Books In Conversation
Ander Monson with J.C. Hallman
Predator: A Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession
(Graywolf Press, 2022)
The more you learn about Ander Monson, the less likely he seems. A geek hacker once investigated by the Secret Service, a guy easily imagined in cosplay outfits at Renaissance fairs, the kind of dude who believes disc golf constitutes exercise, and the sort of fella who is as at home reading Soldier of Fortune as the original Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979)—this same guy, at age 47, is the author of eight books, published by Sarabande and Graywolf, presses known for highbrow titles, and the recipient of multiple awards, including a 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship. To top off an unlikely trajectory, Monson has for some years now been a professor in one of the top graduate creative writing programs in the country, the University of Arizona.
And now, as though to spit in the eye of every film critic to publish a word in the New York Times or The New Yorker, he offers a book-length close read of John McTiernan’s Predator (1987).
I met Monson years ago—he’d been invited to speak at a university where I had just been hired to teach. I read the books he’d published to that point, introduced him at the reading he gave, and taught his work in my classes. I was particularly drawn to an autobiographical essay he’d written that took the form of a Harvard outline—that is, the essay was an outline. It seemed to me that he was both telling an incredible story and thumbing his nose at a school that likely would have balked at the indiscretions that polka-dotted his youthful CV.
But I admit to being annoyed too—my students absolutely loved him. They loved a spirit of irreverence and insouciance that characterized his work (insouciance, at least, in regard to adhering to traditional norms of what is appropriately intellectual … and to using words like insouciance). Since then, Monson and I have remained colleagues (another iffy word) and acquaintances, and I later contributed a couple of pieces to his online magazine, DIAGRAM.
Our exchange about Predator took place via email.
J.C. Hallman (Rail): A lot of the book is not about Predator at all, but the novelization of the film, produced by a writer who would soon thereafter win a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. Can you describe your feeling when you discovered this—when you realized there was this whole other layer to your relationship with the film?
Ander Monson: That initial moment was in a class on elegies I took in grad school at Alabama where someone gave a presentation on Paul Monette’s poetry collection Love Alone. One of the bullet points on the presentation handout was that he’d written the novelization for Predator. Love Alone is a fierce book and not an easy one to read. It’s the book that put Monette on the map for much of the literary world, as I understand it, and I can see why. These aren’t neat elegies written to wrap up emotion and help the living go on living. They’re filled with rage and beauty. They are fucking pissed, not just at Rog’s death, but at the world—maybe the US Government most of all which refused to even say AIDS—that was complicit in it. They are real fucking sad. They do something different than what most elegies do. So when I read that book and then also heard, if just in passing, that he also novelized Predator, I remember thinking, huh, I wonder what was up with that. This was a point in my life where I was still embarrassed of a lot of the stuff I watched and read as a teenager and in my early adulthood, and felt out of place in an art program where everyone was at least theoretically super deeply read in the CLASSICS and what I was super deeply read in was the “Dragonlance” novels. I don’t think I would have copped to loving Predator in that graduate classroom, though I’m sure that there were others there that loved Predator too. So I filed it away. Around ten years later, really after the Giffords shooting and my anger and my sadness and my reaction to it, I started thinking more about my love of guns and explosions, and I ended up watching Predator again and being super moved by it, and by the experience of reencountering that younger version of me. So I ordered the novelization and devoured it, then I reread Love Alone and Monette’s other books.
Rail: Was this discovery the tipping point—the moment when you realized that a long-standing fascination needed to become something you explored? Is this when it became a book?
Monson: I wouldn’t have thought so at the time, but in retrospect, yes, though the key moment for me wasn’t the discovery that he had written the novelization: I think it was the actual reading of the novelization ten years later. He finds much beauty there in this big dumb gun story. Seeing it like he saw it definitely gave me permission to feel like Predator was something I could write about too—that in fact I had to. From that point I knew I had to write something about it. The only question was what, and how long it would take. It was actually in the same workshop that I remember an interchange I had with Joel Brouwer, my poetry professor, because several guys in the program and I would go out to golf at this weird and shitty course outside of Tuscaloosa that was sited on a former run-down amusement park. We’d play every couple of weeks, not real well, at least not in my case, and I remember talking about our weekend golf plans at the break or maybe before class as people were coming in, and Joel saying, you MFA guys—you poets—you guys freaking golf? Like that was completely outside of the realm of possibility, that there could be no overlap between poetry and golf. There was something in that moment, in his reaction and in my reaction to him, which was a combination of surprise and embarrassment and indignation, that stuck with me, kind of the flipside of my reaction to seeing Predator in the same sentence as poetry.
Rail: That resonates with something you say very close to the end of the book: “I don’t think we can just disavow the earlier stuff, the things we consumed and loved when we were young, before we became who we ended up being.” It seems to me that applies to a lot of your work, not just Predator. Does this feel like an anthem for you? Do you see a lot of disavowing going on?
Monson: Well there is that cultural tendency for so-called cancellation to contend with, in which a lot of the culture is really working to disavow all kinds of cultural products that we used to venerate or regard differently. I’m not actually sure that our moment is all that different from any other moment in the past where people reread or rewatched or relistened to something older and understood it differently, and so they adjusted how they regarded that thing and read it more, or watched it less, or listened to it differently. That’s inevitable, even if it's become contentious. Sure, we’re doing that a little faster and more publicly, thanks to the accelerating power of social media, and sometimes we do it with less nuance than I think is useful or warranted, but I’m less interested in that aspect of the question than the anthem one.
I’ve actually seen quite a bit of the detritus of my—our, I think, since I think we share some of these cultural influences—childhood come back up in the last decade and get a different cultural reception than it did in the 1980s, maybe most obviously Dungeons & Dragons, seen most prominently in a show like Stranger Things. Of course I’m thrilled to see the representation, though I always end up slightly pissed at how it gets portrayed on screen, which never quite gets it right. That’s not MY experience, I think, and that feeling—that little angry feeling, or maybe it’s just discomfort I’m talking about, or loneliness, hoping to be seen and being seen but only at an angle—is an opportunity.
It’s so easy to lose who we used to be. Maybe it’s good to lose some of that old self: some of it definitely sucked. But a lot of it didn’t, and that sense of energy and freedom and, sure, some hurt, but also a lot of wonder and maybe most of all mystery remains powerful, even these years later. It’s like a summoning I’m doing when I write about it—when I approach it as an anthem. This is what most excites me about the work the March Xness yearly tournaments do. I don’t know if you follow those, but they’re basically an exercise in revisiting former selves through the music of a particular era, and we play a tournament of sixty-four essays off each year in March, with the NCAA basketball one as a model. It’s such a great feeling to dive back into a song you used to love or hate—it just has to be a song that gives you feelings, big feelings—and let that summon a forgotten self.
I’m more interested in the personal disavowing than I am in the cultural disavowing. What you personally disavow reveals you. To be angered by something, to feel like you have to forget it, is to let it touch you, to understand that it brings something out of you. And I think we all know that what touches us—what really gets into us—is more about us and who we used to be, which is also who we still contain, than it is about the thing that we want to forget.
Rail: I know that “obsession” is in your subtitle (I have one of these too), but do you have any qualms about how often writers are accused of being “obsessed” with whatever it is they choose to write about?
Monson: I don’t understand writers that don’t have the capacity for obsession. Are there any? Not any I like, anyhow. I also don’t really like people that can’t find their way to an obsession. Maybe there aren’t any of those either.
I do think that the word obsession on books—especially in autobiographical nonfiction—often functions as a marketing term, which is what you’re getting at; I agree, and also think this can sap its power. The obsessed narrator is a narrator who’s gone too far, or who is willing to go further than most people would in service of art, or in service of the reader’s entertainment. That kind of narrator interests us because they have to be a little crazy, which always makes for good reading. We don’t want moderation in our narrators, even as we may want them in our partners or in our lives. I have no objection to being labeled as obsessive, though, because I’ve let that part of my on-page and off-page personality grow as I’ve gotten older. I’ve learned to trust that my obsessions are usually meaningful if I can find the right connections to follow.
For me obsession is a very pleasurable act and feeling and way of being, not just on the page but in life, and it’s a way of subverting the self to something else. I feel sad for people who are not capable of obsession. Having said that, obsession in the subtitle wasn’t my initial inclination. It was originally just Predator: a Memoir, but the Graywolf team felt like something more was called for. We went through a number of bad ideas, a few of which I thought were very entertaining ideas, but definitely not what you want on your actual book (best/worst of them was Predator: a Manoir). An obsession came from one of the alternate rejected cover designs I did for Predator (which I ended up using on the limited edition VHS-style slip case we’re sending out with some promo copies and with some preorders for it: I’ll send you one to go with your ARC). I just tossed that off as part of the subtitle, and liked it. It felt dorky and driven and timely and true, and my editor liked it, and the Graywolf team liked it, so we went with it.
Rail: This is a more overtly philosophical question. How would you bounce Predator off John Gardner’s call for “life-sustaining myth” in his essay “Moral Fiction?” Or does Predator more rightly belong in the category Orwell lumped Kipling into—the “good-bad novel?” Or is it all an Aristotelian purging of emotion? Or is it simply wrong to ask a highbrow question of a lowbrow film?
Monson: Predator isn’t a lowbrow film, I don’t think. It’s a slyly highbrow film masquerading as a lowbrow film. It will never cop to being a highbrow film if you corner it at a party, though, because it doesn’t want to be boring. It was made in the context of a hypermasculine and misogynist Hollywood, so a lot of making a movie like this one comes down to your ability to roll with the givens of the way Hollywood movies are made and still find a way to make your art function within those constraints, which Predator does. The genius of the movie is that it does offer a satisfying Aristotelian experience, but it also does go beyond—even into myth and archetype. Nothing that Predator has to offer is entirely original, nor is it even obvious from the scripts before shooting that the movie is really going to be any good at all. The reason it got so deeply lodged inside the culture is that it anticipates lots of our contemporary apocalyptic situation: global warming, gun violence, American imperialism and officially sanctioned lies, and an overspilling of small, reactionary masculinity, impotent against the much wider force of history. And within that it locates a timeless combination of real characters with real relationships resisting these threats. It’s thrilling and it’s humbling—almost everybody dies—and it also opens up into a larger universe.
Rail: If the film is about homosexuality/impotence, then your book is an inquiry into masculinity. “I’m not angry at masculinity exactly,” you write, “but I do have questions for it.” I found myself thinking that you were making a similar argument here to the argument that D.H. Lawrence makes about the “whiteness” of the whale in Moby Dick in Studies in Classic American Literature. Ahab hunts the white whale; the Predator hunts masculinity/men. Too much of a stretch?
Monson: One of the most interesting things about Predator fans is that they identify with the Predator. Nobody cosplays Dutch or Dillon or any of our heroes in the sequels. They cosplay the aliens. They build their predator suits and their predator masks and their predator weapons, and some of them are extremely good at it. Then they get into their suits and they act as the predator, not the humans. Nobody wants to be the humans. And why should they? We’re an underwhelming bunch, most of us. We’re fucking up our planet. We’re fucking up our country.
Most of the humans in the movies are expendable anyhow. The thing that keeps most people coming back to the franchise is the awesomeness of the alien and the wonder at a life beyond our own. And the thing that keeps the aliens coming back is that a few humans keep winning, proving that they are worthy prey after all. In Moby Dick we’re identifying, at least initially, with Ahab, who is, after all, doing the man-of-action thing, though our feelings about him change over time. In Predator, at first we identify with the humans, but then there we are in the creature’s POV seeing as it sees, so we start identifying with the Predator too.
I mean, none of us are as badass as these hypermasculine characters in Predator. Their masculinity is appealing and completely unattainable. No one has as awesome a gun as Ol’ Painless, the iconic minigun carried by Jesse Ventura’s character (because outside of movies Ol’ Painless isn’t a gun a human can carry and fire; it’s mounted on a helicopter or a Humvee and its rate of fire would burn through more ammunition than a human—even a mega-human like Jesse Ventura—could possibly carry in a matter of seconds.). Even if we tried to prove ourselves worthy—and so much of masculine performance is in pursuit of that—we’ll never get there. So maybe everybody feels this unattainability, and so also feels a sense of pleasurable comeuppance as the Predator kills them one by one. At least I feel that way, watching it. And I also feel a pleasurable sense of futility as our very best and most male males with the most advanced gear each get hunted down and killed—except for one, and he doesn’t triumph because of the bigness of his gun and how many bullets he can fire with it. He barely triumphs at all. At the end his victory is pretty close to a defeat, which is why his face looks like it does in the final shot of the movie. I mean that this is the real subversive genius of the movie, to get us—especially cis hetero white guys—to identify with an alien against our own.
Rail: It occurs to me, particularly given your observation that “almost everybody dies,” that the film, on some level, is Shakespearean. Also, comparisons to Apocalypse Now and, by proxy, Heart of Darkness, just seem like they’re lurking under the surface. Is this ridiculous, or am I finally getting into the spirit of the thing?
Monson: That’s exactly the spirit! Predator is Shakespeare with guns. Our hero is the big man, larger than life. In fact Schwarzenegger is the biggest man among biggest men, which is why SCHWARZENEGGER is listed in all caps before PREDATOR on the movie poster. For more on this kind of big man among big men one-upmanship, watch the 1977 Pumping Iron documentary on Schwarzenegger’s rivalry/friendship with other bodybuilders, which incredibly I’d never seen until a few weeks ago. And the big man is brought low from a high place indeed. He does survive—barely—but his team doesn’t. He was responsible for them, and they’re all dead. I guess he rescues one hostage, which was what he thought was his assigned mission going in, but he’s betrayed by his friend (Dillon) and, what’s more, his country. His trust in them—men, country, America—is perhaps his tragic flaw, if he has one, or maybe it’s his trust in American weapons, the technology of killing. In fact action movies are the perfect vehicle for Aristotelian tragedy, in which plot, not character, is the primary tool, and not even just plot but ACTION itself. Action is the thing that action movies must primarily offer, and action purifies the characters, brings us closest to their nature. Action lights them. It brings them to life: these characters are nothing without action. And what they offer is what Aristotle prescribes for us: catharsis. With a shitload of bullets. I’m pretty sure Aristotle also called for that.
Rail: Your book has a lot to say about guns, and gun violence, and the question on the table is whether films like Predator—“gun pornography,” is how you describe it—contribute to gun violence in some way. There’s a fair amount about the number of mass shootings that took place in 2021 (and you had no idea what 2022 was going to look like, in comparison), and you don’t necessarily shy away from acknowledging a correlation there. But is there anything prescriptive here, as there is in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed or Ted Conover’s Newjack? Is this a call for legislation? Should it be?
Monson: Movies like Predator absolutely have something to do with gun violence, even if that is against their intention. What I mean is movies like Predator—but inferior to it—do, and there are hundreds of those, and I watched them all: they have a nonzero relationship with our epidemic of gun violence. You can’t have watched all of what I watched in the eighties and the early nineties and say that has no impact whatsoever. It does. Of course it does.
All that isn’t on Predator, though. The thing that makes Predator so great is it’s a much bigger and deeper movie than, say, Commando, a more blatant vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. It has actual characters with real relationships and an incredible alien with a cosmology that gets bigger and bigger with the other movies, and is meant as a critique of a whole lot of the stuff those other movies are just reproducing about masculinity and the glory of explosions. I mean, on some level it’s a celebration of that too, and an effective one, which rules, but on another level, it’s a critique, also an effective one, which also rules, because that critique is secondary to the things that matter to most people (story, character, fuckin’ action).
Do I think that our current epidemic of gun violence is primarily due to action movies like Predator? No way. Consider that in Predator guns are not only almost totally ineffective against the real threat—the alien—but toting one actively makes you a target of the hunter! In Predator 2 the Predator won’t attack the unarmed. It encounters a kid with a toy Uzi and won’t shoot him. That movie also satirizes and celebrates guns and gun culture.
It’s like the difference between First Blood which is a legit (and great) movie, because it’s about real shit, actual history and actual human experience and betrayal and anger and deep, deep pain, and Rambo: First Blood Part II, which isn’t a serious movie at all: it’s an advertisement for guns n glory n Murica (and Rambo III is far worse in that regard). Predator just happens to be my way into this question because I love it so much.
The fact that all these guys who loved Predator and also loved all those other action movies of the eighties are the guys who were storming the capitol with AR-15s last year means that we can’t ignore the fact that all these guys—I include myself here—watched all of these extreme cartoonish movies filled with guns and dudes and explosions. They were great fun, but was that all they were?
Rail: You’re very effective in drawing out the subtext of the film. There’s the homoerotic stuff, of course, and not in an accidental, Freudian kind of way; you point out that it’s really staring us in the face. Similarly, you call our attention to the fact that the impotence of guns would seem to have been front and center in the mind of the film’s director, John McTiernan. You even conclude that Predator “clearly means to satirize action movies.” So—what can or should be said about a text that appears to have been so dramatically misread, or misunderstood—to the point that it has become a canonical example of a genre it presumably meant to criticize?
Monson: I mean, it shouldn’t be shocking to us when people get a piece of art so wrong that they, say, try to use Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as an example of American exceptionalism rather than reading the actual lyrics of the song. Or when the NFL used a country version of Morrissey’s anthem of nuclear anxiety and twee apathy “Everyday Is Like Sunday” to hype Sunday Night Football. I love it when this happens, when people respond to only the most obvious surface aspect of a thing and never go beyond it.
It’s such an undersung pleasure, to see people misread a thing and love it for how they see it, but to also know there’s so much more to it if they only look a little bit deeper. I’m not immune to this either: it’s happened to me so many times, like I can’t tell you how many songs I’ve put on a mixtape for girls because they felt romantic or something, and I didn’t really ever pay attention to the lyrics that totally undercut that message until later, often sending the opposite message I thought I was sending by putting it on the tape. But I love that moment of realization and embarrassment too: it’s where I’m brought into contact with a just-former self and I can really see him, that fool, clearly, at least for a moment, before the self-defense mechanisms of the I assert themselves again.
In Predator’s case, people responded to that surface message hard. And they’re still responding to it. Predator is a meaningful aspect of the lives of a lot of people, even now, on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the movie. And that’s because it’s a very effective message. It’s a great movie on the surface level, and while it is also saying other stuff, it says that very lightly.
Most good action movies—for sure many of the most canonical ones—all participate in some degree of self-satire. They all know on some level they are silly, and embrace the silliness inherent to the genre. You have to nail that surface level first—think of some of the gorgeousness of the shots and action of John Woo movies, for instance, even the one with Van Damme, which is maybe my favorite of his. They’re all about the surface. That’s partly what Hong Kong action movies brought to Hollywood. But action movies fail when they make the subtext the text (like in The Last Action Hero, another McTiernan production: though I really enjoy watching that movie, it’s just not as fun as he thinks it is; I get the jokes and the references, but I’m not sure there’s as much movie there). It can’t just be the text. We want to be entertained, not lectured to.
What I mean to do in this book is to get readers to reconsider Predator as more than what they think it is, because if we fail to look at the stuff that we consume and love (and sometimes loathe), we’re not seeing who and what we really are.
Rail: To speak about your strategy here, as a critic: to what extent are you using prose to think publicly? I’m thinking of William Gass’s bit about the “essay that thinks.” Are you operating on some kind of similar principle here? Because it seems pretty clear that you’re not striving to prove a hypothesis, or arrive at one.
Monson: No, I’m not trying to prove anything here. I don’t write that kind of book; I don’t think I’m capable of writing that kind of book. Those books bore me. If I knew what Predator really meant—or all of what Predator really meant—I wouldn’t have watched it 146 times. I wouldn’t still be watching it. I don’t think I could have stayed with the question long enough to write the book. I certainly wouldn’t have persisted with what sure seemed for most of my last seven years to be a pretty bad idea: to write a book about an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie.
What I am doing is trying to use myself as an instrument, not as a subject, to paraphrase Patricia Hampl’s description of how the self functions in (good) memoir. So I’m trying to light the lantern of Predator with myself, since I was exactly the age (twelve to fourteen) of the audience that John McTiernan tells us this movie was basically being made for, even if its rating theoretically precluded them from watching the movie. I light the movie with the self and see what it illuminates. I’m not always thrilled with what it brings out of me when I watch it, and how I see those things echoed in the culture, but I also can’t stop doing it.
That self is also not a stable system. I can put something familiar into it that I know I love, say a particular hefeweizen I was super into a year ago and I drank a lot of it, and now when I try it, I notice that I don’t really like it at all. Did the beer change? Maybe, but much more likely the self changed. And the self is embedded in the culture: I watch Predator after a mass shooting—which, fuck, another one this weekend (Highland Park)—and I see it refract differently than it did last time I watched it.
Rail: This is a work of criticism—or it should be what people think criticism is. And I can think of a few examples of folks who have done things like this (Dyer, Rushdie), but who did you feel you were emulating here, not about Predator, but just in general? I guess what I’m asking is where I can find more work like this?
Monson: I did think about Dyer’s work, doing this, though I haven’t read as much of it as I’d like. The books that maybe meant the most to me writing this book were books in the “33 1/3” series (each about a seminal album), and the “Boss Fight Books,” each of which is about a classic video game of significant personal importance to the writer (I loved Matt Bell’s Baldur’s Gate II and Nick Suttner’s Shadow of the Colossus). I also really got into reading books in the “Bookmarked” series from Ig Publishing (like Justin St. Germain’s Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood) and the “Afterwords” series from Fiction Advocate (I loved Stephanie Reents’s I Meant to Kill Ye and Kim Adrian’s Dear Knausgaard). Another recent critical/creative title that comes to mind is Jana Larson’s Reel Bay from Coffee House, which writes its way into the Coens’s Fargo, and pretty much all of what Hanif Abdurraqib is doing, perhaps starting with his A Tribe Called Quest book, just because they were also an important part of my life. Also a book like Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls, to some degree, taught me some things about splicing criticism and memoir. I don’t know if this was a pandemic thing, since I’ve also seen A Public Space doing their highly successful online read alongs, but there’s something fascinatingly intimate about reading a book which is basically just someone reading or playing or listening to or experiencing another work of art and following where it takes them, usually in some combination of autobiography and criticism, a powerful combination. That self is revealed by its engagement with the text, and the text and world is illuminated by the I pushing and pulling at it, and it felt really good just to read—or listen—or play—with someone else these last few years. That’s what good criticism really ought to do: to make us feel less lonely.