The first in a new series from Rough Trade Books, They Live: A Visual and Cultural Awakening is a celebration of the cult film – designed and edited by Craig Oldham – as a replica prop from the film’s iconic magazine stand.
The book is a celebration of the John Carpenter film, and its importance today exploring its influences and ideas, and its relevance to us socially, culturally and politically. With contributions from Shepard Fairey John Grant and Slavoj Zizek; the work of artists Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and the Guerilla Girls; the original short story, Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson, on which the film is based, its comic adaptation by Ren & Stimpy’s Bill Wray, and a foreword by Carpenter, the book drops you right into the film, bubblegum scented and all.
“The idea was to create a series of books, of which They Live is the first, taken from films in which these books are ‘hero props’; the prop that provides an epiphany to the characters, or are a catalyst in the film’s story”, Craig Oldham says, of what inspired the series. “In They Live, we follow an unnamed drifter as he discovers the ruling class are in fact aliens. Stumbling on an antidoting pair of sunglasses, the truth is revealed. But on the brink of his discovery, the protagonist seizes a magazine from a newsstand and it’s this prop that finally brings him into contact with the alien race. It changes the film, and over the 30 years since its release, that moment, and in effect that bit of printed and bound paper, has also changed the aesthetics of counter-culture. This book aims to replicate that moment for readers.”
With the film having such a memorable aesthetic, there was an instant foothold when it came to the publication’s design, “we had a starting platform from which we could (with some serious creative license) jump”, says Craig. But it was limited to the aesthetic bent of the film, and they didn’t initially have a lot to work with: “We were shown a cover, a couple of spreads showing the subliminal messaging, and one spread shown without the glasses. That was our point of entry into the rabbit hole really. From there, it was a hunt to find anything more we could.”
It was a lengthy process of pausing and zooming in on the film, looking at on-set stills (from which the back-cover message, ‘Honour Apathy’, was found), online searches and archiving, to gather enough visual information to mimic the aesthetic of the prop magazine. “After that, the design of the book sort of danced around the themes and ideas of the film,” Craig says. “We tried to capture the essence of that vernacular of editorial design throughout the layouts (which is quite difficult, paradoxically, as in my head I was trying to make a book). We picked up on other cues from the film too: using cuts of Albertus for text, used for the titles and credits; flipping between black and white, just as the character does in between wearing and not wearing the magic specs; and retaining the strong typographic presence of those infamous alien commands.”
Putting the book (or magazine, or immersive prop) together, writing and exploring the impact the film has had, as well as the influences it drew on, was the most rewarding part of the process for Craig. “The ideas of conceptual art that are laced throughout it; other works in film and cultures it has built on. Not to mention the political climate that spawned it. Pulling those together through the themes in the book and then sharing them with people, I hope will bring about more epiphanies in people – much like the one in Roddy Piper’s character.”
The special edition features a limited edition, hand-numbered This is Your God money certificate, a specialist glyph typeface of the alien language Formaldehyde-face, and bubblegum scented pages; “like the design, it’s about the book being an experience as an artefact from that world", Craig says.
“I wanted it to feel like that scene in Last Action Hero (I know!) where you reach through the cinema screen and return with something lifted directly from another world – the world of film” Craig continues. “So, although admittedly, many leaps have been made, as the information on that book in the film world is limited, filling the book in the real world with ideas, no matter how small – like the bubblegum, which comes from one sentence of dialogue – heightens that feeling.
“In the most basic of terms, the book (and the film, actually) operates as a kind of transistor,” says Craig. “You might be drawn to this book because you like the film, but through the book come away with an interest in one of its themes, ideas or influences; or you might have an interest in street art and have no knowledge of the film, and so through the book, watch the movie. You might simply be attracted to it with no knowledge of any of the aforementioned and come away with a completely new interest or experience. That’s how I want it to perform.”
The way They Live: A Visual and Cultural Awakening embodies its theme and context, using the book form as an active part of the storytelling process, mirrors Craig Oldham’s approach to In Loving Memory of Work. “It’s a visual record of a historical moment in time, explored visually through its cultural fallout. They Live and In Loving Memory Of Work both draw visual ephemera, archive material, etc, into a historical and cultural narrative” says Craig. “I know it sounds quite conceptual, and I guess it is, but one of the many, many things I love about books, especially making them, is their quietness. A book can be a single point of view on a single topic, and, as well as that being quite refreshing in some senses, it’s also quite a political act.”
The book collects the work of a variety of authors and viewpoints, although they align on the perspective, put forward by John Carpenter in his foreword to the book, that “the 1980s never really left us”. “And he’s absolutely right”, says Craig. “Themes dealt with in the book are so relevant today. Homelessness; conservative neoliberal policies in the West; increased class divisions and an erosion of the middle-classes; gender inequality and the over-investment in hyper-masculinity and portrayal of machismo; mass-media manipulation (only now we have a term for it – binge watching); and so much more… the 1980s are upon us again.”
In looking back on the film, its themes, the period it was released, and how it all ties into our lives today, Craig found that it only reiterated the importance of reflecting on history, pop culture and the way it can act as a mirror on a time. “I believe we have a duty to be reflective and to learn from our history. It might not provide definitive answers for us, but it helps us evolve our solutions away from making the same mistakes. That’s an optimistic view, I’m aware, but one has to certainly try.”
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