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Jonathan Lethem on They Live

Posted by Josh Rothman  November 12, 2010 11:34 PM

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It's a chilly Friday night in November - time for a creepy movie! I nominate John Carpenter's classic They Live. Inexplicably, it's available on Google Video; it's also the subject of a new critical appreciation by the novelist Jonathan Lethem.

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Lethem's short book, simply called They Live, is the second in a series of short books of film criticism out from Soft Skull Press (the first, by the novelist Christopher Sorrentino, is about the Charles Bronson revenge movie Death Wish). The series is called Deep Focus, and it's a cinematic version of the popular and rewarding 33 1/3 series from Continuum, which publishes short books devoted to classic rock and roll records. This is the kind of criticism critics often dream of writing - informal, spacious, and in response to interesting art about which comparatively little has been said.

It's easy to see why Lethem chose They Live: it's a great movie which is also strangely topical. Made in 1988, it's about an unemployed drifter who discovers that rich people are actually aliens in disguise (they use a secret signal, embedded in television programming, to make us see them as human). Wearing a special pair of sunglasses, he can see that good-looking, well-groomed rich people are actually frightening monsters ("You might even vote for one this fall," the movie marketing warns). What ensues, as Lethem puts it, is "cognitive dissonance as sublime as anything in the history of paranoid cinema."

If you've never seen it, now's a great time - and, once you have, check out excerpts from Lethem's book over at Salon. The excerpts are tied to key moments in the film. Or, check out this excellent, short audio commentary on the movie at Bryant Frazer's coincidentally named Deep Focus website.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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