Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"In They Live, everyday life is Moriarity"

I have a review up over here on Jonathan Lethem's book-length essay on John Carpenter's excellent film They Live

Here's Zizek's article that Lethem quotes liberally from in the book.

A few other notes:

1. With regard to the infamous fight sequence, Lethem goes to great lengths to try to unlock its power and justify its existence. I’m still not entirely convinced that the whole sordid ordeal wasn’t just a contractual obligation either by the studio or Roddy Piper’s agent that ensured he be given ample time to showcase his wrestling skills in the film. Perhaps, such a contract did exist and Carpenter decided to make it the most ridiculous thing in the world as payback, “wagering the film’s whole stakes decisively on a pop culture/’termite art’ bet”, as Lethem says.

In the end, the best justification for its existence though is Zizek’s; “Liberation hurts. You have to be forced to put on the glasses”. For Frank, being black in America is hard enough. He feels that he doesn’t need the extra struggle, the middle class malaise of living amongst superficial hideous monsters. Solidarity with white America undercuts minority struggle because it’s ultimately white values which are always given political urgency. It's thus best for black America to invent its own mythology about its detachment from power. All the conspiratorial hubbub (seen all over the place in hip-hop literature) about the illuminati and William Cooper (detailed excellently in Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop) contains a hint of truth, the conspiracy is there (see Julian Assange's essay linked to below), but it's nothing so obvious as a secret society or a specifically totalitarian ideology.

In order to be so hesitant, Nada has to at least expect that something awful lingered on the other side, enough to drive a man who just a day previously said he “believes in America” to go on a shooting spree.

2. In the chapter Los Angeles Plays Itself, Lethem documents briefly the history of Hollywood’s resentment toward television as a systemic complex of cultural degradation, ignoring its own complicity in such affairs. Yet, in They Live, the inclusion of Hollywood in its invectives would not only ring hollow (being a stupid horror movie and all), but also carry with it the unwanted side effect of self-reflexivity, posing the cognitive arena as an ironical field, a lark almost. In order for They Live to be successful, it has to be played completely serious (all hammy one-liner puns aside). After all, They Live is not a farce, but a tragedy posing as a farce.

3. Lethem has good fun poking fun of the cheapness of the sunglasses (Hoffman Lenses), which is fine, but there does seem to be a pretty practical reason for them being so cheap (apart from prop department budget constraints)- they’re being made in private on the black market by what seems to be at best pretty blue collar revolutionaries. In all likeliness, the lack the financial capital (not to mention the aesthetic finesse) to fashion Ray-Bans at the drop of a hat.

4. Holly’s motivation does remain a mystery throughout, as Lethem briefly points out. Is she a spy the whole time? Has she been bribed with something that makes betrayal of the species that much easier a la Drifter? Or is genuinely loyal, being in a comfy middle/possibly upper middle class position for the local TV affiliate? One would think the ghouls would never allow anyone human too close to their precious signal unless they were certain they could be trusted not to blow up the satellite dish. Holly seems to “know” as much as Nada, but her allegiance remains with the ghouls. She’s quite believable when Nada first accompanies her to her apartment and she gets down on her knees stating “I’ll do anything you want.” Perhaps, she prefers subjugation, playing master and servant, if you will. If power is indeed sexy, as Hollywood continually tells us it is, does our compliance with it suggest that the obedient get a sadomasochistic thrill? Consider the following by Deleuze and Guattari, cited several times before by K-Punk: (quote)

"The English unemployed did not have to become workers to survive, they – hang on tight and spit on me – enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolutions of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in morning and evening."

5. Lethem tries to find a precedent in Drifter’s speech about how “there ain’t no countries any more” and how the ghouls already own everything, citing it as kind of a birth pang to the nascent globalization movement that surround the Berlin IMF conference in 1988, which was after production on the film ceased. But Lethem fails to recognize that this speech bares a slight resemblance to the one given by Ned Beatty to convert Peter Finch’s Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network. As owner of the conglomerate that operates Beale’s network, Beatty’s speech is the perfect enunciation of postmodern financial capital a good 4 or 5 years before at happen, back it was just a neoliberal fantasy. Beatty espouses that the real nations of the world are DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, IBM, ITT, AT&T, and Exxon; “ one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars.” The world is thereby subject to the “immutable bylaws of business” and hints, a la Fukuyama roughly 15 years later, that all of history has been pushing in this direction for a long time. “The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.” And the world is now so close to achieving its end, to become an “ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.” Sound familiar?

During the film’s “perfect sequence”, Nada encounters a ghoul paying for a newspaper with money that declares “This is Your God”. It’s also notable that Finch’s Beale ends this exchange with Beatty by confirming his faith in the beautiful and perfect math of the markets: “I have seen the face of God”.

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