[Precis #2] They Live
In the 1988 film They Live, director John Carpenter, a man well known for his Hollywood monster movies constructs a figurative Marxist critique on capitalism where a dominant class of ruling elite rule the masses at the expense of the working classes and poor. Carpenter accomplishes this critique through an analogy where he pairs Marxist bourgeoisie elites with a group of alien monsters who ally themselves with the moneyed human elites and oppress the underclasses. Consistent with this characterization of the film’s comparative aims is the claim made by a conspirator against the ruling regime, Ed, that he and the other revolutionaries have been portrayed as communists (Carpenter 1:09). One can locate the historical reference here when one notes the historical characterization of communism as being the foil to capitalism. It seems as though Carpenter is engaged in a project of analogizing rather than one of sheer criticism. I don’t believe it to be the case that the public viewing this film has experienced the sort of revelation that the main characters in They Live seek to produce for their public. People have not witnessed on a large scale the sort of literal unmasking of the underlying terms of their oppression that the film’s protagonist, Nata, is able to accomplish in the film’s resolution. Ultimately then, it appears as though Carpenter is attempting to replicate Nata’s work for the general public by constructing a world that is analogous to that of his audience and highlighting the systems of oppression that exist in a way that his audience can relate to and understand.
There may also be another end that is not quite as explicit as Carpenter’s attempt to enlighten the masses through analogy. An implicit end in this work may also have been to illuminate an available means to produce change. Despite the fact that the key to enlightenment in the film arose from the use of specialty sunglasses which were able to disrupt the brainwashing signal that blinded the public from their oppressed reality, it seems to me Carpenter’s real solution to problem of the alien oppressors lies in the concept of disruption its self. More specifically, Carpenter may be suggesting that there may be power in disrupting the decimation of problematic information or discourses to produce change. This would explain why the scientist always disrupted television broadcasts with new information to incite change and it would also help reconcile the problem of the blind preacher who was enlightened but, surely could not see through the sunglasses. Though laymen in the film had mixed reactions to the methodologies of the preacher and the scientist, Carpenter’s work confirms their force by always meeting these displays of disruption with force, usually in the form of the arrival of police.
Carpenter’s tactful framing of the issue of inequality in this piece allows for him to attend to a more expansive audience than one would anticipate. By tackling the serious issue of inequality in the form of a very entertaining monster movie, Carpenter is reach people from an array of age groups, economic statuses, and walks of life. The form of this critique is accessible both literally as a film available for purchase and as being intellectually accessible (without jargon). This choice does compromise the force of the argument as Carpenter is in this way engaging in the sort of capitalist enterprise that he critiques. Still, I think that this problem is marginal compared with the potential good that this film may produce by opening spaces for discussion on this topic for people who may not have had a reason to think critically about it prior to viewing the movie.
Overall, I think that this film attests to the powerful possibilities that exist for film as being a medium for producing change on a large, public scale. At the same time, I think that Carpenter’s work attests to the power of figurative language and expression to produce very accessible but, grounded arguments about human experience and everyday life. They Live is a sort of reminder of the productive political work that can be done using film or other figurative mediums.