Tuesday, 29 August 2017

They Live We Sleep: Movies as Metaphor for Militancy

1988's They Live, directed by John Carpenter was a modest success when it was released, though nowadays if your familiar with it all its probably as a meme. Either the famous `kick ass and chew bubble gum` one liner or an edit of screencaps of the scene Roddy Piper first puts on those magic sunglasses and sees hidden messages.

Its a shame really, well ok a few of them are pretty funny. What is definitely ashame though is outside of the occasional joke and reference in other programs is that a depressingly large chunk of this films fanbase is incredibly anti-Semitic. So much so that John Carpenter has had to publicly denounce the forced associations with his film.

The film is a bit creaky as 80's action films go the action doesn't really standout and the plot relies on more than a bit of convenience to work. But it does set up its world very well, its ideas are clever consistent and incredibly subversive. Also while Roddy Piper isn't very convincing as an action hero, he does very well in the first half of the film, he is convincing as a naïve drifter who believes in a lucky break, and he does come across as genuinely baffled when first trying out the sunglasses.

Personally I think They Live's real strength aside from an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes is in how weirdly accurate the film is in depicting the development of leftist discourse and the evolution of a militant personality. Especially since this is mostly by accident. Like Carpenter says the film is quite explicitly anti Reagans America with its corporate power and consumer excess but it goes far beyond that.

It starts with a pretty bleak though accurate depiction of late 80's USA, John Nada (Roddy Piper) has just hitched his way to the West Coast after work dried up elsewhere. Decline of industry is in full swing, the Steel mills are laying off their workforce or have already closed `We gave the Steel companies a break when they needed it. Know what they gave themselves? Raises`. Its gotten so bad that even the banks in industrial towns are closing down. The welfare office is over crowded and can't cope, Nada gets a job on a construction site by essentially begging and another worker shows him a shanty town where a community of sorts has been established. They seem pretty well organised the dwellings while improvised look permanent, they have power and a food kitchen and the residents all pitch in. While Nada is getting settled in he notices a strange broadcast from interrupting the tv channel. Something that happened a few times in the 80's, a bearded fellow keeps talking about signals, distractions, growing poverty and some group that's to blame. Its pretty incoherent and the tacky ads soon drown it out.

This peaks Nada's interest, as does strange comings and goings at the church next door, he goes snooping, but shortly after the police move in, they raid the church and smash the shanty town. In a manner eerily close to photographs of the police force's attempts to evict the shanty town in Tompkins Square park New York, that same year, just a few months before They Live was released. That incident was infamous for widespread use of excessive force. Nada manages to escape the storm troopers, but when he returns to the ransacked church he finds a pair of sunglasses and that's when he starts seeing the world as it really is.

Tompkins Square 1988
They Live 1988
It was at this point that the film as metaphor for the development of class consciousness appeared to me. Its commentary on the media in propping up capitalist relations and society is fairly obvious, but less obvious is its counterpart. The broadcast jamming done by the small group of revolutionaries is a depiction of the scale and effects of radical propaganda by small groups on the wider society. Activity which does include pirate broadcasting. The group despite its cleverness and commitment is simply out resourced, the best they can do is spurt out snippets of their cause to an audience that's confused and vaguely hostile, and they are quickly drowned out by mainstream programming. The best they can do is get a few people like Nada vaguely curious in a `want to know, what its all about sense`. Its really the heavy handed police response that pushes Nada into an attempt to make sense of everything, and crackdowns on dissent have been known to be agents of radicalisation. For example the growth of Black Lives Matter after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri 2014.

And when he finally gets the famous sun glasses its effects and Nada's reactions are pretty accurate (well ok its exaggerated) depiction of how people react once they've started learning about the class system and capitalism. Suddenly the normal is different and sinister, but in a way that quickly starts making sense, though it takes awhile to fully comprehend (and some never make it that far) the implications. He also starts seeing the rulers of mankind for what they really are, a sort of bugged skull faced alien thing.

One of the things that distinguishes Communism from a conspiracy theory is that ultimately the bad guys are a class of human beings who do harmful things because its in their best interest to do so. Now given that the bad guys in They Live are weird aliens you can be forgiven for thinking They Live is a conspiracy theorist film (the non anti-Semitic ones certainly like it too) but its meant to be figurative not literal. John Carpenter didn't make the film to warn the public that aliens were among us. And to be honest without those glasses, the aliens look perfectly normal, they act perfectly normal, their power is revealed to be systemic rather than personal. And without class consciousness the capitalist class in reality appear like ordinary people just with more money and a few personality quirks. When mainstream society does vilify a capitalist its for being to brazen at capitalism like Mr Shrkeli who jacked up the prices of life saving medicines. His right to charge for those medicines was never questioned, does the scale of his profits and the manner in which he acquired them.

Moving on a bit, shortly after coming to terms with this revelation but still knowing very little about what's going on, Nada arms himself and engages in a brief campaign of individualistic terror. He guns down several of the aliens. He feels pretty good about it, but he soon has to flee and in the grand scheme of things he hadn't accomplished much. The aliens aren't really thwarted by a few deaths and if anything they're using his stunt to consolidate power by sowing fear of a mad gunman. This is a fairly nuanced and accurate depiction of Propaganda of the Deed. A campaign of political assassination and bombings, it was fairly successful in terms of targets killed, including United States President McKinley by Anarchist Leon Czolgosz, but in terms of effective resistance it wasn't very effective at all. Political leaders and industrialists were replaced and the systems persisted.

After escaping Nada tries to recruit his sort of friend and fellow worker Frank Armitage. Frank had expressed resentment at the system previously, back when Nada still `believed in America` but now he's hesitant. Nada being wanted for murder doesn't help matters. This is where the famous five minute back alley fight scene takes place. Its a good fight, but more importantly looks just as frustrating as attempting to raise the consciousness of a friend or co-worker who seemed receptive can be. Replace `put on the glasses` with `just read the book` or `watch this lecture` or `just listen to me and think it over!` and you have an accurate depiction of how many attempts at consciousness raising end up.

Also quite close to home is the argument they have afterwards in the hotel room about what should they do, and why doesn't the other one have a master plan ready to go? In my experience that has been a very big stumbling block, people are receptive and interested but often they really do want to know a step by step blueprint to changing the world.

After finally literally beating Frank into submission he two sees the world for what it really is. They then stumble back into the resistance. At the meeting is where the film is cemented as a critique of capitalism that uses Sci Fi elements and not a Sci Fi film that uses capitalist criticism to give it relevance. Its confirmed that while the aliens occupy key positions of power including in the police and media most of the people working in this industries and the government are humans, some have consciously sold out for the chance of personal enrichment, basically a form of class treason. This human elite is essentially the supervisors and senior management the real power remains concentrated with the aliens.

Frank and Nada also receive upgrades, they trade in there sunglasses for contact lenses, they see clearer with less interference. If the shades represent an introduction to class consciousness the contacts represent a refinement. Both Nada and Frank know more about what they're facing and have confidence in their struggle. Also at the meeting a ring leader of sorts is complaining that they're aren't recruiting enough, that should sound familiar to anyone whose attended a branch meeting. He also says that the authorities think the group and groups like them are all Communists, this explains the heavy handed policing. Even human cops ignorant of the conspiracy are motivated by false ideology to despise dissenters.

The last act begins when the meeting is raided by armed police. The storm troopers mow down the resistance, I'd say this is a depiction of the setbacks endemic to movements, but my heart tells me this was about the needed for action packed climax. Anyway Nada and Frank survive and they wind up in the Aliens headquarters. The plot is at times contrived but to be fair not nearly as much as I'm making it seem here. To its credit the film does establish most of the ending fairly well.

The ending is pretty interesting. We get collaborator explain that the whole world is under the control of the system. Nations don't really exist anymore its all artifice and everyone sells out every day. This is pretty sophisticated stuff, there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism, and national differences are just maintained by the system for its own advantage.

At the very end of the film Nada destroys the main transmitter for the aliens interference signal, what's interesting is what happens next. Instead of an immediate uprising the immediate effect is that the aliens are exposed for what they really are, this causes general confusion but it strips them of their power. The system has been exposed, and at present that'll have to do for now.


Some dialogue that I think sets the mood quite nicely.

Frank: I have a wife and kids in Detroit. I haven't seen them in 6 months. Steel mills were laying people off left and right. They finally went under. We gave the steel companies a break when they needed it. Know what they gave themselves? Raises. The Golden Rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules. They close one more factory we should take a sledgehammer to one of their fancy fuckin foreign cars.
Nada: You know. You ought to have a little more patience with life.
Frank: Yeah, well I'm all out!
Frank: The whole deal is like some kind of crazy game. They put you at the starting line. And the name of the game is make it through life. Only, everyone's out for themselves and looking to do you in at the same time. OK, man here we are. You do what you can, but remember, I'm going to do my best to blow your ass away. So how are you going to make it?
Nada: I deliver a hard day's work for my money I just want the chance. It'll come. I believe in America. I follow the rules. Everybody's got their own hard times these days.

Bearded Man: They are dismantling the sleeping middle class. More and more people are becoming poor. We are their cattle. We are being bred for slavery.

Frank: What do these things want?
Gilbert: They're free-enterprisers. The earth is just another developing planet. Their third world.

Drifter: What's wrong with having it good for a change? Now they're gonna let us have it good if we just help 'em. They're gonna leave us alone, let us make some money. You can have a little taste of that good life too. Now, I know you want it. Hell, everybody does.
Frank: You'd do it to your own kind.
Drifter: What's the threat? We all sell out every day, might as well be on the winning team.

Television Host: The feeling is definitely there. It's a new morning in America... fresh, vital. The old cynicism is gone. We have faith in our leaders. We're optimistic as to what becomes of it all. It really boils down to our ability to accept. We don't need pessimism. There are no limits.
Street Preacher: Outside the limit of our sight, feeding off us, perched on top of us, from birth to death, are our owners! Our owners! They have us. They control us! They are our masters! Wake up! They're all about you! All around you!

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