Soft Skull just sent me a couple of very cool little books: THEY LIVE by Jonathan Lethem and DEATH WISH by Christopher Sorrentino. These are the first two books in the new "Deep Focus" series which takes self-defined "hip" authors and gives them carte blanche to write about any film they want. Lethem talked to NYMag recently about his choice and how delighted he was to get the go-ahead on writing about the B-movie classic:
It's a great movie — we're talking about it, and not just because I wrote this book. Go and look at its cultural life as traceable on Google. Look at what it does to people, look at how it emboldens and provokes. It's just not a classy or comfortable or ennobling experience to watch it. It's disturbing and ridiculous and outrageous and uncomfortable, but I think it's the kind of great movie that doesn't really need defense, it just needs to be given the air.
What you have in these two books is the two authors riffing on everything from dialog to characters with some scene-by-scene analysis and more than a few comparisons to a ton of other movies. (Lethem name drops The Wild Bunch and Convoy in the same paragraph. That's the kind of free association we are talking about.) What I like is that the books treat pop culture as pop culture - while Sorrentino will certainly consider what Charles Bronson's vigilante means in the larger scheme of things, mostly he just wants to discuss what Bronson gets away with and why we like it so much. Maybe just because sometimes it's fun to see the bad guys lose - which doesn't mean we want this happening on our street, but still.
As Sorrentino looks more at performances and narrative in the film, he provides a tight plot synopsis as an appendix for readers who need to be reminded just what happened and when. Lethem dissects scenes throughout the book so you can follow the story while reading. Both approaches work just fine and are another example of why giving authors free rein on a subject like this is a good idea. Sorrentino also does a fine job of commenting on the critics who largely ignored the film when it was first released but used it to comment on the bigger societal picture they felt it espoused. To wit:
Reviewers (both positive and negative) dismissed the film, and the occasional subsequent critic, while acknowledging its influence has tended to stick it in a larger context, so that a given interpretation of the film exists to support the validity of that posited context: very academic, which is something I am very much not, for better or worse.
To which I respond with, "OH THANK GOD!". A perceptive review of criticism like that one, along with the utter and complete pop culture love sensibility that permeates this entire project, is what makes me think Deep Focus is going to succeed on many counts. For teen cinephiles these books will be a special boon as they speak less from the classroom and more from the heart (and soul). And with these two first picks, they are excellent choices for teen boys in particular.
Go. Read. HAVE SMART FUN. And maybe learn something about what makes a movie become iconic (on at least some level) in the process.
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