A Wilderness of Contradictions: On Soft Skull's Deep Focus Series

By F.X. FeeneyJune 22, 2011

They Live by Jonathan Lethem
Death Wish by Christopher Sorrentino

"IS DEATH WISH A GOOD MOVIE that ultimately fails, or is it a bad movie that succeeds brilliantly from time to time?" Christopher Sorrentino asks at the outset of his brief study of the 1974 film, before turning to wrestle with a more lawless possibility: "Could it be both?" Such questions may prove over time to be the running theme of Deep Focus, a paperback series launched in late 2010 by Soft Skull Press, of which Sorrentino's Death Wish is the second, following Jonathan Lethem's provocative look at John Carpenter's They Live (1988). The approach in both is lively and heretical. "I've never seen a Carpenter film in a theater except Memoirs of an Invisible Man," Lethem tells us by way of introducing himself. We are in the newfangled realm of criticism post-cinema:

A Netflix copy of They Live plays behind these words as I type. Not a television screen in the same room, but the computer's, on which my document also appears. Thanks to contemporary technology — not just DVDs, but YouTube excerpts, available via wireless signal in the café where I write sometimes, if I've forgotten to bring the disk — I'm Pauline Kael's ultimate opposite here: I've watched the entirety of my subject film a dozen times at least, and many individual scenes countless times more (Kael used to brag of seeing each film only once).

Improbably close readings of questionably canonical texts are the order of the day in these books, and the authors — both of them novelists — are clearly aware of the willed incongruity of what they're doing. Sorrentino quotes Herman Melville's description of the "Indian Hater" from The Confidence-Man — "He commits himself to the forest primeval; there, so long as life shall be his, to act upon a calm, cloistered scheme of strategical, implacable, and lonesome vengeance" — in order to illuminate the peculiar magnetism of Bronson's death-dealing vigilante. 

At first blush this seems like a heap of gorgeously overdone erudition woven to crown an undeserving subject. Yet Bronson, with his uncanny calm and lunar-eclipse gravitas, was nearly always so much more interesting to watch than the movies he starred in that drafting in Melville serves Sorrentino's larger purpose, which is to map a wilderness of contradictions, both within this particular film and in his own reaction to it. Death Wish, as Sorrentino sees it, 

perfectly realizes its own invented form, but then becomes incoherent; a nasty provocation, but one that somehow doesn't go quite far enough; a superb exploitation of an actor's limitations, but a film full of stilted performances; an interestingly photographed depiction of a nightmare city, but a film whose director sometimes seems to lose interest in what's happening on the screen.

Earlier film critics have been unsure what to make of Death Wish. For Sorrentino, Vincent Canby's two, count 'em two hostile reviews of the film in the summer of 1974 make for a point of energetic departure. Canby hated the film so much he saw it twice, the second time for a Sunday "think piece" in which he reviewed the lusty outcries of his fellow audience members. He "had to go back for seconds," Sorrentino teases, and it's hard not to laugh with him, though in fairness he quotes generously enough from the inciting essay that one is free to make one's own judgment, and join the argument. The film's "power to arouse," Canby wrote, "through demonstrations of action are not unlike those of a pornographic movie." As Death Wish chronicles the gun-toting vengeance of Bronson's Paul Kersey, a once-mild man enraged by the multiple rape assault which has killed his wife and rendered his daughter a vegetable, it builds to an orgiastic pitch as he wastes violent hoodlums with an escalating bloodlust. Revisiting these intensities, Canby declared:

It cuts through all sorts of inhibitions, first by making us witnesses to the murder and rape of Paul's wife and daughter, graphically and agonizingly shown, thus to certify Paul's (and our) right to vengeance... If you allow your wits to take flight, it's difficult not to respond with the kind of cheers which rocked the Loews Astor Plaza when I was there the other evening.

Such condescending remarks give Sorrentino "the impression of a self-styled highbrow slumming amidst the masses," and he notes that "Death Wish became a sitting duck for critics who saw in the film a political agenda that precisely matched what they found most objectionable." Sorrentino himself was a New Yorker entering his teens when Death Wish opened, and remembers being able to respond to the film with a guileless openness compatible with the artless freedom of Michael Winner's direction. He loved it then, but he loves it for different reasons now, when he can use it to rebel with a mature retrospective force against the underlying assumptions of Canby and his contemporaries. For "even if Death Wish is picked off for its politics, or rather," he adds shrewdly, "what we imagine its politics to be - it continues to exist as a film, as the sum of its performances, in the coherence of its script, its place in a larger context, the provocations it offers its viewers."

Sorrentino goes on to make a layered case across a set of short, self-contained essay chapters that focus by turns on Death Wish's relationship to New York City; its "realism" (he sees it as a fevered dream divorced from its times); its politics; its depths of characterization and its conspicuous lack of same. "Death Wish does a lot of noisy and provocative yammering," he writes, "but Bronson moves outside the bubble of the film's rhetoric, moves, like Melville's ironically recounted 'Indian Hater,' outside the bubble of the film's world, freed at last to be his own context." He concludes persuasively that Bronson's unique screen presence ("the quality of secrecy promised by his inscrutably hewn face") has been deeply influential: "today [it] can be seen operating smoothly in the guise of actors ranging from Matt Damon to Liam Neeson to Daniel Craig to Bruce Willis." 


Lethem doesn't have a Vincent Canby to rail against, but he doesn't need one: his enthusiasm for They Live is unquestioned and immediate, despite some residual mixed feelings about the film and the work of its director as a whole. "I find Carpenter more compelling as a science fiction (or 'science-fiction-horror') director than I do in his 'official' role as Master of Horror," he tells us before hitting the play-button. "In the years when I took Carpenter most seriously as an auteur I labored to find Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13 'interesting' — well, they are interesting, but they didn't interest me enough that I've gone back to them... After a strong beginning, Carpenter's role as an auteur has a somewhat fizzled out quality to it. Or is it that the 'auteur approach' gives diminishing returns lately?"

Lethem's approach to unlocking the pleasures of They Live is straightforward and present tense, geared more to the film's perhaps accidental riches than to its maker's stated intentions. He invites us to climb with him through a single magnified viewing in ninety-plus chapters (each fairly short; roughly two pages for each minute of running time), with occasional pauses to attend to the most extraordinary parts of the story. The longest such dilation comes at the 30-minute mark, when They Live suddenly blossoms into a wild, ecstatic satire that no viewer could have predicted from the previous 29. Nada, the film's hunky Everyman — played by wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper in his first, and to date only, starring film role — has spent its first half hour wandering a futuristic, impoverished urban blightscape that Carpenter postulates as the most likely reality to follow the Reagan era in which the picture was made. Thus far, They Live threatens to become a sleepwalking remake of The Road Warrior, perversely devoid of fast cars. Morbid curiosity alone keeps one staring. Then, a miracle: Nada dons a pair of "special" sunglasses left behind by a rebel resistance-group that has been carted off by the authorities. He looks around, and his entire perception of the world is blasted. The billboards, the advertisements on busses, the headlines on newsstands surrounding him all stand suddenly exposed as containing hidden messages: "OBEY," "SURRENDER," "SLEEP," "WATCH T.V." What's worse, a wide array of passersby (wealthy people, cops) are revealed to be some kind of reptile or extra-terrestrial.

"Desert Island Time," Lethem interjects to say; "given the imperative to preserve just a dozen sequences from the film history in a time capsule, the rest to evaporate from human memory, I might pick the next six, or eight, or ten minutes of They Live." He gathers a think-tank of heavy breathers led by Roland Barthes to accompany him up the slopes beyond this timberline: "What [Charlie Chaplin] presents us with is the proletarian, blind and mystified, defined by the immediate character of his needs, and his total alienation at the hands of the police" (Barthes); "Making a film is one thing, viewing a film another. Impassive, mute, still the viewer sits ... Does it matter what film one is watching?" (Robert Smithson); "Thus, a new proposition: What cannot be read threatens. The first sites of this new anxiety were Paris and London, vast metropolises where people could vanish without a trace" (Robert Ray). All of which could scan hopelessly pretentious, except that Lethem is in on the joke, and leavens these sententiae with an epigraph from South Park ("They Live is a ... could have been a ... it's a great movie, uh ....") and a line of dialogue spoken by Natasha Henstridge in Carpenter's 2001 Ghosts of Mars: "As soon as I get back I'm going to tell my superiors all about this fucked up planet."

Lethem sings the film's praises, and lucidly examines its weaknesses. The overall effect is the cheerful, self-mocking percolation of a busy mind making an exact evaluation of a film's living personality: a thing no maker can ever fully control, nor any single viewer (no matter how attentive) ever fully own. 


As one who caught both Death Wish and They Live in theaters on their first runs, and who has written and published film criticism for the past thirty years, I found both these books a pleasure to read and argue with. The enemy in each is critical pomposity, a poltergeist that haunts and potentially wreaks havoc upon any serious writing about film. Sorrentino tells us: 

I can't accept as valid the observations of people who, having been paid to watch and write about a movie, regurgitated instead their most presentably upright sensibilities. What we have learned, from Vincent Canby and Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell and Penelope Gilliatt and Roger Ebert and many lesser known reviewers, is that they believe they are smarter than the people for whom they believe the movie was made [italics Sorrentino's]. 

(As she never wrote directly about Death Wish, he leaves Pauline Kael off this list, but her Canby-like scolding of Dirty Harry three years earlier could have won her an honorary place at the head of it.) Reacting with one's moral sense, as all critics know, is an inevitability of the trade. The occupational hazard is, as Sorrentino implies, that you can end up moralizing: hesitating over your compass when the braver thing would be to get lost in whatever woods the storytellers lead you toward, and risk a new experience.

All the same, I hated Death Wish when I first saw it, and still do. I was years away from becoming a professional film critic, in 1974; studying to be a film director; I'd seen the picture on a double bill with Chinatown at a small town theater. (Such shaggy mixtures were standard practice before the rise of multiplex theaters and home videos.) In the grand Canby tradition, I went back several times that week, both because I was closely studying Polanski's direction and because I wanted to understand why I was reacting so hard against Winner's, which was plainly competent and effective, whatever his touch lacked in comparison with Polanski's sublime exactitude. Eventually I articulated why to my journal. (Death Wish, not Chinatown, was thus the first film I ever "wrote about": I needed that urgently to sort out my feelings.) What I hate is being manipulated, I told myself. I'd put up with a lot of that from people in my life, and despised it; I certainly didn't want it from any movie. Decades later, while reading and reacting to Sorrentino's spirited defense of Death Wish, I chanced across some remarks on violence in the movies from the "Bang Bang" chapter of David Mamet's Bambi versus Godzilla. "The viewer is presented with the following paradigm," Mamet writes:

The hero will undergo various struggles in which you, the viewer, will be able to enjoy his stoicism while undergoing no pain. Your desire to do violence will be pandered to by an incontrovertible presentation of the justice of the hero's cause and by a (ritual) period of initial restraint on his part.

This passage enlarges so succinctly upon Canby's "pornography" analogy that Mamet doesn't even need to mention Death Wish. It also articulates perfectly what I could only approximate while resisting Sorrentino's well-mounted arguments. But that's the point — and the salient reward of reading these Deep Focus books, which drive you not just to the repertory theater or the Netflix queue but to books and criticism, to conversation. Like the great James Agee, another novelist turned film critic, Lethem and Sorrentino create distinct personal presences on the page, matching subtle intellects with flexible gifts of description. Both certainly got my brain working overtime in response. This is extremely welcome at a time when newspaper review sections are drying up and dying out, and threatening to take well-wrought criticism into oblivion with them.

It is also refreshing in the extreme to read explorations of any films that are this thorough, this frankly self-searching, and (most importantly) this free of studious reverence for their subjects. While the monographs on movie masterpieces published by the British Film Institute may set a gold standard for in-depth appreciation — a virtual DVD library in prose — they are also subtly constricted by their mission to define the art form in terms of this or that creator's realized intention. What Sorrentino and Lethem pursue in their exuberant little volumes are not works of art, but retrievals of artifact: items whose abiding value is not that they are the canonical masterworks of a guiding author. Each film is instead regarded as a Rosetta Stone serving several impersonal purposes at once, even if (as in the case of John Carpenter) there is a predominant personality carving the transcriptions. We are thus invited to explore these movies free of auteur-theory mysticism, and instead experience them as living, breathing things: creations born for a variety of weird reasons, serving any number of talents and agendas, and ripe for a long afterlife as various as our affections and imaginations.


LARB Contributor

F.X. Feeney is the author of Orson Welles: Power, Heart, and Soul, published in May 2015 by The Critical Press. As a filmmaker and critic based in Los Angeles his screen credits include: The Big Brass Ring and Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. He has previously published two book-length essays for Taschen: Roman Polanski and Michael Mann.


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