It’s curious that over 20 years after its release, this B-movie movie has gotten the attention of academic-types. They Live is an excellent combination of form and content: if you want to make a message-movie for blue-collar audiences (about how they’re being systematically screwed) make a sci-fi action movie starring a professional wrestler. But if you attend Lethem’s screening at the Greenwich Village IFC theater, do you expect the audience to be made up of “haves” or “have-nots”?
John Carpenter’s They Live has something in common with George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978): both feature bit characters that reflect the bearded Lefty intellectuals (they’re not wearing leather-elbow patches, but they might as well be.) In both cases, these talky apparitions appear mostly in TV screens (as if they exist inside the television and not in the same world as the characters, the same way some would criticize academics who live inside the Ivory Tower.) Their ideological ramblings are fragmented throughout each film. In They Live, a character listed as “bearded man” hacks into network television signals and gives a direct-address about how “They” have created a repressive society that’s turning “us” into livestock (watch a clip here, from 2:01 – 3:55) Dawn of the Dead‘s nameless, bearded “TV Commentator” insists on the need for logical behavior, and then calls the studio audience “dummies!” (watch a clip here)
I can’t wait to see what Lethem makes of the “bearded man” character. Reading a lengthy excerpt of his book, you get connections to photography by Weegee and the shadow painted gardens in Last Year at Marienbad, but no reference to the bearded man (let alone any self-conscious comparison between himself and the speaker.)
I did attend the screening and got some photos (below) The audience was a mix of people who love They Live but are indifferent to hearing Lethem intellectualize it and people who are fans of Lethem but wouldn’t necessarily pay $15 for a book when they could hear him talk about it.
Hodgman opened the talk by referring to us as “the Human Power Elite” (a joke about the traitors who go along with the aliens and betray the human race.) It was a funny joke and very smart. But later during the discussion, he’d cut off Lethem’s analysis in favor of going for a joke. I definitely understand the need to keep the laughs coming (except sometimes the audience didn’t like hearing jokes at the film’s expense. People actually booed when John Hodgman said things like “I forgot how horrible the movie is.”