I read Jonathan Lethem’s monograph on They Live last night in order to prep for a screening of said film at the Revue Cinema on May 29. Here are my favourite bits of insight and observation:
- “One of They Live’s eccentricities is that we know Nada’s name only because of the end credits. No one speaks it in the course of the film. Yet his name is hardly incidental – Nada’s name, with its implication that he’s something of a zero, or null-set, turns out to come directly from the Ray Nelson short story ‘Eight O’clock,’ They Live’s primary source.
- “The discourse of commerce is a kind of quicker-picker-upper, superabsorbent of what happens along, even (or especially) that which presents itself as oppositional to, or critical of, commercial culture. So, much of Barbara Kruger’s and Holzer’s impact was gently naturalized within advertising language. This awkward fact cuts against They Live’s central assertion: that the distance between the ‘lies’ of commercial-ideological speech and the coercive ‘truths’ smuggled inside it is an extreme one, and shattering to cross. Really, the two coexist and even mate with appalling ease … Kruger and Holzer’s non sequitur interventions briefly attained a gallant purity, but they’d always needed the gallery or museum context as a quarantine against recontamination.
- One of the mini-chapters is titled “Vertical City Inhospitable to Horizontal Man”
- “The film’s scenes of routine ghoul intermixing – the beauty shop, the bank, the grocery store, leading up to this pedestrian work environment – have migrated through horror, revulsion, and pointed satire to achieve a kind of drab inevitability: They Live, sure, and so do They schlep, file paperwork, get stuck on hold, and work fifty weeks for a two-week vacation.”
- “Long ago, I used to see Ray Nelson at science-fiction conventions in Berkeley. He was a droll and bright-eyed elf of a man, and known for wearing a propeller beanie, regarded as a high talisman of fannish identification, the equivalent of an IT’S A BLACK THING, YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND T-shirt. I felt in awe of Nelson’s lingering traces of involvement with Philip K. Dick, my personal hero, and he, Nelson, always struck me as a figure of absurd dignity, brandishing his two or three secret accomplishments through an otherwise invisible life – in Berkeley in the 1980s, he didn’t even rate as eccentric, he was apparently too mild. I was terrified of becoming this man.”