From They Live, Universal Studios, 1988
Lethem’s approach to unlocking the pleasures of They Live is straightforward and present tense, geared more to the film’s perhaps accidental riches than to its maker’s stated intentions. He invites us to climb with him through a single magnified viewing in ninety-plus chapters (each fairly short; roughly two pages for each minute of running time), with occasional pauses to attend to the most extraordinary parts of the story. The longest such dilation comes at the 30-minute mark, when They Live suddenly blossoms into a wild, ecstatic satire that no viewer could have predicted from the previous 29. Nada, the film’s hunky Everyman — played by wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in his first, and to date only, starring film role — has spent its first half hour wandering a futuristic, impoverished urban blightscape that Carpenter postulates as the most likely reality to follow the Reagan era in which the picture was made. Thus far, They Live threatens to become a sleepwalking remake of The Road Warrior, perversely devoid of fast cars. Morbid curiosity alone keeps one staring. Then, a miracle: Nada dons a pair of “special” sunglasses left behind by a rebel resistance-group that has been carted off by the authorities. He looks around, and his entire perception of the world is blasted. The billboards, the advertisements on busses, the headlines on newsstands surrounding him all stand suddenly exposed as containing hidden messages: “OBEY,” “SURRENDER,” “SLEEP,” “WATCH T.V.” What’s worse, a wide array of passersby (wealthy people, cops) are revealed to be some kind of reptile or extra-terrestrial.
“Desert Island Time,” Lethem interjects to say; “given the imperative to preserve just a dozen sequences from the film history in a time capsule, the rest to evaporate from human memory, I might pick the next six, or eight, or ten minutes of They Live.”
He gathers a think-tank of heavy breathers led by Roland Barthes to accompany him up the slopes beyond this timberline: “What [Charlie Chaplin] presents us with is the proletarian, blind and mystified, defined by the immediate character of his needs, and his total alienation at the hands of the police” (Barthes); “Making a film is one thing, viewing a film another. Impassive, mute, still the viewer sits … Does it matter what film one is watching?” (Robert Smithson); “Thus, a new proposition: What cannot be read threatens. The first sites of this new anxiety were Paris and London, vast metropolises where people could vanish without a trace” (Robert Ray). All of which could scan hopelessly pretentious, except that Lethem is in on the joke, and leavens these sententiae with an epigraph from South Park (“They Live is a … could have been a … it’s a great movie, uh ….”) and a line of dialogue spoken by Natasha Henstridge in Carpenter’s 2001 Ghosts of Mars: “As soon as I get back I’m going to tell my superiors all about this fucked up planet.”
Lethem sings the film’s praises, and lucidly examines its weaknesses. The overall effect is the cheerful, self-mocking percolation of a busy mind making an exact evaluation of a film’s living personality — a thing no maker can ever fully control, nor any single viewer (no matter how attentive) ever fully own.