Deep Focus is a new line of small but richly rewarding studies, the first one about a favorite film by a great writer, Christopher Sorrentino. They’re cheap and hot little books perfect for reading at the bus stop, before a movie or concert, and especially along with a DVD of the flick being playfully examined. It’s an exciting new attempt at film studies. And the fact that the first two authors are superb essayists and worth reading over and over, and the films are the kind you have to own and watch again and again, means Deep Focus has scored with the perfect $13.95 each gift this season for film and modern literature fans.
Jonathan Lethem‘s They Live is the first volume in the series, and the media-massaged author of novels The Fortress of Solitude and Chronic City scribes a scene by scene, anarchist polemic via extended hobo punch out, delineation of the Reagan-era, rabble-rousing science fiction/horror classic by John Carpenter. (Carpenter is a dependable guy for shockingly intelligent genre films, from the original Assault on Precinct 13 to Escape from New York and Los Angeles to Vampires.) While dismissed by some as over-the-top B-movie shrill political paranoia, very few people who have seen it have ever gotten over the scene where wrestling star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper first discovers the ugliness of the alien race attempting holding us in submission to consumerism and resigned to the 9 to 5 world. It’s everywhere and in everything, even makes the homeless bow to it, dispossessing all of us on a gratingly precise regularity, and like most great SF They Live is a timeless explanation for how the future is shaping the present. Like how the pernicious and opnely known but accepted MK-ULTRA program tried to create disassociation in people by the CIA back in the 1960s, so that mind control kills off the host in the personality of those they’ve experimented on, our created “core” values of greed and fear are against us. They Live is extremely (and to some, comically) blunt about how we are more programmed than we’ll ever know, unless we dream something new in a very direct and violent way (symbolized by one of the most awesome one-on-one brawls in an alleyway in They Live than you’ll ever find in another movie).
Frequent magazine freelancer Lethem is a practiced and extraordinary pop culture critic, combining riffs on the rhythms of revolution in James Brown and the uncanny-everyday unveiling of Edgar Allan Poe behind genre by reports set to the exact pace of the movie. You can literally read this book while watching the film, page by page and scene by scene, as he’s timed his assertions to each explosion of imagery or plot development at the minutes noted. The entire origin story of satirical science fiction (from The Time Machine to Idiocracy) is also described, as Lethem remarks on the film’s funniest bits (such as the then-standard bearers Siskel & Ebert being alien agents for conformity on the almost entirely corrupted television medium). He also finds some quotes to back up his claims of They Live being the most powerful kind of subversion in entertainment, such as G.K. Chesterton’s observation that people “should resistance injustice, something more is necessary that they should think injustice unpleasant. They must think injustice absurd, above all, they must think it startling. They must retain a violence of a virgin astonishment.”
This tightly ties in conceptually with the second book in the Deep Focus series, Death Wish, a Michael Winter 70s thriller which is all about injustice and violence and like Carpenter’s They Live, wasn’t particularly respected by mainstream liberal critics at the time of its release. Death Wish is often thought of as a guilty pleasure by smart film fans, being the Godfather of all contemporary vengeance films. (Man lives with woman in paradise; paradise is lost by the violence of hoodlums; man obliterates the evil that caused the damage, and these days goes even further by blowing everything up within two hours.) But writer Christopher Sorrentino (novelist, Harper’s, McSweeney’s) rebels against the grumpy ruminations of critic Vincent Canby regarding by explainging the reasons why its simple plot and one-dimensional characterizations have made it part of the essential American cult canon. A lot of this has to do with Charles Bronson, and his fierce performance, but also the universal unconditional truth of an eye for an eye, which historians say is the beginning of civilization (and well, probably the end of the world, too). Still can’t get over the fact that Jeff Goldblum was the rapist bad guy in this movie, but even he is convincingly creepy with the kind of loathsome Me Decade-spawned animalism that Americans of the time projected into the New York City “wilderness.”
I have a library full of music books but don’t buy that many books of film criticism because there’s often little zest for ideas or language; movie reviews are often just synopses and studied opinion, or tautological exposition. And the writers rarely feast on the imagery and milieus around a film to assimilate and even illuminate its point of view. Most film critics try to ethically run before they can morally crawl. That’s why these two endlessly entertaining and inspiring films have passed under their wire, and get plopped into our players more than the big, cinematic “good for us” exercises in polemics. There are my own personal examples of course of film critics who rise above (Pauline Kael, Robin Wood, Kathy Fennessy, and yes, current Ebert), but I do look forward to the future when my library will be well stocked with titles as fun, fetching, and fearless as these first two Deep Focus ones.