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Film Review: They Live

They Live (1988; Directed by John Carpenter)

“I’m giving you a choice: either put on these glasses, or start eating that trashcan!” A nameless drifter in Los Angeles (Roddy Piper) exhorts his coworker and friend Frank (Keith David) to don sunglasses, and when the latter refuses they proceed to engage in a bruising, interminable fist fight in a city alley. Taken out of context, it’s a spectacularly ridiculous scene, two men beating each other half to death over a pair of shades for what feels like half an hour (actually five and a half minutes). Even taken in context, the scene is surreal and laughable by dint of its very length. But that it’s also a metaphor for the difficulties of social consciousness makes it even more remarkable.

This sequence is the central fulcrum of John Carpenter’s They Live, the turning point of its gleefully violent B-movie narrative and its sturdy sociopolitical commentary. The sunglasses in question are not mere fashion accessories, and filter out much more than sunlight. They filter out the distracting interference of advertising illusions to reveal the core imperatives of corporate capitalism. Gazing at colourful, enticing billboards, magazines, and television ads through the glasses, the wearer sees instead a stark black-and-white world with even starker commands dictating their choices and behaviour: Obey, Marry and Reproduce, Consume, No Thought, etc. They also reveal that members of society’s wealthiest and most comfortable class of entrenched elites are not human beings but hideous, malicious bodysnatching aliens hiding beneath human facades and controlling the lives of unsuspecting earthlings through brainwashing, rewarding bribes, conversion, and violence if need be.

The drifter (named John Nada in the credits) finds it initially difficult to comprehend or accept what he’s seeing, but as a laconic, homeless itinerant labourer living from paycheque to paycheque and alienated from the monied classes, he believes his eyes before long. His buddy Frank, a family man and provider with more to lose, is less willing to pull back the curtain and must be forced into awareness of the hidden truth. Once he sees, however, he whole-heartedly joins the crusade against the malevolent shadow powers pulling the world’s strings once his eyes are opened. With the help of the underground resistance movement that made the disillusioning glasses and some of the aliens’ own technology, these two men have come to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and they’re all out of bubblegum (that meme-ish quote stems from this film, if you weren’t already aware).

During the peak of his powers in 1980s Reaganite America, Carpenter was nothing if not a broad filmmaker, utilizing cornpone dialogue, hammy leading-man action-hero acting and action, and blatantly illustrative music (he not only directed but also wrote and scored They Live) not merely to entertain on a B-movie level but also to advance countercultural sociopolitical themes. They Live is certainly the apotheosis of his method, although Carpenter devotees might advance Big Trouble in Little China or Escape from New York or Halloween as better or more enjoyable movies. Piper, a recognizable professional wrestler when he starred in They Live, certainly summons an imposing physical presence, and Carpenter gives him the symbolic contours of the rugged individualist cowboy hero of the Western myth (the repeating cowboy music cue over the movie’s opening section is a clear signal in that direction).

All of this framing sets Piper’s character as an all-American rogue hero (albeit one depicted by a Canadian famous for playing a Scotsman) aligned against an external threat to liberty of thought and action. That this external threat is indeed extraterrestrial is on one level a genre conceit but on another emphasizes the perceived un-American-ness of such centralized and deceitful control. But Carpenter’s target is an internal opponent, and a figure as typically American as the simple-spoken lone cowboy (probably more so): the shameless, exploitative capitalist, exercising his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness at the expense of the similar rights of others. They Live is a bold broadside aimed at the propagandistic saturation of consumerism, except when it’s a brash, simplistic shoot-’em-up.

It’s hard not to keep coming back to the alley fisticuffs between “Nada” and Frank as a key juncture, however. In his analysis of They Live at the start of Sophie Fiennes’ essay-film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slovenian critical theorist Slavoj Zizek observes how Carpenter’s film, an underappreciated “classic of the Hollywood Left”, inverts the usual critique of ideology. They Live understands ideology not as the filtering glasses themselves, the obscuring lenses that need only be removed to grasp the true message at the core of social discourse; in this film, ideology is everywhere, as saturating as consumerism and deeply entwined with its driving desires, and the glasses are the telescope that peers through its fog and dispels it, leaving the categorical imperative starkly visible.

With this in mind, the fight over wearing the glasses becomes an excruciating struggle to, in Zizek’s words, force yourself to be free. In the midst of a clandestine dictatorship of ideas, to see what is in front of one’s nose needs constant struggle, as George Orwell put it. Not merely economic self-interest and preserving the security of one’s family unit argues against such disillusionment and awareness, but also the inherent surety of ideology’s cushioning illusions. Ludicrous as this extended punch-up may be, it’s oddly moving, too, an exhausting literalized document of the agony of being dragged, kicking and screaming, into becoming woke.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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  1. September 24, 2016 at 9:37 pm

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