'They Live': A Polemic Ripe with Ambiguities

John Carpenter’s They Live is “probably the stupidest film ever to take ideology as its explicit subject”, at least according to author Jonathan Lethem. He’s probably right, but that doesn’t meant that the film’s coded messages are as black and white as…well, the film’s diegetic coded messages

They Live (Deep Focus)

Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Price: $13.95
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Length: 208 Pages
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2010-11
Author website

John Carpenter’s They Live is “probably the stupidest film ever to take ideology as its explicit subject”, at least according to author Jonathan Lethem. He’s probably right, but that doesn’t meant that the film’s coded messages are as black and white as…well, the film’s diegetic coded messages. Far from being a film where everything lay on the surface, They Live contains tons of unanswered questions, “zones of pregnancy” as Lethem describes it, which are fraught with contradictions and ambiguities. The only thing Carpenter lets his leading man Nada (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper, who is never addressed in the actual film) know for sure is that they live and, as Lethem rightly points out; “Once he knows they live, he never knows another thing”.

Carpenter’s 1988 Lovecraftian sci-fi horror flick They Live centers around Nada’s arrival in an unnamed city in pursuit of work. While taking refuge at an open park homeless village, Nada discovers a church that is being used as front for some revolutionary activities, notably hacking local television signals and producing what he will later discover are cheap sunglasses. The homeless village is soon razed by a militant police force, whose real aim appears to be putting a stop whatever it is the church congregation is up to. Nada discovers the glasses, puts them on and sees that all he once knew to be reality is actually delusion. Hideous ghouls have infiltrated all levels of society, and the mass media is being used to pacify and control the population. Nada then proceeds to go on a bloody rampage.

At a cursory glance, They Live appears to be a film that toys with ontology as a cheap gimmick to decimate monsters. Perhaps the most lasting impression of the film is what Lethem dubs the “perfect sequence”, an artfully shot scene of Nada slowly uncovering the truth about his world as he strolls past a newsstand, through an upscale grocery store and bank. Here, with his new glasses on, he finds that all billboards are subliminal masquerades for stark commands like “Consume” and “Marry & Reproduce”. Lethem is absolutely correct in identifying the scene as “Ten minutes of cognitive dissonance as sublime as anything in the history of paranoid cinema, shot partly in black and white, and composed with the serene assurance of Hitchcock or Kubrick”, but if it weren’t so spellbinding as cinema, it’d be numbingly didactic and reductionist. There is absolutely no subtlety in the interpolation of advertising and media iconography as ultimately absent directives about obedience and conformity. That the “true” world itself is filmed in black and white doesn’t help matters (though Lethem offers his own interesting series of explanations for this stylistic choice).

Furthermore, Nada’s response is extremely troublesome. After he begins to believe his eyes, Nada has an almost instantaneously turn to violence. Without so much as an expository soliloquy on the part of the ghouls explaining their evil intentions, Nada gets right to slaughtering. Our overlords are never given an actual voice anywhere in the film. Instead, for Nada, the medium is the message, and it’s divisive enough to dictate that the newly manifest Manichean morality be reinforced by violence.

Lethem points out that, without the glasses (and even with them), the scenes of gunning down unarmed ghouls in white collar get-up is a horrific evocation of the endemic office shootings that regularly pop up across America. Nada (who is white), and later, his black construction worker friend Frank, become emblems of the emasculated male delegitimized under late capitalism, the very picture of a workplace shooter as described in Mark Ames’ treatise on the subject, Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplace to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond. Lethem also takes pain to note that Nada seems to reserve a particular bile for the indulgences of middle class housewives and the petty standards of high society ladies, breeding an unsettling undercurrent of misogyny throughout the narrative.

It's the second act revelation though, more than the third act revenge fantasy, that defines They Live. This is a film about what goes unspoken, not only the ontological distance between our consented capitalist roles and our capitulated communal duties, but also the narrative gaps of experience. Nada spends the first part of the movie witnessing something happening, but he remains uncertain of what it is. Frank, too, remains underserved by society-at-large, but requires an overlong fist fight with Nada in order to put on the glasses himself, the subtext being that the black experience in America is difficult enough without the knowledge of what lies on the other side of the veil. Other characters side with the ghouls, proving that knowledge or “awareness” is not always an end unto itself. “Delusion,” Lethem says “is effortless, routine and stable, while the ‘truth’, acquired in some disreputable street transaction, is grueling, bewildering, and grotesque.”

Lethem is probably best known for his fiction, authoring works like Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, and Chronic City, but he has also dabbled in pop culture criticism here and there, authoring several essays for Rolling Stone and editing the 2002 edition of DaCapo’s Best Music Writing. His book on They Live is the first is Soft Skull Press’s Deep Focus series, a proposed array of titles designed to deliver sharp, concise, and thorough criticism of individual films in an approachable format, not unlike Continuum's 33 1/3 music-focused books.

Choosing They Live, a midnight movie if there ever was one, as Deep Focus’s first entry is telling (books on Death Wish and Lethal Weapon are forthcoming). In the book’s opening, Lethem notes that he aspires to something along the lines of Raymond Durgnat’s A Long Hard Look at Psycho but, despite visual allusions to The Thirty-Nine Steps and Psycho, both Lethem and Carpenter know that They Live is not Hitchcock. Perhaps that’s why so little has been written about the film thus far and why a book series like Deep Focus is so crucial.

Much of Carpenter’s oeuvre plays like a creepy genius inexplicably devoted to the conventions of his mode, a Van Gogh operating in the style of motel art. Like Nada, for too many critics the medium will always be the message, and to be fair, it is. It’s just not the only message. Lethem is then is given the difficult task of treading lightly between forgiving They Live its narrative and aesthetic trespasses and owing too much of its coded wisdom to intellectual intention. Perhaps that’s why this brief book contains 18 pages of notes and caveats before it gets down to business. Dave Egger’s persistent delays that precede his A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius were an attempt to forestall the trying pain of reliving painful memories. Though the stakes here are much less grave, it’s easy to see Lethem’s handful of warnings and explanations as an attempt to accomplish something similar. Justifying They Live as a cause célèbre is not a task that is suffered lightly.

Luckily, Lethem proves himself eminently adept at skating this terrain. They Live is highly engaging read that’s both breezy and intelligent, hard to put down and worth setting aside at times for reflection. In this sense it will appeal to both those whose bookshelf also includes A Long Hard Look at Psycho and those who were casually puzzled as they caught the film on late night cable between bong rips. As such, Lethem’s book is much like Carpenter’s films, fluctuating with great ease between high brow and low brow, presenting itself as both a genuine work of film scholarship and a coffee table read. He avoids jargon, but isn’t averse to quoting Slavoj Zizek and acutely detailing the particulars of mise en scène. Lethem never muses too long, nor does he let a seemingly peripheral detail go unscrutinized if there’s a larger discussion to be had, practically obsessing over a Latina maid on the edge of the screen and devoting a chapter to an offhand comment uttered in the background of a scene (the Ted Turner-baiting in-joke “They Colorized It!”). This is also probably the only book you’ll ever read that compares “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to Humphrey Bogart on more than one occasion and the only with chapters titled “Bum-Bum-Bum-Bum-Bum-Bum, Waah-Wah” (a reference to the score) and “Is Nada the Stupidest Person in the Movie?”.

After the preliminary notes, the book is a straightforward chronological analysis, like a DVD commentary with the added ability to pause the film to explain key elements in detail. If you wanted to, you could read along with the film. Lethem even offers to watch They Live with his readers in they ever come over to his house, and chances are you’d probably take him up on it. Because They Live is also the funnest film to ever take ideology as its explicit subject.

The book opens with a series of quotes, one of which calls the film the Marxist film “par excellence” and another that claims it is just as reactionary as the Reaganites it rails against. Both authors are right. They Live is a ball of contradictions, a polemic ripe with ambiguities, a revolutionary text disguised as cheap dime novel, a film about the limits of perception with serious limits to its perception. It’s a popcorn flick about homelessness, the falseness of the American Dream, systemic abuse, class consciousness, the role of media, and overthrowing rigged democracies. It’s a film about mixed signals, so without them They Live would be empty, hollow, nada. Lethem has produced an exquisite key to descrambling these signals, a pair of glasses, if you will, through which to view the “true” They Live.


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