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Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter’s They Live and His Own Move to California

Jonathan Lethem had one directive from the editor of Deep Focus, a new series of short books in which novelists dissect one film apiece: "Go off-canon." Mission accomplished. The author and itinerant critic, a self-described "big Criterion Collection guy" with plenty of highbrow enthusiasms, chose They Live, John Carpenter's 1988 cult sci-fi flick, in which a hobo played by "Rowdy" Roddy Piper dons knockoff Ray-Bans that allow him to see — and promptly annihilate — alien ghouls posing as self-satisfied yuppies. (It may also contain the longest buddy fistfight ever filmed.) Ranging from postmodern theory to the analysis of famous lines such as "I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum," the novelist manages a book almost as fun as its subject, though a lot more coherent. Lethem expanded for us on his film tastes, his recent move out to California, and his discomfort with labels, David Brooks, and Avatar.

You call They Live "the stupidest film ever made on the explicit subject of ideology," but probably the most fun. Is that why you picked it?
I might have reached for Cronenberg's The Fly or Videodrome. I might have reached for The Running Man, which is even more embarrassing and awkward. But They Live is one of my favorite movies of the eighties, no question. I couldn't have imagined how lucky I was in picking it. I could actually use a lot of my recent enthusiasm for Slavoj Žižek and Roland Barthes, and that seemed really exciting to me. I guess I've had a long vicarious life as a fake or imaginary academic scholar, and at this moment, when I'm actually moving my life into the academic context [as teacher at Pomona College], it was a chance to throw myself an official graduation day.

There is serious talk of remaking They Live. The latest report is that they might do away with the sunglasses. How would you feel about that?
Of course the glasses are essential, or you'd better tell me what's replacing them, and it had better be really, really persuasive. What'll it be, zip drives now? No. It's a film about cheapo revelation and about vision, and I just can't imagine an emblem or metaphor as classic and concise as the glasses.

Whom would you cast in the remake?
Who's the present-day Rowdy Roddy Piper? He's really kind of unmatchable. Roddy Piper trying to turn himself into an action star is the equivalent of a member of the underclass trying to penetrate the alien sphere of privilege. And so it kind of can't be improved. But if it were up to me, why not cast an authentic homeless person? Make a new actor out of someone just stepping off the bus that brings you back from Rikers Island, someone wearing a tremendous layer of jailhouse muscle.

Wouldn't insurance be a problem?
Oh come on, think big! I find it hard to do this serious "Let's you and me be development people" conversation. I'd make it as a kind of an avant-garde documentary. You know who would make a great They Live remake would be [Killer of Sheep director] Charles Burnett. How about that?

So then, is They Live a good movie?
It's a great movie — we're talking about it, and not just because I wrote this book. Go and look at its cultural life as traceable on Google. Look at what it does to people, look at how it emboldens and provokes. It's just not a classy or comfortable or ennobling experience to watch it. It's disturbing and ridiculous and outrageous and uncomfortable, but I think it's the kind of great movie that doesn't really need defense, it just needs to be given the air.

Do you think yuppies exist today in the same way they did during the eighties
People get very fixated on cultural-signifier embarrassment: Am I a yuppie, did someone think I was a hipster or a beatnik? That whole David Brooks way of looking at really deep experiences of our place in cultural history, in terms of how you dressed up and what it meant to you, whether you were a boho or a bobo — I just find that incredibly exasperating. What could be worse than our culture right now? The eighties has nothing on us. It's only a tiny, tiny increment of time passing that allows us to feel superior to them. It's the same thing that happens in reverse with this fascination with the fifties, savoring the sexist culture of Madison Avenue in Mad Men. You're allowed to feel different or superior and then you can congratulate yourself for your difference, but the difference is awfully narrow. The haircut just happens to be a little different. If you take the movie in any way seriously, what are we? Are we ghouls or are we homeless people? Your readers on the blog, are they ghouls or are they homeless people? Quick, answer the question!

And what do you think of sci-fi movies now — like the ones we wear sunglasses to?
I saw the 3-D movie. [Avatar.] Wasn't there only one? And I thought it was like a really self-important remake of a children's animated film. I didn't understand how anyone who cared about cinema could really actually drink the Kool-Aid. It was like a very, very big MSG meal. I stopped tasting the 3-D after the first hour, but for the first hour my tongue was on fire. I'm gonna start ranting, so I'm gonna stop. Milan Kundera has a book with the title Life Is Elsewhere. Cinema Is Elsewhere.

Where is it, then, as far as this genre is concerned?
It's a funny complaint from someone out on a limb defending They Live, but I do think District 9 degenerated into an action picture in the second half, and I thought its allegory was in some ways equally awkwardly simple. But it was embarrassing in a good way, in a way that more stuff should be. It made you kind of itchy — most of it was really bracing.

So you like movies that are screwed up in some way?
Yeah, something's got to be disturbingly wrong with it usually for it to be right at all. But that's no guarantee. I thought, for instance, that a tremendous amount was disturbingly wrong about Dark Knight, and that it was also reprehensible, vacuous, self-congratulatory bullshit, which is why I'm afraid I won't like Inception. The one that nobody ever saw called Following is actually my favorite of [Christopher Nolan's] movies — it's like 65 minutes long and basically just has two actors in it, but I'd swap that for Insomnia or Dark Knight in a heartbeat.

You've just moved to the West Coast to teach at Pomona — the position David Foster Wallace had before you. Is that strange?
Sure, it's strange in kind of an amazing way. I think often about how it's like a Henry James story. His traces are very tangible here. He was a legendary teacher. It creates a really interesting force field to make contact with ... his is very speculative, I'm talking out of my ass because I won't teach here until January. Needless to say, I think about him a lot. I expect it will continue to add a really remarkable charge to the experience ...

And how are you finding the West Coast? Will you be the Bard of Pomona now?
Oh I'm not the bard of anything. You know ...

Note that I have not used the word Brooklyn yet —
Yeah, yeah ... I've spent my life as much running away from New York City as I have spent it embracing it. And I can't help thinking that to speak to the New York Post version of my coming to California, it's very tempting, but anything I say would seem absurdly defensive. Except to point out that anyone who actually has any interest in my work knows that I'm expressing a very complicated relationship to New York City and to Brooklyn on every page. And if you should ever care to glance at the matter — and no one's obligated to give a shit — but I wrote most of Fortress of Solitude while I was living in Toronto. I lived in California for ten years in my 20s ... So it's this comic-book superhero version of me, the Bard of Brooklyn. I'm very proud of it, but it doesn't really describe anything except the fact that those two books were so beautifully embraced. And I love that.

Okay then. So what are you working on now?
I'm writing a book about Queens in the fifties and sixties, and here in my plush professor's suite, I'm staring at a giant wall of books about the building of Shea Stadium, Vivian Gornick's The Romance of American Communism, and The Ungovernable City, a biography of John Lindsay.

But why haven't we seen any Lethem onscreen yet? Anything on the horizon?
The thing that stands a hot chance at the moment is not a movie but the theatrical musical version of Fortress of Solitude. I think it's really going to turn into something amazing. The composer, Michael Friedman, made the music for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. For a while, I thought it was just really silly. Now I'm beside myself with happiness, and I think it stands a chance in this coldhearted universe of ours. And there are several very interesting filmmakers attached to novels right now. David Cronenberg seems to want to make a movie of one of my oldest books, As She Climbed Across the Table, and that's fun ...

Any chance of getting John Carpenter involved?
Carpenter's people haven't been in touch. Make sure you insert "laughter" there. [Laughter.] Transcribe this whole thing with a lot of "laughter parenthesis" so that people know I'm not being an asshole, okay? [Laughter.]

Photo: Patrick McMullen