In Predator, Ander Monson unpacks 35 years of thinking about a film.

predator, ander monson
Aidan Avery

Can we divine a culture from its films…?” Ander Monson wonders at the beginning of Predator: A Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession, a work that blurs the lines between…well…everything. The book—an account of its author’s longtime fascination with the 1987 action movie, which stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, and Jesse Ventura and launched a franchise—offers a portrayal of individual fixation. But it is equally a vibrant piece of social criticism that seeks to connect the dots between autobiography and something larger: the way an artifact or a piece of art can get inside us, shaping not only personality but also perspective, a way of thinking about and moving through the world.

In pretty much every way that matters, it’s an effort that succeeds.

Monson is the author of four works of nonfiction (he’s also written two books of fiction and two of poetry), including Letter to a Future Lover, which grew out of a series of responses he composed and inserted into library books, and Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, an attempt to deconstruct, among other things, the notion of bookness, integrating print with digital “redirects” by way of prompts in the published text. All of this is exceptional, groundbreaking stuff.

Still, if at first glance Predator appears more traditional in its objectives, Monson has something equally subversive—transgressive, even—on his mind. “Some cops get shot,” he writes, “I think of Predator. Some cops shoot kids. Guns in the grocery store, I think of Dutch, Schwarzenegger’s character.… A sexual predator’s elected I call him predator when I call him anything. I call him yours. I call him also mine because even though I might resent a thing it still claims me against my will. Another Black man is killed by the police I think of Predator. Another. Another. My congresswoman gets shot outside a Safeway supermarket a bike ride from my house.… Predator and other drones fly low in foreign lands I cannot forget. ‘Civilian casualties’—words that hide atrocities—I think of it.”

Predator, then, is less an affirmation of fanhood than a more complex consideration of influence and (yes) obsession. “Writing this book,” Monson notes, “I can already see how I’m likely going to be pissing off a bunch of easily pissed-off men.”

For Monson, these pissed-off men are the problem, and he has no qualms about saying so. In that sense—and whatever else it is—Predator is a critique of what has come to be known as toxic masculinity by someone who understands the mindset. “I should explain a little bit,” the author, who teaches at the University of Arizona, writes: “I don’t mean to be the subject here, but I do mean to be an instrument.” Raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Monson lost his mother when he was seven and spent his adolescence computer hacking and blowing things up. As a high school student, he was arrested by a Secret Service cyber task force and “ended up convicted of seven felonies for computer and telephony crimes.” More to the point, he has never lost his taste for fireworks or violent video games, which he discovered, much like Predator, when he was young. The unexpected, and inspired, move here involves the way he connects his juvenile fascinations (and how they linger) to the juvenile fascinations of U.S. males as a whole.

“The things we loved at fourteen,” he insists, “were made by and of the world we inhabited at fourteen. If that world has embedded itself in us, then it’s embedded itself in a whole generation of usses. Let a couple of decades go by and you get a world shaped by and around—for better or worse—the things embedded in us and in the rest of us in thousands of ways.”

This is as incisive a reading of the contemporary United States, in all its malignant speciousness, as any I have read.

What Monson is describing is complicity, which he registers profoundly throughout the book. “It’s hard,” he admits, “to watch aspects of the movie while people are in the streets demanding the demilitarization and defunding of the police. It’s hard to watch the police’s level of armament in 2021 almost match Predator’s level. It’s hard to watch America burn and turn on itself, and to watch armed men storm the US Capitol. I’m having a hard time revisiting this movie—which is a site of pleasure and mystery for me—against a backdrop of what the fuck, and knowing well that some of these guys (mostly guys) doing these terrible things have surely watched and rewatched Predator.… I mean, Predator is a tool through which America sees itself, or has the opportunity to see itself if it’s paying attention.”

And yet, just when we imagine that we understand whom Monson is indicting, he turns the focus back. “I mean,” he acknowledges, describing a visit to the International Wildlife Museum in Tucson, a taxidermic hall of horrors founded by a big-game hunter named C.J. McElroy, “this is a story of obsession and predation: McElroy’s, and also ours. After all, I am here. And, reading this, you are too.”

If you think you’re not responsible, in other words, you’d better think again.

I don’t mean to suggest that Predator isn’t really about the movie Predator. There’s plenty of shot-by-shot analysis, plenty of digressions into the aesthetic of the action film and the mechanisms of this one in particular. But even here, Monson can’t help but complicate his analysis by going down a series of wormholes, the most unlikely of which involves the writer Paul Monette, who, even as his partner, Roger Horwitz, was dying of AIDS (a circumstance detailed in Monette’s achingly beautiful memoir Borrowed Time), was working on the Predator tie-in, which Monson characterizes as “the best novelization I’ve read.”

This makes for a vivid turn, as Monson addresses what he sees as the movie’s suppressed homoeroticism as well as the AIDS crisis, in which a different unknown killer ran through what was, for the most part, another world of men. “Both stories,” the author suggests, “are tragedies: most of the people we care about in Predator die and one by one their stories are subsumed.… As Monette worked on the novelization many of those he cared for were lost amid the tragedy of HIV. They, too, died one by one in a war our government refused to recognize.”

Obsessive, yes. But isn’t that the case with every one of us? “I love,” Monson writes, “how when you spend a ton of time focusing on one thing, it starts to resonate with the rest of the world. I know a lot of what I see in Predator is in Predator, and a lot of what I see in Predator is in me, but it’s also a filter for the world.”•

Graywolf Press

Predator: A Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession by Ander Monson

Graywolf Press bookshop.org
David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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