The idea and the size of the books is similar to a long-running series sponsored by the British Film Institute but those volumes are devoted to classics such as “The Manchurian Candidate” or “The Searchers” rather than B-movies.
The first book in the Soft Skull series is a 163-page assessment of the 1988 John Carpenter picture “They Live,” a mostly terrible but interesting satirical science-fiction film in which it is revealed that Reagan’s America is a construct set up by space aliens who have the rest of us under their secret control.
Jonathan Lethem, the brilliant Brooklyn-based novelist whose work includes “The Fortress of Solitude,” writes with wit and style about a film that he knows is indefensible as “art” but which has intrigued and entertained him through multiple viewings over the last 22 years.
Lethem knows the movie backwards and forwards and knows its strengths (the very gripping long scene in which the hidden aliens and their propaganda messages are first revealed with special sunglasses worn by the movie’s hero) and its weaknesses (low-budget production values, primitive writing and acting).
Lethem is a science-fiction fan, so in some ways the book is an education on the sources that writer-director John Carpenter drew on when he created this paranoid thriller that owed a debt to such writers as Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein.
The real fun in the book is the movie buff obsessiveness it reveals in a major novelist.
Like the rest of us, Lethem has comfort-food movies that he knows are not necessarily good for him, but that still give him a kick after repeat viewings. Who among us doesn’t have a picture like “They Live” in our DVD collection? A Hollywood product that came and went without winning any prizes or box-office records but proves over time to be more enjoyable than more prestigious fare. (My favorite in this category is “Road House.”)
The book celebrates a form of movie obsession that only became possible in the video era. Lethem tweaks the late critic Pauline Kael for having said on many occasions that she only watched films once, but she came of age in the pre-video era when most people only had the time — and the money — to see a film a single time when it popped up in a local theater.
Even in the 1960s and 1970s, favorite movies would only appear occasionally on broadcast TV and if you weren’t around when they were aired, you were out of luck.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that buffs could rent or own a movie and watch it over and over again. We can now spend as much time as we want to escaping into the world of a movie we love.
Lethem acknowledges the slight madness of his repeat viewings of “They Live” — the chapters that take us through the entire film begin with the exact video playback time of the scene in question (“26:26,” 55:23,” etc.).
Lethem is a very amusing guide, pointing out some of the sexual undertones in the film that a first-time viewer might not see. In the chapter “Porn Again: 54:56” he writes, “This is the first time we’ve seen (the movie’s star) Roddy Piper cross the threshold of a middle-class interior. It (triggers) alarms. Everybody knows what happens when the actors dressed as construction workers come indoors in Southern California…So does John Carpenter, who in his early seventies apprenticeship dashed off several porn-film scripts.”
Lethem writes so interestingly about this semi-forgotten film that he almost made this reader want to dig it up and watch it again. Almost.