If you like film books full of hagiographic hat-tipping then you should probably leave unread a new series of tomes called Deep Focus, in which contemporary writers are let loose on a movie of their choosing. Certainly the first two books, Jonathan Lethem’s They Live and his fellow novelist and friend Christopher Sorrentino’s Death Wish, are not overly fulsome in their respective appreciation of John Carpenter’s sci-fi fable and Michael Winner’s revenge saga. Lethem, for example, notes in his monograph that They Live “is probably the stupidest film ever to take ideology as its explicit subject.” Sorrentino, meanwhile, at one point dismisses Winner’s Charles Bronson-starring thriller as “often slack and shoddy.” Carpenter and Winner might well wonder, with friendly monographers like these who needs enemies?
To be fair, both Lethem and Sorrentino do find things to admire and defend in their subjects. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the books is the depth of the rabbit hole the two writers disappeared into while penning the books. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else will ever write at such length about the very minor They Live character of “Pregnant Secretary with Coffe Pot” as Lethem does in his detailed appraisal. “I nailed that!” laughs the writer, whose novels include Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. “There’s nothing left to say about it!”
Entertainment Weekly: I was expecting these books to be labors of love. But they actually seem to be labors of extremely mixed feelings.
Jonathan Lethem: [Laughs] Labors of skepticism.
Christopher Sorrentino: I think skepticism was built into the project from the beginning.
How did you get involved in Deep Focus?
JL: I love nimble little books on single subjects. There’s the BFI books and of course there’s the 33 1/3 series about records. Sean (Howe, Deep Focus series editor) and Chris and I gobble those things down. Not uncritically. There are good and bad ones. But I’m certainly always writing those in my head, just helplessly. So when Sean threw this idea our way it didn’t take very long to start immediately fantasizing: “Okay, sure, what film is it going to be?” I wasn’t very interested in worrying about whether They Live qualified for anyone’s pantheon so much as to say that it exists and it just sort of slugs forward through the time and people keep watching it and having these feelings about it. It’s a tremendously rubbery and persistent object but also off the chart of what’s normally described or discussed. The biggest difference between this and something like the BFI books is that almost all those films—even some I might think are less good or less interesting than They Live—are ones that are written about. There’s a body of stuff. And looking for stuff written about They Live, you’re in outer space, you’re in a total vacuum atmosphere. The pressure of necessity is being brought to invent a language for speaking about a thing that just hasn’t been spoken about. That’s where the action is, as far as I’m concerned.
CS: Any book is a bet that you make with yourself. And that’s exactly what Death Wish and They Live were for me and Jonathan: “We have 30,000 words on these easily encapsulated films. Are they really all that easily encapsulated?” And it turns out [the answer is] both yes and no. There’s the one way you can frame it that sort of sums it all up for the average person. Then there’s the other, deeper, and more complicated way—the way your own particular response to it marches in step with it. That’s where it got fascinating for me. Why do I keep on coming up with ideas about this dopey movie?
JL: I know there was a moment when I was actually faced with beginning to execute this when Chris and I turned to each other and were like, “What? Is this real? Are we really doing this?” And that’s when the project became crucial, to understand what we meant by making this ballsy, ridiculous claim that we had a book in us each about these impossible films.
Reading the books, I found your fascination with these films in many ways more fascinating that the movies themselves.
JL: I don’t want to consent. I don’t think my book is better than They Live. But I do know that feeling from when, as a teenager, I ‘d come across some absolutely breathtaking Lester Bangs 20,000 word riff on Black Oak Arkansas, or something. I’d just be ready to fall into this relationship with the music and then found it vacuous. There was nothing there for me. The writer had kind of tricked me.
But you both do seem to have become utterly obsessed with the films. Was there a point when your partners or friends started saying, “Could you please shut the f— up about these movies?”
CS: For sure.
JL: [Laughs] Absolutely. There was definitely a point where we’d have a house guest and [my wife] would roll her eyes knowing the evening was coming when I… I…. [Laughs] I’d be like, “Fresh meat!” I wanted people to watch it with me over and over again. And she couldn’t bear it.”
I’m a huge fan of John Carpenter. But I wouldn’t invite people round and make them watch They Live.
JL: I’m autistic that way.
Christopher, did you know that, in the U.K., Michael Winner is now probably more famous for being a restaurant critic than a director?
CS: I am aware. And a living, walking curmudgeon! I’ve been kind of following his Twitter feed.
JL: That Twitter feed is priceless.
CS: It’s amazingly snarky and [filled with] baffling little messages to the cognoscenti. One of the things that I discovered reading Michael Winner’s various comments about the Death Wish films was that there’s not a single thing that happens on the set or in production that he doesn’t take responsibility for, if it worked out okay. I’m surprised he doesn’t take credit for laying the craft table.
Do you hope that Winner and Carpenter will read these books? I imagine they would have pretty mixed feelings about them.
JL: If you [worry about that] you can’t play this game. I feel tremendously affectionate towards Carpenter in a way that I doubt Chris does towards Winner. But still, if you begin to censor on behalf of a sensitive colleague, then you’re not writing anything at all.
CS: Well, one thing I figure is that, if Winner does get wind of it, probably I’ll find out about it pretty quickly. He seems to be absolutely irrepressible. And I’m pretty sure that if he does have anything to say about it, it will be at my expense. I kind of just knew that from the outset as soon as I started reading his public utterances on his career and on his relationship with other people.
Jonathan, you’re doing a Q&A with John Hodgman about They Live (after a screening of the film at New York’s IFC Center on December 21). I find it hard to imagine what the audience is going to be like for that.
CS: It’s going to be me!
JL. Yeah. “…And could we have another question from Chris, please?”
But what kind of dog and pony show are you going to be putting on?
JL: I don’t know. I’ve actually imagined myself lecturing on the subject! [Laughs] I’m hoping that there’ll be a lot of people in the audience that haven’t seen it before and so we can be the mop up crew and take their jaws off the floor. If everyone there is sort of too inside already—if they’ve seen the film and read my book—there won’t be anything to do except congratulate ourselves.
Do you feel you have a book in you on another film?
CS: I would actually be willing to do this again, although Death Wish and me were such a wonderful pairing. If I could find another film or record album or book that would be like being in the middle of the ocean with absolutely nothing to grab onto or help me float then I would be thrilled to do it.
Jonathan? What about John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars?
JL: No. I don’t think I can go the length with Ghosts of Mars. I’ve said for years now—both to myself and to the editor—that I was going to do one of those 33 1/3 books on Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. And I think I will manage to. I’ve got parts of it on my computer. But that’s well assimilated into the canon.
You can check out the trailers for both They Live and Death Wish below.