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They Live

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Deep Focus is a series of film books with a fresh approach. Take the smartest, liveliest writers in contemporary letters and let them loose on the most vital and popular corners of cinema history: midnight movies, the New Hollywood of the sixties and seventies, film noir, screwball comedies, international cult classics, and more. Passionate and idiosyncratic, each volume of Deep Focus is long-form criticism that’s relentlessly provocative and entertaining.

Kicking off the series...

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They Live

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Deep Focus is a series of film books with a fresh approach. Take the smartest, liveliest writers in contemporary letters and let them loose on the most vital and popular corners of cinema history: midnight movies, the New Hollywood of the sixties and seventies, film noir, screwball comedies, international cult classics, and more. Passionate and idiosyncratic, each volume of Deep Focus is long-form criticism that’s relentlessly provocative and entertaining.

Kicking off the series is Jonathan Lethem’s take on They Live, John Carpenter’s 1988 classic amalgam of deliberate B-movie, sci-fi, horror, anti-Yuppie agitprop. Lethem exfoliates Carpenter’s paranoid satire in a series of penetrating, free-associational forays into the context of a story that peels the human masks off the ghoulish overlords of capitalism. His field of reference spans classic Hollywood cinema and science fiction, as well as popular music and contemporary art and theory. Taking into consideration the work of Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, James Brown, Fredric Jameson, Shepard Fairey, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Edgar Allan Poe, not to mention the role of wrestlers—including They Live star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper—in contemporary culture, Lethem’s They Live provides a wholly original perspective on Carpenter’s subversive classic.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for They Live

"Apparently, author Lethem was the only other person than me to take They Live as brilliant, stinging social commentary. He explains why in this great book.” — Sam Stowe, California Literary Review

"Who would have thought that one of the cleverest, most accessibly in-depth film books released this year would be a smart-ass novelist exploring a cheesy-cheeky ‘80s sci-fi flick wherein a former wrestler combats an alien occupation via magic sunglasses? . . . [Jonathan Lethem] is able to seriously dissect the movie’s message and often highbrow references, while also fully acknowledging its silliness." —Hartford Advocate

"Novelist and occasional critic Jonathan Lethem pulls apart the threads of John Carpenter's 1988 science fiction film of the same title, to entertaining and illuminating effect . . . Carpenter’s film emerges from Lethem’s inspection a more human and mysterious work, less coherent perhaps but fully immersed in the noisy, ceaseless traffic of cultural exchange." —The New York Times Book Review

"A fun read, packed with references to other films, literature and artists . . . one of the few books one would enjoy reading while watching a movie." —USA Today's Pop Candy

Library Journal
John Carpenter's sensationally paranoid They Live (1988) grabbed yuppie capitalism and the Reagan establishment in an allegorical headlock full of B-movie aplomb. Lethem (Chronic City; Motherless Brooklyn) here launches the "Deep Focus" series, intended to highlight smart and lively dissections of influential aspects of cinema beyond the mainstream. Like a jazz riff on the traditional critical method, the result is a free-form and poetical exploration. Organized by film-time elapsed, the chapters break down, shot by shot, the composition and symbolism of Carpenter's film. We experience the scenes through Lethem's subjective lens, occasionally departing on seemingly stream-of-consciousness philosophical engagements of filmic subtexts. VERDICT Familiarity with the film or Carpenter's oeuvre isn't required. Fans of film criticism (by the likes of Pauline Kael, Anthony Lane, and A.O. Scott) and pop-culture punch will find enough well-coiffed wit to satisfy. A hipster-smart series for the bad-ass intellectual or subversive film student. [The second book in the series, Christopher Sorrentino's Death Wish, is also scheduled to publish in November.—Ed.]—Ben Malczewski, Ypsilanti District Lib., MI
Dave Kehr
…Lethem pulls apart the threads of John Carpenter's 1988 science fiction film…to entertaining and illuminating effect…Lethem may deconstruct "They Live," but he does not destroy it. Instead, by uncovering its inner confusions and undigested appropriations, he rescues the film from its own perilous preachiness and detachment. Carpenter's film emerges from Lethem's inspection a more human and mysterious work, less coherent perhaps but fully immersed in the noisy, ceaseless traffic of cultural exchange.
—The New York Times
The Barnes & Noble Review

If the author had not been Jonathan Lethem--award-winning novelist, brilliant essayist, recipient of a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation--I might not have opened They Live, a slim critical monograph published last year concerning a late-1980s science-fiction-horror film I had never seen. When I did open it, I found epigraphs from Roland Barthes, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mystery Science Theater 3000, and short, suggestive chapters with titles like "Note on Diegesis and Ideology and Peek-A-Boo" (on the film-theory terms Lethem finds indispensable) and "The Black Guy and the White Guy, Together Again for the First Time" (on a certain casting cliche in late-20th-century Hollywood action movies). I found shrewd and funny insights concerning the movie's key device, "a pair of sunglasses that reveal yuppies as alien ghouls." And I found a way of thinking about movies that was thorough, thoughtful, populist, and personal, all at once.

Happily, Lethem's book was the first in a series, called Deep Focus and edited by Sean Howe, who also edited Give Our Regards to the Atom Smashers!: Writers on Comics. Joining Lethem's book last fall was another surprising piece of pop scholarship: Christopher Sorrentino's take on Death Wish, the Charles Bronson vehicle from 1974. A novelist like Lethem, Sorrentino is even less impressed with his object of study (a lot less impressed), but finds in both the movie and its reception (which consisted mostly of righteous opprobrium) much to mull about violence and its representation, New York in American cinema, high art and low, and so on. Throughout, Sorrentino makes an eloquent case for attentive viewing with an open mind: "We fail when we walk into a movie knowing in advance what we're going to see."

Now four more Deep Focus titles are on the way: Josh Wilker's The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Matthew Specktor's The Sting, John Ross Bowie's Heathers, and Chris Ryan's Lethal Weapon. There's a bit of a pattern here: so far the series seems, well, focused on the reactions of white American men born in the '60s and '70s to movies they first saw between the ages of 9 and 25, give or take. Which is not to say the sensibilities or approaches are uniform: Wilker's consideration of the much-maligned sequel to the classic baseball film is nostalgic and lyrical (really: one chapter is a poem); Bowie's book is a pleasing mix of memoir, analysis, and journalism (he interviewed the film's director and screenwriter, plus a couple of his high school girlfriends, both actually named Heather); Specktor's study is more straightforwardly analytical. (I've not yet seen Chris Ryan's entry in the series.)

Of these three, Bowie's is probably the best: he bounces with seeming ease from personal history to the history of the name "Heather," from close reading ("Westerburg High School" is a nod to the Replacements; "Sherwood, Ohio" alludes to the author of Winesburg, Ohio) to a discussion of Columbine. Wilker, meanwhile, sometimes veers too far into beatnik romanticism for my taste, but he also endearingly evokes early adolescence and the odd attachments we form at that age to mediocre movies--a heartfelt devotion that seems to drive each one of these books. "A dream of baseball," he calls his mediocre movie of choice, "of junk food, of the most uncomplicated happiness there could ever be, on the road with no one but other boys just like me, a baseball game to play, a season still alive, the coolest kid who ever lived at the wheel."

--David Haglund

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781593762780
  • Publisher: Soft Skull Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/1/2010
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 788,842
  • Product dimensions: 4.70 (w) x 6.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan  Lethem
Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem has a talent for bending literary genres. He has been entertaining readers since 1994's Gun, with Occasional Music, a debut novel that contained all the ingredients of his future career as a writer: science fiction, pulp detective noir, westerns, and award-winning coming-of-age stories.


The son of artists and activists, Jonathan Lethem has always been surrounded by art and archetypes. His father, avant-garde painter Richard Brown Lethem, ensured that the household was always bustling with fellow artists, live nude models, and a creative spirit. Despite the nurturing, artistic setting, Lethem's teen years were demanding -- his mother died of cancer when he was 14, and the streets of his Brooklyn neighborhood forced him to toughen up at a young age.

Lethem's Brooklyn is rich with history and stories. Much of the world knows Brooklyn through the movies and television -- as an urban maze just outside the glitter of Manhattan. But Lethem's novels deliver a more emotional and brutal reality of the streets he called home (and still does). The Brooklyn culture of his childhood became the sidewalk on which he built his critically acclaimed Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Lethem attended the High School for Music and Art in NYC, where he studied painting but began to hone his love of literature. An insatiable reader, he read the classic and the contemporary, including Kerouac, Mailer, Vonnegut, Chandler, Dostoevsky, Orwell, and Kafka. While still in high school, he finished a 125-page novel called Heroes. It was never published but is rumored to be the earliest form of what became The Fortress of Solitude.

After high school, Lethem attended Bennington College in Vermont but dropped out after the first semester to work on his writing. He returned to Bennington briefly, but eventually made the move to California, hitchhiking his way across the country to arrive in Berkeley in 1984. This experience, and the years he spent in San Francisco, provided the inspiration for his first three novels, Amnesia Moon(1995), As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), and Girl in Landscape (1998).

In late 1996, Lethem moved back to Brooklyn and began writing the book that would put him on the lips of every publisher and reader in the country. When Motherless Brooklyn was released in 1999, readers fell in love with its fascinating lead characters, relentless plot, and detailed setting. It was an instant success and won many awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Lethem's long-awaited next novel, The Fortress of Solitude, hit the shelves four years later, in 2003. He conducted a lot of research for the book, gaining yet another perspective on his beloved hometown. The novel is again set in Brooklyn, on Dean Street, where Lethem grew up. Over three decades, the two lead characters -- Dylan and Mingus -- experience the world through the prisms of race relations, music, and pop culture in a disturbing and compelling story of loyalty and loss, vulnerability and superhero powers.

Outside of novels, Lethem has published short fiction and lent his editing talents to a number of projects. Odd and shocking, This Shape We're In (an extended short story) is about an unforgettable trip to the hospital. The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye is a collection of seven short stories about everything from clones to professional basketball. Lethem and coauthor Carter Scholz have fun with the master of the bizarre in Kafka Americana: Fiction, a book of short stories with Kafka as the main character navigating absurd situations. Lethem edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, short stories about the art of forgetting by such authors as Philip K. Dick, Martin Amis, and Shirley Jackson. He was guest editor of The Year's Best Music Writing 2002, essays by writers on music.

Good To Know

Lethem's original artistic impulse was to be a painter. While he remains a talented graphic artist, he first acknowledged his deep desire to write while at Bennington, where fellow classmates included Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt.

Before he was a published writer, Lethem's only other jobs were in bookstores. His first bookstore job was at age 13, and he supported himself this way up to 1994 when his first novel was published. In San Francisco, he worked at the well-known Moe's Books, home of rare and antique tomes.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Jonathan Allan Lethem (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      Left Bennington College after two years

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