Ander Monson has watched the 1987 action movie Predator 146 times. The movie I’ve probably seen the most is The Muppets Christmas Carol (50 times?). I don’t yet know what my Muppets Christmas Carol viewings say about me. But as Monson writes in his new book, Predator: A Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession: “We’re embedded in the things we watch.” Over the course of the book, Monson breaks down this iconic movie scene by scene, obsessing over as well as challenging it. Along the way, we witness his sharp observations and exploratory insights gradually leading him to discoveries of what his obsession says about himself as well as the society he inhabits.
“Predator is a tool through which America sees itself, or has the opportunity to see itself if it’s paying attention,” writes Monson. With both wit and compelling honesty, he uses the movie to consider distinctly American issues such as masculinity and gun violence. At the same time, he goes so far as to implicate himself in these contemporary problems; he reveals much about his conflicted past that binds him to questions of masculinity. Collectively, these parts of Monson’s new memoir make a fascinating and unique collage that directly joins the personal with the universal. By the end of the book, you, too, will feel more than a little obsessed with watching Predator.
Alexander Lumans (AL): Your passion for and obsession with this film are ever-present in your memoir. The joy is so intensely palpable that I couldn’t help but join in. What did you most enjoy in writing this book?
Ander Monson (AM): First, I’m glad that joy comes across, because this has been a long project for me. There are at least three totally different drafts of the book, two of which were turned down by Graywolf. Fiona McCrae, the former publisher there, told me she couldn’t tell whether I loved or hated the movie. Obviously a problem. The joy has to be primary. And my experience of watching the movie Predator is really joyful. I’ve written a lot of essays and books about things that most people don’t think are that interesting or cool or important or beautiful. For example, I once wrote (joyfully!) about Dokken, this kind of shitty metal band from the ’80s. The least I can do in writing is try to use my enthusiasm as a vehicle for bringing the reader in. That’s also why I wanted to write this book with a particular structure; I want people to read and be watching the movie with me. Because I’ve enjoyed watching it every single time of the 146, often in very different ways.
At one point I was watching it frame by frame, and I kept making discoveries that fascinated me. If not for the frame-by-frame, I never would’ve seen this certain part or paid attention to that kind of shot. I love the idea of being able to see something that is hidden, like how at one point in the movie, this bonfire gets mirrored in this other shot with the Predator’s profile.
One of the more recent times I watched it, we rented out our local independent cinema. And I was so surprised at how fast of a movie it was! Definitely a fun movie to watch—not just the subject of my obsession.
AL: One of the things I relished most about your breakdown of the movie is that you talk about the iconic moments and scenes, but you also highlight these smaller, stranger choices.
AM: That’s what’s so cool about it. There’s so much more embedded than what I experienced when I watched it as a 12-year-old. That scene where the men are just shooting into the jungle, hoping to hit the Predator? That’s a satire of the gun pornography that the movie is otherwise kind of enacting. I understood a little of that at the time, but I mostly responded to how fucking cool it looked. These guys were shooting all their shit into the forest. It was a shock and awe moment that accomplished nothing. There’s always so much of the culture that’s built in, as it were. And you can find these moments if you’re willing to be still with something and just look hard at it for a while.
AL: Part of the book is about breaking down basically each moment or scene of Predator, and another part of the book is about breaking down how and why those scenes lead to larger questions of self and society. The two are interwoven in almost every chapter. What led you to choose this fluid, recursive structure? Did you have particular threads you wanted to follow most?
AM: I knew I needed to have a basic plot, which is that we’re going to watch this movie together in real time, except I can pause and do whatever I want within the pausing. Then we can go back to the movie. If you get enough forward momentum, you can do whatever you want as a side quest. I think of books as part main quest, part side quest(s). The side quests shouldn’t just be an end in and of themselves; they also have to lead somewhere. There’s a version of this book where I’d color-coded three big strands, one of which was a memoir strand (the more personal stuff), one of which was watching the movie, and one of which was a critical strand, thinking about culture. I tell my students that when you’re working on a project, you need to have a whiteboard where you have these unanswered questions that you’re putting into the air. Questions that you are accumulating even when you’re going down a side quest—it has to be fun or revealing or emotional, and the quest needs to add something to one of the other strands.
I wouldn’t know how to write a book about, say, gun violence. And that’s partly because gun violence, along with masculinity in America, are fucking problems (and problems I’m super complicit in, especially as a cis straight white guy of a certain age). We saw these dudes attacking the Capitol on January 6, and they’re roughly my peers. I know I don’t have the ability to write at that issue directly; however, what I do have is the ability to write about Predator, the thing that I love, which is, I think, also complicit in these larger problems. I can use the movie to backdoor my way into some stuff I wouldn’t have been able to articulate.
AL: You mentioned that plot was a major force in writing the book, but in the book itself, you write, “It’s the feeling, not the plot, that drives the action in Predator.” Were there certain feelings you wanted to evoke? Were you trying to explore different ones or interrogate them?
AM: I’m not a top-down plot writer myself, so I don’t gravitate toward talking about plot too much in nonfiction. And in Predator, the plot is pretty basic. And what’s so cool about it is that the plot is totally beside the point. The pleasure is in the digression. So it was this kind of frenzied joy I wanted to evoke, as well as a sense of culpability.
Predator invites that kind of thinking. I want to get into the import of small masculinity, which usually means dependence on technology and force and aggression and not communication. In the movie, however, the thing that ultimately saves Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, Dutch, is his ingenuity. He’s willing to learn and expand the tools in his arsenal. That’s the only way you can get the drop on the actual Predator. Don’t get me wrong, I love the guns in the movie. I love the shit that blows up. That stuff acts very viscerally on me. But all that stuff is impotent. It doesn’t do anything.
The movie is about the beauty of these big guys, who look really hot and really ripped. No one will ever be as cool or hardcore as them. And then you watch them get torn apart. Yes, you’re rooting for them, but you’re also kind of rooting for the Predator. So we’re identifying with the alien, especially through the Predator’s point of view, which we see firsthand. When we’re looking at these men from the Predator’s point of view, that invites us to think about who we are—other than ourselves. Like any good sci-fi should.
AL: It’s really interesting to consider these men as unattainable models. When they become prey, they show their weaknesses, which renders them more like the rest of us. And like you said, it’s not brute strength that saves Dutch—it’s his own ingenuity.
AM: It’s also not what makes us like them either. What makes us like them is actually the relationships the men have with one another. When I watch the movie, I really see evidence of actual male friendship, in a way that I don’t in almost any other action movie from the ’80s. The relationships show how all the characters have at least some depth. They feel connected and more real to me.
AL: As you wrote this memoir, did your understanding of American masculinity change in any dramatic or subtle ways?
AM: I don’t know if it changed my relationship with masculinity exactly. It’s been a conflicted relationship for a long time. But the book definitely allowed me to articulate some of the things that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to articulate. I think it allowed me to have a more reflective, more thoughtful conception of what it is to “be a man.” At 12 years old, my version of what it was “to be a man” was trying to blow stuff up. Now, when I watch Predator as someone who is roughly the same age as these men in the movie, I see how tenderness is a part of masculinity. A thing to be celebrated. Honestly, it’s such a tragic movie. By the end, Dutch has defeated the Predator, but his whole team got fucked up. The only reason he’s alive is good luck and his boy-scouting abilities.
AL: You reference so many different corners of culture and society: other action movies of the ’80s, mass shootings in America, Fallout 3, the pandemic, Flannery O’Connor, To Catch a Predator, and Little Richard, among others. And at one point in your book, you write, “Sometimes you have to contain multitudes to say an unsayable thing.” What was the unsayable thing to you? Did you discover that along the way, or are you still questing for it?
AM: I think I’m still questing for it in a lot of ways. But what also gives me pleasure are unlikely connections. That’s the leap between the movie and the riffing I’m trying to do in any given moment. That’s the real plot of the book, where those connections come together. There should ideally be surprise and delight.
One of the metaphors I think about a lot with regard to writing nonfiction is the video game Katamari Damacy. It’s this old game for Playstation 2 where you’re this little dude in domestic landscapes. Your job is to roll things into your katamari, which is a little ball. So you look for things like a coin or a paperclip. The ball gets bigger when you get a bunch of coins or paperclips and put them inside. Then you think maybe you could get a desk in there. Because now it’s getting bigger. Eventually you’re rolling a house into your katamari ball. Once the ball is huge, you give it to the King of All Cosmos. If he thinks it’s cool, he throws it into the sky and it becomes a star. And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying this additive, collage methodology. Eventually it becomes a weird bundle of stuff that could only exist in this form. And hopefully it’s got enough oomph to it that some people will read it and say, “Yeah, that’s a fucking star.”
AL: In addition to talking about the film and the questions it raises, your book also contains a very personal strand. You bring in many private elements: your mother’s death, your time as a hacker and subsequent legal reprimanding, your babysitter’s murder, and even your own Predator mask-buying experience. Of these personal elements, did you know which ones you needed to enhance or pull back on in order for the book to work?
AM: I made a decision at the end of the second draft. If I wanted to write about all this stuff, I had to be honest about the ways in which I was affected by them and also implicated in them. I didn’t want to just to be an apologist for my past misdeeds. I had to have myself in the frame. And mad Predator was the thing that hurt me into poetry, to misquote Auden talking about Yeats. Predator affected me the way it did partially because of all this other stuff that was happening in my life. I wanted to show the ways in which I have bled and am bleeding, and therefore I can be killed, I suppose, by the logic of the movie.
AL: Your vulnerability is so compelling because there’s so much tension inside itself. And talking about your own obsessions can be a really vulnerable moment, because we all have these obsessions that maybe no one else knows about. As you wrote, “Maybe it’s only in giving ourselves over to something that we find ourselves at all.” What’s your relationship with obsession itself? Does it influence your writing process?
AM: Very important, especially in nonfiction. I want to read books where people have taken their obsessions a little too far. Or a lot too far. I don’t necessarily want to be married to that person or related to that person, because that can have all kinds of bad outcomes. But that quote speaks to this idea that you first lose yourself to the thing. Then that’s where the actual self is revealed.
I teach a class at University of Arizona on collections. It’s about physical collections, but also about literary collections and their structure. There’s something really fascinating about seeing people’s private collections of stuff. It’s a powerful driver. A lot of people get obsessed with trying to complete their collection. I think it’s very important as a narrator in nonfiction to give myself the permission to take things, like my obsessions, a little bit too far. Otherwise it’s going to be boring. I don’t know how to write good idea projects; I only know how to write bad idea projects. And writing Predator was a bad idea for a long time until I just committed to the bit. I could easily have spent another ten years writing this book.