eyes from UV light, they are a window into what’s really going in in the world. They are The Truth. And Frank, who initially seems more cynical about the world than Nada, flat out refuses to see The Truth, to the extent that he will actually continue this painful knock-down drag-out fight on concrete with his good buddy for much longer than standard protocol for a movie fist fight for any purpose. On one hand it would be so easy to just put on the damn sunglasses. On the other hand it would change everything. These are the lengths people will go to avoid having to see The Truth.

If Lethem didn’t understand that I probly would’ve gone on and written the book I had planned, but he does cover that angle at least in quotes from this philosopher guy Zizek. I’ve heard of that guy but didn’t know he loved THEY LIVE so much. I’ll have to look into that.

And at least Lethem points out that Piper’s shirt never comes untucked during the fight. I think that’s a good point. Also he mentions that this couldn’t really be the longest fight in cinema history if you include Tom and Jerry cartoons. (I figure there’s gotta be plenty of kung fu movies with longer fights too.)

The book doesn’t really come to any kind of ultimate conclusion, which feels a little anticlimactic. But it does build on a number of themes throughout, speculates on the logical conclusion of some of the concepts and ideas of the story and makes you look at the movie from a number of interesting angles and contexts. It’s not gonna knock your socks off like the movie itself, but it’s a good read about a movie that deserves this sort of honor. I recommend it.

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note: the covers of this series are cool but seem to owe a debt to by this same dude here. (Thanks T. Hodler for correcting me there)

and for some reason I can’t get the fuckin Amazon link deal to work here, but if you’re gonna buy this from Amazon please consider going through my Crassly Commercial Amazon Links (CCALs) to the right. You could get this book, the DEATH WISH one, the THEY LIVE dvd, even the THEY LIVE 20th Anniversary Edition soundtrack. Or not. thanks. OBEY



VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

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61 Responses to “Important Book Alert #2: THEY LIVE (DEEP FOCUS #1) by Jonathan Lethem”

  1. Sounds like the wrong dude wrote the book. Can’t believe some people can’t quite recognize Keith David.

    Although, When I first saw They Live many years back (when it fist came out on video), I didn’t know Roddy Piper was a wrestler. Some of my friends think the film suffers for Piper being the lead, but I always thought he made a great working class badass.

  2. I wholly agree that the alley fight is about how the vast majority of people will struggle furiously against enlightment and having to face reality. But it’s also about the way America (and the power brokers throughout history, I guess, but specifically in American history, in this instance) want to keep poor / working class Americans-black Americans, white Americans-fighting each other, and prevent them from teaming up to confront their true enemies. It’s also the subject of Bob Dylan’s “Just A Pawn In Their Game”, and Paul Schrader’s film BLUE COLLAR.

    And Vern, you must write your THEY LIVE book. It’s your destiny.

  3. nabroleon dynamite

    November 27th, 2010 at 6:38 am

    I watch “They Live” at least once a month. The thing I like the most about it is the fact that Keith David knows that unchecked capitalism is the problem with america, but cannot fantom the idea that Piper’s conspiracy theory may be true.

    As someone with conspiracy tendencies and a wifey that wants to hear none of that shit, this aspect of the movie hits home strongly with me.

    Wish you had got your book out 1st vern.

  4. nabroleon dynamite

    November 27th, 2010 at 6:48 am

    @CC. I wish “They Live” had some racial animosity or tension in it like “48 HRS” or even the “Dawn Of The Dead” remake. It always struck me as a little false that race is never an obstacle to hurdle in this movie.

  5. I’m gonna go ahead and agree with you on the whole “its homoerotic” card. This shit was popular at the height of queer theory, and it has it’s place, but I tend to think looking at any male-male relationships through a sexual lens tends to flatten that relationship. Unfortunately, in today’s society people have trouble describing male friendship in ways that does not relate back to homosexuality. Instead of reinforcing this inability to accurately describe a male bonding, academia needs to come up with a new kind of language.

    I like Jonathan Lethem, so I will probably pick this up, but it sounds like there’s plenty of room left for two “They Live” books.

  6. They have to overcome the alien race.

  7. Sounds interesting, but how are they going to explore the philosophy of films like LETHAL WEAPON? It’s not exactly a deep movie or one with a message, is it?

  8. Stu,anything can be explored if you look deep enough. I mean nobody expected someone lto write a 400-page book about the (kickass) movies of Steven Seagal ( I know I didn´t! That book made me discover this wonderful site ) I guess someone could analyze the shit of LETHAL WEAPON. it just takes the right person to do it. someone with the passion of that movie.

  9. Anything created by intelligent people with artistic intentions has depth and a message. Franco Zefferelli cast Mel Gibson as Hamlet on the basis of his performance in LETHAL WEAPON.

    And I don’t think THEY LIVE would have been improved by having the characters trade racial epithets, frankly. That’s part of the point: that racial tension is for the most part manufactured, not inherent.

  10. Great rebuttal. (Great word, “rebuttal.”) I’ll pick this book up. I like Lethem’s work, especially MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, and it’s cool and important that he gets into the politics of the time, but I agree that it’s a mistake to diminish Keith David’s contribution. That dude is a real-deal actor and considering that THEY LIVE stars a pro-wrestler (as awesome and underrated as Piper is), he helps to legitimize and ground the movie in a way that few other tough-guy actors could have.

    If you do a follow-up book on THEY LIVE, I’d read that too. I just want to be in the running to do the one on BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA!

  11. Great analysis. I wasn’t aware this was a series of books. Somehow that makes it less fun.

  12. The original Paul

    November 27th, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Very very interesting. I liked “Motherless Brooklyn” although it shares the all-too-common flaw of character-driven crime fiction (it forgets about the story-driven aspects somewhat, especially towards the end. Mind you, this is coming from a fan of classic noir where very often the killer was an identikit femme-fatale.) More interesting is the fact that Lethem’s tastes in Carpenter mirror my own so much.

    It’s an interesting point about films critiquing TV but not other films, but I don’t think it stands up very well in general. You don’t have to feature people watching a film to satirise films, and Hollywood in particular (although I can think of a few that do – “Matinee”, “Gremlins 2”, “Idiocracy” and “Scream 2” immediately come to mind). Add to that list the number of movies that either implicitly or explicitly take the proverbial piss out of Hollywood or film-making in general and you’ve got a huge variety of different films from different genres. Heck, people in Hollywood know Hollywood, that’s why it’s easy to make a movie about it.

  13. The original Paul

    November 27th, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Movies I’d like to “do” in this vein:

    – “Charade” (the Audrey Hepburn one, haven’t seen the supposedly shit remake)
    – “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” and the other versions of the story
    – “Twelve Angry Men”
    – “Lost in Translation”
    – “Scream” and “Scream 2”
    – “Lake Placid” and “Galaxy Quest”
    – “Pitch Black”

    And for the site fans here, “Marked for Death”, “Die Hard” and “The Thing”, although I doubt there’s much left to say that hasn’t already been said about the last two.

  14. Vern, I will check this out because I love They Live, but from your post it sounds like your further analysis of the film would much more interesting and complete then the book you are reviewing here.

    Also, the idea of homoerotic undertones in this film are ridiculous. Why does male camaraderie and brotherhood have to be associated with homosexuality. I can understand how a gay filmmaker or writer could consciously or unconsciously include homoerotic undertones in his work because it reflects how he relates to other men he cares for, but in general it seems the label homoerotic gets unjustly tossed around pretty liberally.

  15. The original Paul

    November 27th, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Charles, Batty and Vern – I agree with you guys. (Although MAJORTHEYLIVE*SPOILER*COMINGUPDONOTREADTHERESTOFTHISPARAGRAPHIFYOUHAVEN’TSEENTHEFILMYOUHAVEBEENWARNED the fact that the only really fleshed-out female character in it turns out to be a paid-up helper of the aliens who shoots the hero in the back probably doesn’t provide much ammunition against the argument. END*SPOILER*ITSOKYOUCANGOBACKTOREADINGTHISNOW.) But seriously, homo-erotic subtext? That seems to be “pushing it” beyond anything I saw in the movie, and I’m not really sure why. What’s the attraction with that particular form of criticism?

  16. The original Paul, I don’t think the point you mentioned could be used to support the notion of a homoerotic undertone. I know plenty of straight men that have fucked up and unhealthy relationships with women, and I also know a number of gay men that spend a majority of their time with women but don’t relate to them in a sexual nature.

  17. nabroleon dynamite

    November 27th, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    @CC. My point on the race issue is that it is manufactured, yet it is deeply ingrained in the lower and working classes.

    For a white boy with a mullet and a working class brother in the “Fight The Power” 80’s to come to blows with no racial animosity was far fucking fetched to me. Moreso, than the Ghouls son!!

  18. Also, I just watched THE BROOD the other day and someone needs to write a book about the works of Cronenberg. There is no other filmmaker like him.

  19. The social critique of Robocop doesn’t mention films because it is not a satire of media as a whole, it is a satire of infotainment. Sure, they could throw in some Triumph of the Will references (in fact, that’s kinda what Starship Troopers is) but by the late 1980s propaganda had proven to be much more effective on television, where you could see it every single day, for free.

    Plus, films about films are often too self-reflexive and turn off audiences. The critique of cinema as brainwashing propaganda is implicit but not made concrete because it takes one out of the narrative.

  20. Also, action films are inherently homoerotic because film is an voyeuristic medium. When we see a scene of a woman showering in a movie, it is not erotic because she is nude (very often a pg-13 film will feature this type of scene with less skin than one might see in a bathing suit) it is erotic because we are viewing her without her knowledge or consent. It is a power thing, and objectification thing, and a fetishization of the human body.

    Now, when we see an male action star working out (the opening scenes of Stone Cold come to mind) or wiping sweat from his glistening muscles. We are still voyeurs. We are looking at pieces of the male body rather than at a human being as a whole. Consequently, the imagery is fetishized, just as it is with the woman’s shower scene.

    This is homoerotic rather than just erotic because the predominant language of film as a visual medium has been developed for and by heterosexual males. I know the idea is somewhat out of fashion, but I am still a proponent of “the male gaze” as a major piece of cinematic construction. When a woman views a film, she is asked to don the sunglasses/perspective of a heterosexual male. A sort of a act of social transvestism. And since the sweating, idealized, rockhard male body is so often fetishized through voyeuristic moments in the genre that is most openly made for and by men…yes, I think that most action movies are homoerotic. And what’s more, I think the films are successful because they create a safe space for men to explore sublimated homoerotic urges.

    As for Zizek, the dude is a total bamf. I chatted with him once at the Telluride Film Festival, and I have never met anyone who loved movies more. He actually gave my student group a whole lecture on James Cameron films.

  21. *obviously action movies are not successful specifically because they are homoerotic, they are successful because they’re cool. What I meant to say is that they homoeroticism doesn’t hurt them because it’s still erotic. They’ve done studies where they show clips and images to heterosexual men, and every so often they throw in a split second of some hardcore gay porn, and the overwhelming portion of those surveyed responded with chemical spikes or whatever that was consistent with viewing pornography that they would choose to watch.

  22. Hunter D., I agree with you that most films are made by hetero men for hetero men, and that the vary nature of film is voyeuristic and can be exploitative and fetishistic in the presentation of the human body, but I disagree that it’s objectification of the human body makes it homoerotic. You are correct in that part of the thrill of the voyeuristic nature of cinema is seeing something private or personal you could not see without the window of cinema, but what if what you are watching is emotional pain? By your logic I would be aroused by the suffering I saw portrayed on screen, and I think that is wrong. I might be captivated, but I would not find the suffering in anyway erotic.

  23. I understand your point with workout scenes, but what about male bonding? What bothers me is when these type of critiques find gayness in men respecting each other or being loyal to each other in a John Woo movie. The implication is that the only reason Chow Yun Fat would bond with his enemy is if he wants to fuck him.

  24. I think that the majority of the John Woo critiques are based in a (possibly willful) misunderstanding/misrepresentation of Hong Kong culture and differing social values and expectations of masculinity.

    As for male bonding being gay…not at all. The elements of action movies that are gay are the fetishization of the idealized male body and possibly the hand to hand violence or phallic gunplay and/or sword play.

    The fetishization of the male body is not homoerotic so much as it is erotic erotic. But, as cinema is an almost exclusively male dominion, a “fact” that is doubly true in the action genre, eroticized male bodies become homoerotic in effect if not intention. Of course, I’m a believer in the idea that our shared idea of heterosexuality is a social construct and we all exist in some realm of bisexuality. But then, I used to carry around Jean Baudrillard and Judith Butler texts in my backpack every day during high school and would have minored in Feminist Studies if I had not finished college a year early so…

    As for pain being eroticized…yeah, it can be. But it depends on the focus of the pain. If we see a shot of a comely woman’s stomach being cut open, or her nipples being cut off ala Takashi Miike, then yes, it might be erotic in some sense of the word. But if the filmmaker is skilled, ala Verhoven, this eroticism is used to increase the horror of the act.

  25. You’re right in a great many cases, Vern. The gay-ifying of male bonding is disingenuous and actually offensive to legitimate psychosexual analysis of film and art as a whole. Sure, Top Gun was pretty damn gay, but that doesn’t mean, I donno…Bad Boys has to be too.

  26. Just watched the movie for the first time ever. Didn’t think it was gay at all. Unless you’re a lesbian, in which case you might be turned on by the naked lady at the end. Being turned on by women is totally gay.

    I also didn’t think the fight scene was too silly. I mean, if a crazy, mass murdering white dude with a pseudo-mullet started screaming at me to put on some sunglasses after I just gave him a week of my pay, which I needed for my wife and kid, I would probably wanna smack the ungrateful son of a bitch too. I mean, in this scenario I’m imagining that my kid needs prescription lenses or something and this asshole is just making fun of me with his sunglasses routine. I’d be all like, “No, I won’t put on your glasses, not until *my kid* can put on his.” And then we’d fight for like 5 and a half minutes because I’m tough like that and fight mass murdering white guys with pseudo-mullets all the time, especially when they give me fashion advice.

    Overall, I loved the first act but found myself disappointed by basically everything after the alleyway fight. There are some pretty big plot holes in the second half and a lot of annoying deus ex machina. Plus, the movie doesn’t end so much as it is interrupted by credits and then doesn’t continue to a proper conclusion.

  27. The original Paul

    November 28th, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Charles, I think you misunderstood my point somewhat – or at least took it further than I intended. I wasn’t making the argument that the lack of certain female characters supported the idea that the movie was homoerotic. (“The Thing” didn’t have ANY female characters – spoiler alert there BTW – and I don’t think there’s much homo-eroticism in that. Alien-bestiality, maybe. Homo-eroticism, no.) Frankly I would have coming up with ANYTHING that supported that argument. I just meant that there wasn’t much ammunition to argue AGAINST it, given the hero’s lack of relationships with women.

  28. Great post.

    FYI re your footnote: The spacesick guy DID design the covers for this series.

  29. The original Paul, I know what you meant, and I know we both agree that there is nothing homoerotic about THEY LIVE. I was just trying to say that the only thing you thought could support the argument that the film was homoerotic did not hold any weight. I also understand that you felt that was a stretch as well. Sorry if my response did not come across that way.

  30. I use THEY LIVE in my lessons every year – both in Media and Film. I love it, and it goes down a treat with students. But I know – first hand – from many fellow teachers, that there is a horrible tendency for academia to overanalyse movies. The homoerotic point is just plain foolish, with trite evidence. I’m also tired of every film being labelled voyeuristic. Films can be shot in a voyeuristic way (PSYCHO, PEEPING TOM etc.) and/or have voyeuristic scenes (HALLOWEEN etc.) but to label every film voyeuristic is ludicrous. By this logic every media image we see is voyeuristic, from movies/tv to photos in newspapers to paintings in galleries. If everything was sexual, we’d all have shrivelled balls and be shooting air. I’m more than happy to go with the clear meanings of THEY LIVE – the messages on consumerism, the brainwashing effect of media – but it sounds like a portion of this book is over-analysis. And that’s a shame.

  31. Hunter D., the problem I have with your argument is the things you are referring to as homoerotic in film are only given that value by the viewer not the filmmaker. If you are a gay man you may find THEY LIVE, John Woo’s Hong Kong films, or any other action movie homoerotic, because that is how you relate to the material, but that does not mean the film is homoerotic. On the other hand if you look at Quentin Tarantino’s films you can see his foot fetish on display in his work, but that does not mean I as a viewer find it erotic. Uma Thurman’s feet are displayed prominently in a fetishistic manner in the KILL BILL films and PULP FICTION. DEATH PROOF opens with a shot of Jungle Julia’s feet. The interrogation scene between Hans Landa and Bridget Von Hammersmark in Inglourious Basterds may be the most overt example of his fetish on display. (SPOILER) There is something almost romantic in the way QT shot and edited the close up of Landa putting Von Hammersmark’s missing shoe on her foot. (END OF SPOILER) However, as a viewer with no foot fetish what so ever none of these intentionally fetishistic choices resonate with me in an erotic way. To me they are nothing more then close up shots of womens feet. It is this reason that I do not buy into the idea that showing a man work out or featuring male bonding or brotherhood in an action film is some how homoerotic. Ultimately we as the viewer are assigning meaning to the images we see in film, and I would argue what is called homoerotic in action cinema is a result of how the viewer relates to the film not because of the film itself.

  32. The tendency to interpret male-male relationships as homoerotic has its origins in two trends: 1) viewing the text/film as a work of art that has an almost infinite number of interpretations and no single, core meaning and 2) the belief that sexuality and gender are not fixed categories, but rather on a spectrum. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with recognizing a homoerotic relationship, but after a while it becomes so common that it’s just rote. Besides, it limits the relationship between men to little more than a sexual one, which in turn flattens the myriad kinds of relationships that exist between members of the same sex. A male might act in a different manner when he is solely in the company of men, but to always term this interaction as homoerotic does away with the complexity of that relationship. Vern also touched upon something that I hadn’t thought about before. Some of these homoerotic readings of action films are nothing more than the author attempting to thumb their nose at the films and, especially, the audience, which is offensive in its own right.

  33. RE: Charles,

    You can still identify Tarantino’s images as sexual, even though they are not arousing to you. I think that somewhat supports my point.

  34. I wonder if a scene between a woman and her gay friend has ever been interpreted as having hetero-erotic undertones.

  35. Brilliant, Vern.

  36. Hunter D., only one of the examples I used could be considered somewhat noticeably sexual in nature and that is the scene from Inglourious Basterds. Otherwise, I most likely would have never noticed anything remotely sexual about the scenes I mentioned if I had not heard QT talk about his foot fetish and how he tries to include it in his work.

  37. The original Paul

    November 28th, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    Vern – a woman and her – what? – male or female friend? I’m not sure if that’s homo-erotic, hetero-erotic, or just really confusing. I’d plump for the last option myself.

  38. I donno, even when I was 14 and barely knew what the concept of a foot fetish entailed the feet shots in all of QT’s films stood out to me.

  39. i think THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION with jennifer aniston and paul rudd was a pretty hetero-erotic movie. maybe CHASING AMY, too. i bet kevin smith is secretly straight!

  40. I suppose I’ll read this, because I love Lethem’s essay on THE SEARCHERS in Disappointment Artist, but I wonder about the tone. I’m thinking of Chabon, and the small essay he stuck to the end of Gentleman of the Road, explaining why he wrote a novel that might be considered almost, sort of fantasy. It seems like there’s a generation of popular New York writers who are into things dorky and genre and feel the need to go through all sorts of verbal gymnastics to justify their affection to the public. “Guys I enjoy Superman see but let me put this in the context of my childhood in Brooklyn and this laundry list of my failures as a man please donotlaughatmelaughwithmeohgod”

    Yeah so this is what I’m anticipating.

  41. I think it was Yvonne Tasker’s book SPECTACULAR BODIES that popularized the “homoerotic” interpretation of action films. But that does no service whatsoever to what Tasker tries to do in her book. She actually brings a lot of respect and critical nuance to genre film, and she takes apart the myth that Stallone and Schwartzenegger films are nothing but right wing propaganda. Tasker’s word “musculinity” denotes the sophisication of her arguments better than the word “homoerotic.”

    Also, Vern your reveiw doesn’t mention the BFI FILM CLASSICS series of books. Surely you’ve read a few of those. They were great.

  42. The original Paul

    November 29th, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    Hunter D – it never even occurred to me as anything “sexual”. Gotta say, when we see the Bride crushing an eyeball underfoot… “sexy” is not the word that springs to mind there.

  43. The original Paul

    November 29th, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Jareth – I would laugh hysterically at anybody who tried to claim that “First Blood” or “Demolition Man” was right-wing propaganda. “Judge Dredd”, maybe, but it’s striking that a lot of Stallone’s best films are overtly anti-right.

  44. OG Paul: The RAMBO films, on the other hand, were often seen as vehicles for aggressive right wing policies (wrongly, Tasker would argue). COMMANDO took a fair share of heat too, and COBRA, a bunch of the Chuck Norris films, and RED DAWN.

  45. The original Paul

    November 29th, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Jareth, the “Rambo” sequels and “Judge Dredd” were fairly overtly right wing, true, but they were also unwatchable shit!

    Actually, come to think of it, “Rocky” is a conundrum… I think the right and the left both have reasons to claim it “supports” them. There’s a strong, left-wing “personal responsibility” message in there, but it’s also about one man who moulds himself into something better by virtue of persistence and hard work – very much a right-wing ideal.

  46. The original Paul

    November 29th, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Actually I’ll qualify that… “Judge Dredd” wasn’t unwatchable, it was just laughably bad.

    The “Rambo” sequels on the other hand… I still haven’t managed to get more than half an hour or so into either of them. So “unwatchable” pretty much sums them up, from my point of view.

  47. I watched THE RUNNING MAN recently and was surprised how subversive it was considering Arnie’s political leanings.

  48. Aren’t the JUDGE DREDD comics a satire of fascism?

    As for the homoerotic thing… RuthlessReviews.com grades 80s movies on how homoerotic they are, and it’s half a joke and half… i dunno. i saw SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO. there’s a fight in a bathhouse. Brendon Lee tells Dolph Lundgren ‘you have the biggest dick i’ve ever seen’
    but the real point of those readings is to turn the macho power fantasies against the people making them – to let them know that you’re not afraid of their vision of overly-muscled men killing hundreds

    you don’t need to do that with THEY LIVE, though. They Live is already subversive. it’s on your side. there’s no fascist reading you need to subvert

    the ‘male bonding’ thing… in Australia, ‘mateship’ seems to be a national value. i still don’t have a handle on it, but i think it is that manly ‘fight brothers’ thing. the idea that if your mate is doing something or is in trouble you help him out, no questions asked

    THEY LIVE does have a bit of a bad last act, though. it’s force is how BLATANT and OBVIOUS the critique of capitalism is

  49. OG Paul: In the 1980s, some critics argued that the sheer spectacle of Stallone and Schwartzenegger’s bodies evoked the fascist idealization of the white male body. Others argued that muscle-bound action heroes represented a repudiation of 1970s feminism. The actual plots and themes of the movies were only secondary to many of the arguments that were being made.

    The Tasker book that I mentioned is a significant contribution to this discussion because it contextualizes the kind of action hero represented by both Stallone and Schwartzenegger by carefully examining genre film history from the perspective of the audience that the films were intended for, and by doing so she produces a rich and complicated analysis of the function of these figures, which is anything but one-dimensional.

    She then turns her argument against the cultural critics who “colonize” genre cinema by bringing all sorts of class expectations and high art discourse in an attempt to exert elitist cultural power.

    In short, it’s a cool book.

  50. The original Paul:
    There are whole swathes of porn genres that you clearly do not know of if you don’t see how the eye crushing is sexual. In fact, it’s down right pornographic…to a certain sect of fetishists who get off on (and I’m not making this up) women crushing bugs with their feet while walking through Godzilla style replicas of major cities.

    As for the Stallone and Arnold being inherently fascist…no. But the way their bodies were shot is certainly reminiscent of the early work of Leni Riefenstahl and her 4 hour opus on the 1936 Olympics. A film that is one of the most beautiful and breathtaking of all time. Politics be damned, she belongs on any legitimate top 10 list of visual filmmakers. If we find beauty in the works of Riefenstahl, if we find our hearts beating faster during the masterpiece editing and cinematography of Triumph of the Will, it is not just a credit to her skill as a Propaganda artist, it is a testament to the fact that a great many things espoused by Fascist governments speak to fundamental parts of the human spirit and psyche. It is not a manipulation, it is legitimately moving. And I say this as a Jew who has almost been killed by Nazi Skinheads, twice and as a guy who thinks that Riefenstahl was absolutely a true believer in the Nazi cause and likely a literal lover of Hitler.

    For more on this check out Susan Sontag’s article, Fascinating Fascism, found here: http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/33d/33dTexts/SontagFascinFascism75.htm

  51. RE: Jareth Cutestory —
    I cannot wait to read that book!

  52. Hunter: Tasker’s book is a strong argument in favor of restoring the audience to the process of film criticism, who she feels has been “dispossessed” by academics and cultural critics and who are poorly served by the construction of cinema strictly as an object of analysis. In many respects she is calling for a kind of criticism that Vern steps in and provides.

    And the book has Van Damme on the cover.

  53. maybe Carpenter is subverting the ‘homoerotic’ subtext (real or not) in other action films, just as he’s subverting whatever fascist messages their might be? the two muscle-bound men are on the same side, and their fight doesn’t represent the end of the film. control comes from the media, not from guns or fists

  54. Jareth, Have you seen the documentary BIGGER STRONGER FASTER? It is very good and in looks at the exaggerated synthetically enhanced physiques of Arnie, Sly, and the Hulkster as a metaphor not for fascism but for America’s rampant capitalism and the willingness to do anything to be the biggest and best even if it means taking short cuts. I highly recommend it.

    Hunter, I was watching a movie last night when it dawned on me another reason your argument does not hold up. If you assign a homoerotic meaning to male relationships in action films then by your logic you are also saying that by default male female interaction in film is inherently erotic as well even if it is a father protecting his daughter or a mother protecting her son. If you argue that displays of brotherhood in cinema are homoerotic then the interaction between a mentally retarded father and his daughter in I AM SAM is then somehow must be hetero-erotic in nature, and that is ridiculous. To me this further proves your argument does not hold weight.

  55. Charles: The thing that surprised me the most about BIGGER STRONGER FASTER was how it argued that steroids actually haven’t been scientifically proven to cause cancer and uncontrollable rages.

    Of course, the film-maker’s brother, a steroid user, dropped dead shortly after the film hit theaters, so I don’t know what to think about the issue.

  56. For the record, I never said that there was anything gay about any male bonding in any film.

  57. The original Paul

    November 30th, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Hunter D:

    “There are whole swathes of porn genres that you clearly do not know of if you don’t see how the eye crushing is sexual.”

    And long may that be the case. I’m rarely one to celebrate ignorance (if I were, doubtless I’d be a member of the Labour Party) but I can’t say that I imagine I’m missing out on much. Nor do I feel a great sense of duty to seek said “swathes” out for my own spiritual enlightenment!

    (Although it says a lot about my psyche that my first thought when reading your post was, “Oh boy, wonder what they’d make of the girl eating her mother’s eyeball in Evil Dead 2?”)

    Interesting article, by the way. Although a lot of it boils down to “Nazi artist later tries to disassociate herself with the Nazi party”, which is hardly surprising.

    Jareth – I’ve always thought of the eighties as a time of excess, where self-entitlement became a spiritual right. Hence the appeal of characters like Carter Burke in “Aliens” and Gordon Gecko in “Wall Street”, who satirised the trend, and characters like John Matrix in “Commando” who literally embodied it. There’s definitely a spiritual/moral corollary there, sure. But “fascist idealization”? Hmmm… think I’d have to see that one in a little more detail.

  58. I was talking about the part of the article that defends the artistic merit of Riefenstahl. How fascist artwork isn’t “effective propaganda” so much as it is something that taps into a part of the human experience…just like liberal-minded artwork.

  59. The original Paul

    November 30th, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    So damn her for her politics, but praise her for her artistic merits? Interesting point. Weird point too, until you consider (to me, who’s about as atheist as it’s possible to be) the Bible, a book whose promotion and politicization is responsible for propagating what I believe is a massive lie, and yet also a book I’ve read several times through and enjoyed. Looking at it from a purely artistic point of view, the development of the character of God is fascinating… he starts off as a pathalogically jealous psychopath, but finds redemption later on in parenthood.

  60. Well, The Bible is like a super retconned fan fiction of the Torah. They really have very little to do with one another. But I don’t think this is the place to discuss that…

    And I’m not even damning Riefenstahl for her politics. I wouldn’t invite her to a dinner party, but she had every right in my mind to say horrible, vile things. I don’t think her work ever crossed over into hate speech and so it should be permitted, if taken with a grain of salt.

  61. Funny that THE RUNNING MAN was mentioned here as Lethem mentioned in a recent interview that he considered writing about that film when first called upon to write a book for this series before deciding on THEY LIVE.

    Can’t wait to read this.

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