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Professor Jonathan Lethem to Discuss "They Live" at February Screening

A still from the film "They Live"

A still from "They Live"

Cover of "They Live" book by Jonathan Lethem

While Professor Jonathan Lethem is well known for his fiction—novels like Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude and Chronic City—Lethem is also a consummate critic, lending his pen to Rolling Stone, The New York Times Book Review and the Criterion Collection of DVDs.

Most recently, Lethem published a book on the 1980s film They Live, a sci-fi/horror/dark comedy from director John Carpenter wherein the wealthy and the elite of Los Angeles are aliens who control the masses via subliminal messages. A drifter, played by wrestler and actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, discovers sunglasses that allow humans to see the truth. Lethem, who is the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona, will present a screening of the film on Tuesday, Feb. 15, at 7 p.m. in Rose Hills Theatre with a Q&A after.

The They Live project began when Lethem’s former editor from Criterion, Sean Howe, wanted to commission writing on film, “the kind of informal, autodidact’s enthusiastic form of cultural criticism that interest me very much,” says Lethem, who is teaching a writing workshop and a basic English literature class, Topics in Contemporary Fiction, this semester.

Howe created the imprint Deep Focus for Soft Skull Press with Lethem writing the first entry. When choosing the maiden title, they wanted to look beyond the typical film canon for works that have been overlooked by the critical community. “Carpenter seems [to me] very canonical and very important,” says Lethem. “He’s understudied so I thought this is exactly the type of thing I should be doing. And it was a lucky choice—I didn’t realize how good the object I had chosen was until I began to do the work.”

Lethem describes the film as deceptively simple. “It’s kind of cliché, but [the film] really hides all its sophistication under a very simple surface. The film is a joy to write about because it's super suggestive and provocative, but it's also very open-ended and contradictory.”

Since the book came out in November, Lethem has become the go-to expert on the They Live, which is something of a cult classic. “I've become this sort of point-man for people who want to talk about the film and have always cared for it. Not just 18-year-old bloggers, but really great film critics who always wanted to say more or wished more had been said about the movie. It's just been a very interesting thing to become the spokesman for it because it's a film that matters to a lot of people. It's not just some random funny opportunity.”

While it may be unlikely students are familiar with the film—released in 1988 before they were born—Lethem says he hopes “they just sit and enter into its unique space and let themselves be carried away by it. And then I can be there as a cushion or punching bag or whatever afterwards. It remains fun for me to talk and think about. I like seeing people's reactions to the movie.”

Lethem is also working on a similar book for the 33-1/3 series from Continuum Press, which contracts authors to closely examine a seminal record album. His entry on Fear of Music by Talking Heads should be released in early 2012. Additionally, Lethem is compiling a collection of previously published essays for publication late this year. The book from Doubleday will be titled The Ecstasy of Influence, the name of a seminal essay he wrote for Harper’s Magazine in 2007 on influence in the creative process.