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August 5, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #31 - THEY LIVE

If you've read anything I've ever written, particularly about independent cinema, you can probably see that I come from a mainstream background. This was never my choice, nor was it something people told me to do...it was simply what I learned via observation when I was young. I saw that what was popular on TV was what I was supposed to watch, that what was on the radio was what I was supposed to listen to, and that what was told to me by textbooks was what I needed to know about life. That's just the way life was presented to a farm kid with limited resources, because it's what was put in front of me. I didn't know any better, and I couldn't see outside this vision that had been forced upon me.

I always kind of knew I didn't want to go along with the flow - I was the only kid in my 2nd grade class who didn't show up to music class with a tape of The Beach Boys singing Kokomo - but I didn't know what to look for out there. Thus, my tastes ran toward what was offered, and I didn't question it as I aged. Movies with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts were what was defined as good, and I knew better than to use that g-word when talking about the silly horror and sci-fi flicks I loved watching. Even as I approached college, I didn't question the cinematic order that had been placed in front of me, because it wasn't accepted by the people around me. So when I saw a movie called They Live (directed by John Carpenter) on that "guilty pleasure" known as MonsterVision, I loved it...but I didn't really get it. I couldn't see what the film really was.

Contrary to popular myths, going away to study as a young adult at a costly university didn't initially offer much to change the narrow view of arts and culture that had been instilled by society. But one day, out of curiousity, I opened up my film history textbook (A Brief History of the Movies, by Mast & Kawin) and started looking around to see if any of the "cult" movies I loved were even mentioned in the book. Surprisingly, I found that the book not only referenced They Live, but that discussion of the film stretched across three pages of their text.The argument these authors presented changed my view toward cinema entirely. It had been easy for me to call it a goofy sci-fi flick with Roddy Piper, alien friendly sunglasses, and that fight scene that nearly required a commercial break, but they called it something else. They called it "the most political film of the 1980s". They called it "radical", and not in the way Bill and Ted use the word. They called it a film in which the characters' "vision is at stake". And I immediately realized, they were right on. I rushed home from class and watched the movie again, finding that my vision of the film (and in turn, cinema in general) had changed completely.

If you don't know They Live - and really, you need to know it - the main point of the story is not just aliens and choreographed fight scenes. In the film, a nameless blue-collar worker (Piper) is given the ability to see not only the aliens that are colonizing our planet, but to see the subliminal messages that they are transmitting to society. By witnessing his journey, the viewer comes to realize that the media - primarily the TV, but also magazines, newspapers, billboards, and even the labels of products in the grocery store - consists entirely of messages planted with the intention of manipulating society to fulfill the aliens' needs. Only a select few humans, led by this blue-collar fellow, have their vision restored (via fight-worthy sunglasses) and are allowed to see the truth of the situation.

(Amidst the film's tools of manipulation, movies seem to be protected - and Carpenter even has an alien film critic mention that the films of himself and George Romero are against this conformist society. Carpenter seems to go out of his way to distance his film from the TV shows of the era by using his normal wide (2.35:1 aspect ratio) lens, which sets the film up to be difficult to be shown on (4:3) television sets. Unfortunately, the latest DVD version of the film succeeds in cropping the edges off of Carpenter's frame.)It's well worth mentioning that the aliens shown in They Live are presented in a manner entirely similar to the films of the 1950s that inspired John Carpenter to "watch the skies". These films, generally shot in black-and-white with big-eyed aliens - were often responses to the communist "Red Scare" of that era. Though the Cold War was still raging in the '80s, people didn't have a sense of urgency in looking for the truth within society. They were too distracted by their TV and other kinds of entertainment, which were busy telling them what to like and/or purchase. (This included those of us that were children....if you're older than 25, I bet you still have a television commercial from the 1980s that you can recite from memory. In my case, it's those damn My Buddy/Kid Sister promos.)

Sadly, I don't think much has changed since They Live was released. "Stars" like Justin Beiber and Paris Hilton exist thanks to overexposure via free television, where Ellen and Oprah live as the most trusted women on the planet. Everyday people who will conform to Hollywood's standards can quickly turn into Reality TV stars, which isn't too different from those who conform with the aliens' demands in the film and get to go "backstage at the show". (The film also points its finger toward politics, which reminds me that many believe America's current President was elected on the strength of his bumper stickers and t-shirts. That's all I'm saying there, because I don't know anything about politics and couldn't tell an Andromedan from Newt Gingrich.)Are we still living in the world Carpenter envisioned in 1988? Do "they" live while we sleep? I can't say for sure, but I'm keeping my eyes open. When I see young people picking their favorite actors or actresses because they look good on magazine covers or hear them talking about how much they love a song they've heard once an hour on the radio all week, I think of the conformity that They Live warned us about. And our precious movies are under attack too, thanks to services like Netflix and Redbox that do their best to suggest we conform with others who liked something we liked, while the theatrical experience is slowly phased out so viewers will be stuck in front of their TV having their options controlled by On-Demand services.

Like Joe Bob was doing that night on MonsterVision, those of us who do see the other side of the entertainment spectrum are responsible for doing our best to remind people that they don't have to OBEY or CONFORM. They can search for the types of films that those in power are sick of, and should know that subversive and important films like They Live - films that just might restore your vision - are waiting to be found.

HorrorBlips: vote it up!

12 comments:

kindertrauma said...

Exceptional Post! This is a daunting film to review and I'm impressed by your approach. I guess we all grew up with the limited palette of our upbringing but the internet (much like those glasses) really has done an an outstanding job (for some) of opening up their eyes to different ways of seeing things. They live & we do sleep but films like Carpenter's are mighty fine alarm clocks. Thanks for reminding me of that Mike!-Unk

Planet of Terror said...

Bravo Mike. Muy excelente!

Fred [The Wolf] said...

This post was incredible. What a great read. And yes, THEY LIVE must be seen by everyone! I think it's Carpenter's last *great* film [even though VAMPIRES was good, but not great]. It sucks that they're remaking this since this film still holds up extremely well.

Emily said...

I pat thee on the back good sir. Great work here. I do wonder if THey Live may have garnered a little more respect had someone with a little more weight played Nada, but I may just be saying that because deep down, I find it offensive that Kurt Russell doesn't star in everything John Carpenter touches.

But truly, great work.

Carl (ILHM) said...

I have always wished I was one of the cool kids that enjoyed THEY LIVE, but I didnt discover it until a few years ago and I just never got in to it, time has been rather harsh to it and its just so goofy. Great premise, excellent social commentary, but a film that could legitimately use a remake.

James Van Fleet said...

Very cool analysis. It makes me wish that Carpenter tried his hand at satire more often, given how much fun it is here.

Trick or Treat Pete said...

comment part 1
This article made me immediately think of George Orwell's 1984. We believe what we are told without question, for when we question, we are a threat to the status quo. What we are told is controlled to elicit the correct response. Facts are on a "need to know" basis or omitted all together.
That led me on in thought to the film Equilibrium. Living in that emotionless, controlled society for what leaders considered was the greater good, for what is more frightening: a group of thinking, feeling, "individuals" or a docile, quiet, unquestioning group of cookie cutter citizens?
Then, that led me to thinking of Pink Floyd's song, Comfortably Numb, which is how society unfortunately seems to be. We are unwilling to step outside the predetermined lines of thought.
Great article...now I need a tylenol!
Dreaded Dreams
Petunia Scareum

Trick or Treat Pete said...

comment part 2
That led me on in thought to the film Equilibrium. Living in that emotionless, controlled society for what leaders considered was the greater good, for what is more frightening: a group of thinking, feeling, "individuals" or a docile, quiet, unquestioning group of cookie cutter citizens?
Then, that led me to thinking of Pink Floyd's song, Comfortably Numb, which is how society unfortunately seems to be. We are unwilling to step outside the predetermined lines of thought.

Trick or Treat Pete said...

comment part 3
and of course, that led me to think of The Stepford Wives, where a need to have a certain type of society with a "perfect, obedient, unquestioning wife" is desired above all else, once again, removing the individual and replacing it with the all important controlled situation at any cost. She will never tell you no, she will never not have things as you like them, she will never have any thoughts other than those you "program" her with, she will never talk back, she will fulfill all "your" needs, as she no longer has any of her own. Here the death of the individual is not just figurative, but literal.

Trick or Treat Pete said...

comment part 4
We are taught at an early age to become good consumers. Why get that better education? So you can get a better paying job and spend that extra cash on crap the mass media tell you you need. Drink this drink and you'll be happy, drive this car and you will be sexy, own this whatever and you will be fulfilled, do as we say and not as we do. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain...you tv is now in our control...
My goodness, ghouls and ghoulettes, now I need a tylenol
Dreaded Dreams
Petunia Scareum

The Mike said...

Many thanks all! I've been kicking this topic around for a while, and am glad that my final product turned out comprehensible!

@Unk - Great call about the internet. In thinking this out I thought about breaking down the avenues "those who see" can use to spread their word, but was running long and figured that might be a different story for a different day. Regardless, it's definitely helped open my eyes, and I've seen others benefit from it as well.

@Fred - Unfortunately, I completely agree this has been the last "great" film from Carpenter. I like most of his stuff, but the run he had from '76-'88 was flawless in my book.

@Emily - I've always had a similar wonder about the casting. Trouble is, I don't know if they could have gone with a big money star of the era and maintained the "blue collar" feel. As much as I used to think it was silly that it's Piper, I can't think of anyone - except Russell - who I'd have put in the role.

@Carl - Part of me thinks a remake could work, but it's the part of me I don't like. :) Like I said, I can't deny the silliness of the film at times, but it's grown on me so much that I just can't deny it.

@James - Thanks for reading man! Been a while, hope you're doing well! I totally agree about Carpenter and satire, too.

@Pete - Good stuff there. I never really thought of it in line with Stepford Wives, but it's a great comparison!

Again though, thanks to all for the comments, they're very appreciated.

Mike Snoonian said...

This film's been on my mind a lot lately. I think I'm going to rent it again tomorrow for another spin over the weekend. (I actually used the famous Roddy Piper line while conducting a training course this week-one guy appreciated it).

Out of all Carpenter's work, this one remains the most relevant in present day.