Thursday, August 07, 2014

Precis on John Carpenter's They Live

In an attempt to popularize post-philosophical theory for a mainstream audience, John Carpenter’s action movie They Live functions as a critique of American society and ideology. Main character and everyman Nada discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the superficiality of the world and into the truth; humanity is controlled by an alien race enforcing conformity through consumerism. However, due to the constraints of the action genre, They Live ultimately fails in developing an ideological critique of capitalism based in a Marxist tradition that is easily ascertainable for the average action moviegoer. This failure is most apparent in the various attempts at symbolism throughout the movie, as seen in the fight scene between Nada and his bromantic partner Frank, the “human power elite” scene, and the sex scene.

In one scene, after Nada discovers the sunglasses that allow him to see through the propagandistic consumerist veil of humanity’s alien overlords and subsequently embarks on a murderous rampage against said alien overlords, he attempts to show Frank the world through the sunglasses. Frank, who is understandably perturbed by Nada’s actions, refuses to put on Nada’s sunglasses and the two engage in a remarkably long and indulgent fist fight. This fight scene has two purposes; to satisfy the action genre requirement of an epic fight scene, and to symbolize a Marxian understanding of the proletariat. Both Nada and Frank begin the movie as homeless construction workers, and serve as the archetypes for Marx’s definition of the proletariat. Frank and Nada are ultimately in opposition with the alien race controlling the world through consumerism, which comes to symbolize Marx’s definition of the bourgeois. The literal fight between Frank and Nada is meant to symbolize the internal struggle within the proletariat that diverts their energy and resources and thus delays their inevitable revolution. The ridiculous length of Frank and Nada’s fight is meant to reflect the ridiculousness of the proletariat’s internal struggle, but the length also serves to hobble the fight’s symbolism. The audience of They Live, who watch the movie with the same set of assumptions as they would with any other action movie, ultimately interpret the fight as quasi comedy rather than as symbolic of a Marxian concept. The inherent humor of watching two men in an almost slapstick fight over a pair of sunglasses overpowers the fight’s symbolism for the average audience member. Carpenter’s failure to adequately convey the fight scene’s symbolism to his audience reflects the inadequacy of the action movie genre.

In another scene of They Live, after Frank and Nada have fully committed themselves to toppling their alien overlords, both manage to infiltrate the alien underground base and discover a meeting of a group of humans who call themselves the “human power elite.” In the meeting, the humans discuss how their profits have risen dramatically as a result of colluding with the aliens. This meeting is meant to symbolize another facet of Marxism; some members of the proletariat are willing to conspire with the bourgeois, resulting in the willing exasperation of their own conditions of oppression and suffering. The concept of conspiration is most apparent in the character of a homeless drifter who is present at the meeting, now well-dressed and well-off. When Frank and Nada hold the drifter at gunpoint, he implores them to give up on their losing battle and join the alien ranks, to which the duo refuses and continues on their mission to dismantle alien control. Once again, the symbolic significance of the scene is overpowered by the demands of the action genre. Before the audience is able to process the symbolism of the scene, their attention is almost immediately diverted by Frank and Nada heroically shooting and blasting their way through the alien base. Because the action genre demands that action cannot stop once it begins, the static and dialogue-reliant “human power elite” scene does not last long enough for the audience to properly interpret its symbolism. Carpenter’s attempt at discussing the Marxian concept of willing proletariat collusion with the bourgeois ultimately fails because the action genre prevents him from spending enough time to fully elaborate upon his use of symbolism.

In the final scene of the movie, a woman is having sex with a man who is revealed to be an alien after Nada succeeds in destroying the alien technology that masked their presence from humanity. The scene is meant to metaphorize the entire movie and symbolize the most basic premise of Marxism. The human woman is literally being screwed by the alien man, just as humanity has been figuratively screwed by their alien overlords, just as the proletariat is being figuratively screwed by the bourgeois. However, the conventions of the action genre once again come into direct conflict with Carpenter’s attempt at popularizing post-philosophical ideology, as the beautiful blonde with tits bare stares in horror at her alien lover who weakly replies with, “What’s wrong, baby?” The gratuitous sex scene demanded by the action genre, coupled with the humor of the final line completely overshadows the scene’s attempt at metaphorizing both the plot and ideological critique of the movie. Carpenter does manage to create meaningful symbolism and create a coherent argument against ideology in They Live, but the restrains of the action genre causes Carpenter to fail in conveying his argument to his audience.


Shayda Azamian said...

This piece was very intriguing! Although I believe Carpenter's central message (that human society is slave to consumer culture and superficialty) is still quite apparent and succeeded to some extent, I do see how the slight nuances of Marxist theory in the film could be overlooked by the audience. Great job lending a more substantial meaning to the film (especially with that fight scene)!

Dale Carrico said...

This is a fine, detailed precis, frankly it is probably just one revision away from being a pretty good paper. I definitely agree with you that part of the intriguing/ entertaining failure of the film involves the inadequacy of the sunglasses as a figure of ideology in the movie. As you say, "the sunglasses... allow [Nada] to see through the propagandistic consumerist veil of humanity’s alien overlords," but as you go on to elaborate that veil is more complicated than the figure can bear -- since that "veil" involves not only concealing propagandistic messages, but also obscuring the alien form of the occupiers, but also the complexities of human-alien collaborators. Presumably all of dynamics operate according to different (possibly related, depends on how you think about it) mechanisms, and definitely sunglasses that enable one to "see differently" wouldn't be enough to reveal all of these dynamics at once. It is intriguing that you highlight the fight and the sex scene coda -- the buddy bromance and the allegory of "occupation" (with all its troubling racialized indicators) at the end direct us to the key question: how solidarity can both organize to resist oppression or can be resisted or distorted to consolidate oppression. You don't mention the Holly plot, but it is part of that story (not that the sunglasses provide Nada no clue of the threat represented by Holly's collaboration -- at least on my reading of the film). It is worth noticing that in the porn tableau at the end there is also a "Marry and Reproduce" propaganda injunction on the wall meaning that two ideological mechanisms are exposed in the scene. I like how you allow the ridiculousness of the fight scene to become part of your reading of it. The humor (much of it possibly unintentional) is an undertheorized element in the working out of the movie's themes. Very good precis.

Theodore H said...

I agree that the conventions of the action genre hindered the Marxist critique of consumerism. The irony is that Carpenter is an inverse of Nada. Nada feels powerless, but decides to fight against consumerism upon learning the truth. Carpenter is aware of the truth but decides to cave in by following the formulaic devices found in the action genre, namely the fight scene and the gratuitous sex scene.

I agree that the 10-minute fight is interpreted on a comedic level by most audience members, but I can't help but wonder if it was intentional. After all, even for an action movie, a fight scene of that length is absurd. Maybe that's Carpenter's modus operandi. I stated earlier that Carpenter caved in to society's standards, but what if the fight scene is a way for Carpenter to make fun of the genre (and the system) rather than to live up to it. Rather than to follow the generic formula, he decides to make fun of it by turning a standard fight scene into a complete mockery.

Yiming Huang said...

What I think here is that the 10 minute fighting scene in the middle part of the movie does not fit the "comedy" or "Hollywood" requirements. First of all, i am takong film history classes in this summer session and the fighting scene definitely did not fit the standards of a "fighting scene", even if it is a low budget B movie. I think Carperter put those scenes there in order to dramatize the conflict between the proletarian class itself, and also things such as how to convince your friend... or something else, but not just as to fit the standards of cinematography.

Joshua Park said...

Wonderful precis to read. It was very clear and you supported yourself very strongly.

What was especially interesting for me was your second evidence that you brought in. I didn't think about the constraints on Carpenter's Marxist concepts in the scene of the shooting that limited what he wanted to convey from the scene where the human power elite conspire with the bourgeoisie. The conflict that Carpenter struggles with between the characteristics of an action film genre vs. what he wants to say in his message definitively limits the seriousness of his message but the component of time was a unique addition that really caught my attention.

As for the ongoing discussion on the fight scene, I would agree with what you and Yiming said about the elongated fight between the two men and what it represents. I consider what Theodore proposed in how the prolonged fight scene was purposefully extended in order to make a mockery of the action film genre. It is an interesting perspective but it doesn't have as much support as the dramatization and the representation of the internal class struggle among the proletarians due to the overall purpose of Carpenter's movie. I don't believe there is enough of the other scenes to legitimize the idea that Carpenter was critiquing the system, so the fight scene would be the lone, singular case. But it is interesting to think about and how for that particular scene, people can interpret it in various ways because of its humorous and over-dramatic characteristics.

Aaron Baum said...

Ok, so since this fight scene has been discussed a lot in these comments, I decided to rewatch it here These are some things I observed after viewing:

In the beginning of the scene, Frank's refusal to put on the glasses reflects the refusal to see the system of oppression for what it actually is. Often the truth is frightening, and it is more satisfying to ignore the realities of oppression, or replace the truth with a more watered down one, than it is to accept it. It is interesting that Frank, in the beginning of the film, is actually more willing to look at injustice and criticize it than Nada is, but in this case, the situation is reversed. This leaves me with more questions than answers. Why does Frank accept some of the truth, but not all of it?

Next, Frank calls Nada a "crazy mother[fucker]" (this is, of course, after Nada has gone on his murderous rampage). While this reaction to a mass murderer is understandable, I feel like on a deeper level it shows how the bourgeoisie attempt to marginalize those who threaten the status quo through the prison and crime system. The mass incarceration system and legislation barring small amounts of drug use or possession are less meant to punish criminals than to create tension and conflict within the proletariat so that they oppress and fight each other.

In response to Frank's accusation, Nada responds: "Either put on these glasses, or start eatin' that trash can". This quote demonstrates a sort of "you're with us or you're against us" mentality, which characterizes, in some ways, the more extremist Marxist socialists in regards to the moderate social democrats. Even though they are more often than not on the same page, the two groups decide to fight with each other over tiny disputes rather than produce a compromise between being with and being against.

In a similar vein, the highly choreographed nature of the fight represents how the bourgeoisie has highly choreographed and puppeteered the conflicts inside of the proletariat. As previously pointed out, this scene is indicative of internal struggles within the proletariat which distract from the true enemy. Even more than that though, this scene as a scene which took weeks to organize and choreograph shows that these internal conflicts are not impromptu or natural, but are in fact engineered to take place in the service of the wealthy. This is especially true in regards to the race dynamics of this encounter, but for more on that, see my comment from the other precis on They Live.

Finally. even though at first there is somewhat legible (though, admittedly, not all that intelligent) discourse between the two characters, the dialogue eventually devolves into simply grunting. In fact, even when they return to English, Frank responds to Nada's request to "put the glasses on" by simply saying "fuck you". This again returns to the conflict between those parties who have more in common than they have different, for Carpenter is showing that their discourse eventually turns more into throwing words out than producing actually productive, enlightening argumentation.

AC said...

@Aaron: Wow, that's a really thorough analysis of the scene. I liked how you brought up the bit about the usage of language at the end - that's definitely not something I noticed on my own.

To return to Clinton's original discussion about whether or not the more ridiculous/humorous genre-related characteristics of the film completely undermine the arguments Carpenter tries to make about ideology, I would have to disagree and argue that Carpenter intentionally uses the constraints of genre to enhance his critiques on ideology as a broader method/discourse (so not Marxism in specific).

I think Carpenter is critical of ideological frameworks as a whole because ideology tries to pigeonhole and classify reality into black-and-white categories, but reality is actually much more complex than that and thus ideology will never be perfect. For example, in the movie not all aliens are bad, not all humans are good (Holly...), Nada isn't the perfect hero because he can be violent, racist, sexist, etc.

The film itself is an ideology, and it becomes a living example of what Carpenter is arguing: you might expect something of the movie because of its genre--and in a sense the movie does fulfill some of the "expectations" of a cheesy action movie, such as stuff people have pointed out like the emphasis on senseless violence and the gratuitous sex scene--but at the same time is able to "include" the Marxist ideas. I wouldn't go so far to say that genre limitations cause Carpenter to fail in his argument, but that it just changes the nature of it.

Aaron Baum said...


I can definitely see how some of the contradictions in the arguments of the film may look like carefully planned nuances as long as we take Carpenter to be a genius filmmaker and theorist. To me though, I agree with Clinton in his evaluation that trying to be both an action movie and an argumentative text at one and the same time undermines the efforts of both.

In my previous evaluations of this movie, I've often come to places which present conundrums rather than complete answers, and where seemingly uniform arguments are betrayed here or there. This seems like less of an attempt to show the non black-and-white nature of reality and instead shows more of both the incompetence of Carpenter as a critical theorist and the difficulty of being critical of the status quo and being subsumed inside of it.

One example is the use of the church in the movie. In the very first image of the film with the words "They Live" gratified on the wall, the image around it depicts a crumbling, chaotic city with a cross on top of the tallest high rise which looms large above the chaos. This makes it appear as if Carpenter believes that organized religion is one of the tools which the elite uses in its oppression of the proletariat, which would not be surprising as this argument is fairly common. However, later on in the film we learn that the church is precisely the place in which resistance takes place, and the preacher is a key figure in the resistance. This contradiction appears to me to be sloppy argumentation, not an example of how the Church can both control and resist. There are other examples of similar issues in his arguments that I don't feel like taking the time to elaborate right now.

In terms of the action move tropes, I believe that they may have a double meaning. For the casual film-goer, Carpenter's use, and often abuse, of cliches is not unusual. However, for those watching it as an argumentative text, the complete absurdity of overused cliches takes on the role of parody, and actually serves to make fun of the genre rather than to uphold it.

So in some ways, Carpenter is making a complicated and often lower than surface level argument, and at other times it seems like he can't reconcile the differences between his two modes of approach.

Clinton Barnes said...

@AC, I agree that Carpenter manages to make a coherent argument substantiated with relevant situations. Carpenter's failure lies not in his argument, but in his communication of the argument to a mainstream audience. Students of a rhetoric class are easily able to spot Carpenter's argument, but I contend that the conventions of the action genre and the humor— whether intentional or not— causes his argument to be lost on his intended audience.

Clinton Barnes said...

@Aaron Baum, I agree that Carpenter makes several arguments about ideology in the fight scene. An entire paper could be written exclusively on the fight scene. The arguments could be identified only after re-watching the scene in a rhetorical mood paying close attention for deeper arguments, which reflects Carpenter's failure to communicate effectively with his audience; the typical moviegoer of an action movie is not going for poignant social commentary; they're going to see shit blow up.