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They Live (Deep Focus #1)

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  453 Ratings  ·  69 Reviews
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 ...more
ebook, 177 pages
Published October 10th 2010 by Soft Skull Press
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john carpenter -- best to worst:

the thing
they live
assault on precinct 13
escape from NY
big trouble in little china
ghosts of mars
in the mouth of madness
village of the damned
escape from LA
prince of darkness
the fog
memoirs of an invisible man
Marc Weidenbaum
The first of two in a series of new books in which the publisher Soft Skull puts a bunch of film-fan writers to work on films that the film-critic establishment is less likely to spend time with. The other initial book in the series was Christopher Sorrentino's Death Wish, which I read first.

I highly recommend this book. It makes a great companion piece to Lethem's recent novel, Chronic City, as both involve conspiracy-theory-like investigation of works of pop culture that are un(der)acknowledg
Charles Dee Mitchell
Does the world need a book-length study by Jonathan Lethem of John Carpenter's 1988 alien invasion film They Live?

My answer to that will have to be an unequivocal, Yes.

This book is among the first offerings from Deep Focus, a new series from Soft Skull Press that invites literary types to write in depth on popular cinema. (The other volume currently in print is Christopher Sorrentino on Death Wish.) My only disappointment here is that I now know that I am not the only person in the world, outsid
Jason Coffman
Jan 11, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really funny, thoughtful book on Carpenter's classic. Lethem has plenty of interesting insights, and some hilarious running gags. Worth a read for fans or non-fans of the film, who will likely find equally as much to enjoy in Lethem's take on it.
Dec 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A quick, thorough, incisive reading of a flawed work of genius. Highly recommended to absolutely everyone.
B.E. Hopkins
I read this little book as part of my preparation for a podcast on Carpenter's film. Basically, Lethem tracks the beats of the film and lets you know what he's thinking every few minutes as it all unfolds. The end effect is a sort of cinematic stream-of-consciousness. Some of the reflections are spot-on and thought-provoking, others less so--and overall this is hardly a work of serious film criticism. (And Lethem is completely aware of that.) But reading it is a bit like watching a movie with yo ...more
An interesting read but at times, I felt that the author really took Carpenter's metaphors and politics in THEY LIVE-- the prevalent ones and the ones maybe not so prevalent (or even there)--and made cases for or reflections of reasons for scenes that may or may not have been the directors intentions or even were there in the film. Sometimes, a scene is just a scene for entertainment and there is not always a hidden agenda. There were some funny anecdotes and bits of facts and analysis that was ...more
Jordan Ferguson
There will be a point in here, I promise.

I can count on one hand the scattered tin fragments left over from my literary criticism classes still scratching around in my brain pan, and the strongest of those is Wolfgang Iser’s idea of the repertoire. I’ll refrain from boring you or courting the wrath of all my postgrad friends and readers, but briefly and overly simply: Iser was a reader-response critic who thought readers brought a ‘repertoire’ to a given work, both their own experiences and thei
Dec 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This Deep Focus series seems like it wants to be a movie counterpart to the ubiquitous 33&1/3 series of expert treatises on albums from the hipster canon, although maybe, hopefully, in a less Pitchfork-y Serious Person type critical register. Jonathan Lethem’s monograph (and it is a monograph) on John Carpenter’s legendary paranoid dystopian b-movie about a crypto-alien conspiracy beneath the tawdry wrapping of Reagan-era consumer capitalism, is structured like a DVD commentary, with Lethem ...more
May 09, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A few years ago, one of my favorite writers, Geoff Dyer, wrote a book, "Zona", about one of my favorite movies, Andrei Tarkovsky's philosophical sci-fi classic "Stalker." "Stalker" is not an easy movie. It's slowly paced, densely allegorical and deliberately obtuse. "Zona" was a huge disappointment; it lacked Dyer's trademark wit, and offered little original insight into the film. Dyer's no slouch as a critic; his books "But Beautiful" (about jazz), and "The Ongoing Moment" (about photography) a ...more
Patrick Grizzard
Jan 09, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Jonathan Lethem is one of my favorite fiction writers, but he also happens to be a formidable critic and essayist. In this close reading of John Carpenter's eponymous 1988 cult classic, Lethem ranges across film and critical theory, art, politics, ideology, and pop culture to weave a fascinating analysis of a work usually dismissed as an endearingly schlocky sci-fi/horror flick. His scene-by-scene (in some cases shot-by-shot) dissection lingers over visual minutiae, throwaway dialogue, and seemi ...more
Oct 25, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have a new favorite series of books! Such a great concept; have established authors writing short works of analysis on classic and usually under-celebrated B-movies. I have always found the dissection, discussion and application of academic methods of criticism to popular culture to be more interesting and rewarding than traditional subjects. Popular culture is, after all, still culture and no product of a culture is developed in a vacuum.

Anyway, in this book Jonathan Lethem (an author I have
Marco Kaye
Apr 03, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I remember watching They Live as a teenager. The poster pulled me in. I needed a refresher, and I was glad I watched it before reading Lethem's book-length essay on the movie.

(Actually, calling it a book-length essay makes this book sound boring. It's not at all.)

Lethem pulled me in right away with his first chapter heading, "What You'll Recall of the Dream in the Morning." The first line of the recollections: "A street preacher's warning and a pirate television broadcast." The last line: "A su
Jake Forbes
Another quicky to pass the time. Picked this one up because of Lethem, but it got me to revisit Carpenter's film, so even if it wasn't a good read, I still have it to thank for that. Fortunately Lethem's criticism delivers too. When I first saw They Live, I wrote it off as affable trash, too lacking in subtlety to think much about. Lethem makes a case that the film, while hardly a masterpiece or even one of his desert island films, is worthy of a critical look, naysayers be damned, and I have to ...more
Mar 07, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An awesome reading (slash analysis) of one of my favorite genre and/or cult films. Haven't seen this movie in about a year, but really rank the film high up there and this book brought back many good memories. Also one of the best overt attacks on the establishment I've ever seen in cinema; and a film that effortlessly and recklessly switches tones and genres every few minutes.

The movie: 5 stars. The book: 4 stars. The smartest thing about the book: it's use of quotations from both literature a
Michael Larson
Sep 12, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I always enjoy reading scholarly essays on 'lesser' culture, and this book-length examination of one John Carpenter's goofier movies was a real treat. Lethem has a clear love of the genre, and uses his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture to make connections that actually made me see this film in a new light. His language does get quite scholarly at times, but seeing this language get applied to a movie like 'They Live' is part of the fun. It's a quite funny book, as well, and Lethem mixes quot ...more
Stephen Carradini
Lethem's in-depth criticism of this bizarre, not-recommended-but-to-film-buffs movie is insightful and thought-provoking, if intermittently cursory. He leans on other criticism a bit too much in some pieces, not fleshing out his own opinions enough. Lethem also has a tendency to give a paragraph or two to a subject I could read much more about. While enjoyable in its quick pace, I would have enjoyed fewer topics more deeply fleshed out, as in his book of essays "The Disappointment Artist." Still ...more
Jason Boog
Lovingly obsessive & hilarious exploration of a classic B-movie, made me want to write about all my favorite good bad films. Stay for the pun in the last sentence.

QUOTE: "'People are strange when you’re a stranger.' (No one remembers your name, Nada.) Seeing too much means glimpsing the corruptions hidden from ordinary mortals: perhaps, in that case, you’re Sherlock Holmes, uniquely competent to perceive the signs of Moriarty’s evil. The answer, then, is to become a detective. Alternately, y
Dec 19, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This comes from a series of books of authors taking on movies that they love. Lethem, an author who likes to come at genres from odd angles, is obsessed with John Carpenter's They Live. This book amounts to a written-out DVD commentary track for the movie, digging deep into the movie's silliness and its intentions. Lethem is a firm believer that this is a great, great movie. I just wish he thought a little higher of Carpenter - a director that just doesn't get enough respect. Lethem won't even g ...more
Jun 15, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A long time ago, I was reading some music criticism on the Beatles, specifically the song "Eleanor Rigby." The author (oh hell no I don't remember who) noted that, when McCartney sings the refrain "look at all the lonely people" he elides the word "lonely" so that, if one so chooses, one could hear it as "lovely." I wanted to shout "YOU'RE THINKING ABOUT THIS TOO MUCH."

And so it is with this book/essay/manifesto. Look, I love this movie, but at best it's a great bad movie. It might be worth 128
Dec 01, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Lethem is a decent writer and his insights into THEY LIVE are pretty spot on. I was a bit disappointed by his somewhat surface reading of the film. His appreciation seemed steeped less in genre films and more in the higher quality elements of better films (which Carpenter obviously quotes). But I felt that Lethem might have explored more of the science fiction elements and relied less on the low budget techniques and recounting story elements. Still, an excellent quick read with some nice insigh ...more
May 04, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good if you like the movie (I would say I "love" the movie). Perplexing and irrelevant if you've never seen They Live and are just looking for a sip of Lethem from the firehose because this is just academic analysis and speculation of a sci-fi B-movie from the 80's that starred a professional wrestler and has possibly the worst musical score in film history.

He gets off one amazing line which I'll butcher: "If you hate the fight scene, you blame the movie. If you love the fight scene, you thank y
Mar 06, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really, it deserves 5 stars for what it is. It made me reconsider the notorious fight scene which previously had ruined this movie for me. But it was really Zizek's thinking about the fight scene found in this lecture that Lethem just quotes from. (That that event took place at a library sort of makes my day.) Lethem basically punts on this scene, the crux of movie, but he acknowledges it is a litmus test for viewers.
May 05, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was quite a bit different from most film criticism. Lethem covers John Carpenter's They Live in an almost stream-of-consciousness fashion by discussing the film scene-by-scene, and occasionally shot-for-shot; as well as dealing with the intertextuality of the film during and after it was released. This style took awhile to get used to, since perhaps only two scenes are given more than one or two pages of coverage, but it was a fun book.
Nov 15, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
My rating comes more a rating of the genre of film criticism. One might think that unfair, but seeing as how Goodreads uses my ratings to suggest books for me, it's in my best interest to be this harsh.

However, I am great fan of Jonathan Lethem and also of They Live. I didn't put the book down and, in fact, finished it quickly in comparison to my normal reading pace. If you are a fan of criticism, this will probably delight you.
Nov 15, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: film, sf-fantasy
Saw the film for the first time (new BluRay release) last weekend, then read this. Had a good time with both. The movie was much less cheesy than expected based on the cover art and its reputation. It was pretty funny, but it worked and the aliens/ghouls were creepy. I enjoyed Lethem's stream of consciousness impressions of the film -- this is no scholarly monograph. He pretty much summed up the film with "They Live is The Matrix for the era of fax machines and fisticuffs".
Dec 11, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very promising start to what I hope will be a prolific, engaging series (Deep Focus). Lethem does a great job taking on "They Live," a film whose fuzzy ideological aspirations are diametrically opposed to its director's casting of WWF superstar Rowdy Roddy Piper as its protagonist. His take is breezy and amusingly disjointed but utilizes enough theory to make feel a bit weightier than most entries in the 33 1/3 series-DF's musical counterpart-which is often little more than fanboy fluff.
Ryan Mishap
Nov 13, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: movies
Completely unnecessary book that was still enjoyable if you fondly remember John Carpenter's They Live. I haven't watched it in over twenty years, but I still remember it and Lethem's breakdown of the film is fairly straightforward while still offering a couple different ways to look at various scenes and decisions.

I had to add a new shelf for this because I never read about movies. For fans of the movie and not for fans of Lethem.
Amie Simon
Jul 31, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
MUCH improved over the "Heathers" book I read in this series. While it may seem strange to deconstruct a Carpenter film that's full of so much cheese it's almost ridiculous, Lethem does an admirable job pointing out the probably political and sociological commentary riffed on throughout They Live, pointed out a bunch of details that I'd forgotten, and just generally made me want to watch it again. Looking forward to more Deep Focus books!
Jan 05, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thoroughly enjoyed this. Highly recommend for anyone who's a fan of this film or just really accessible, really insightful criticism...the kind that makes many wonderful connections and opens up all sorts of tangents to explore.

Also renewed my faith in Lethem after struggling through (and failing to finish) his latest novel, Chronic City.
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Jonathan Allen Lethem (born February 19, 1964) is an American novelist, essayist and short story writer.

His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, a genre work that mixed elements of science fiction and detective fiction, was published in 1994. It was followed by three more science fiction novels. In 1999, Lethem published Motherless Brooklyn, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel t
More about Jonathan Lethem...

Other Books in the Series

Deep Focus (6 books)
  • Death Wish
  • The Sting
  • Lethal Weapon
  • The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training
  • Heathers

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