Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sublime-inal Cinema

RIP "Rowdy" Roddy Piper

At a cursory glance, They Live appears to be a film that toys with ontology as a cheap gimmick to decimate monsters. Perhaps the most lasting impression of the film is what Lethem dubs the “perfect sequence”, an artfully shot scene of Nada slowly uncovering the truth about his world as he strolls past a newsstand, through an upscale grocery store and bank.  Here, with his new glasses on, he finds that all billboards are subliminal masquerades for stark commands like “Consume” and “Marry & Reproduce”.  Lethem is absolutely correct in identifying the scene as “Ten minutes of cognitive dissonance as sublime as anything in the history of paranoid cinema, shot partly in black and white, and composed with the serene assurance of Hitchcock or Kubrick”, but if it weren’t so spellbinding as cinema, it’d be numbingly didactic and reductionist. There is absolutely no subtlety in the interpolation of advertising and media iconography as ultimately absent directives about obedience and conformity.  That the “true” world itself is filmed in black and white doesn’t help matters (though Lethem offers his own interesting series of explanations for this stylistic choice). 

Furthermore, Nada’s response is extremely troublesome. After he begins to believe his eyes, Nada has an almost instantaneously turn to violence. Without so much as an expository soliloquy on the part of the ghouls explaining their evil intentions, Nada gets right to slaughtering. Our overlords are never given an actual voice anywhere in the film. Instead, for Nada, the medium is the message, and it’s divisive enough to dictate that the newly manifest Manichean morality be reinforced by violence.
Lethem points out that, without the glasses (and even with them), the scenes of gunning down unarmed ghouls in white collar get-up is a horrific evocation of the endemic office shootings that regularly pop up across America. Nada (who is white), and later, his black construction worker friend Frank, become emblems of the emasculated male delegitimized under late capitalism, the very picture of a workplace shooter as described in Mark Ames’ treatise on the subject, Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplace to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond. Lethem also takes pain to note that Nada seems to reserve a particular bile for the indulgences of middle class housewives and the petty standards of high society ladies, breeding an unsettling undercurrent of misogyny throughout the narrative.

"It’s the second act revelation though, more than the third act revenge fantasy, that definesThey Live. This is a film about what goes unspoken, not only the ontological distance between our consented capitalist roles and our capitulated communal duties, but also the narrative gaps of experience. Nada spends the first part of the movie witnessing something happening, but he remains uncertain of what it is.  Frank, too, remains underserved by society-at-large, but requires an overlong fist fight with Nada in order to put on the glasses himself, the subtext being that the black experience in America is difficult enough without the knowledge of what lies on the other side of the veil.  Other characters side with the ghouls, proving that knowledge or “awareness” is not always an end unto itself. “Delusion,” Lethem says “is effortless, routine and stable, while the ‘truth’, acquired in some disreputable street transaction, is grueling, bewildering, and grotesque.”

- from my review of Jonathan Lethem's book on They Live 

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