Sunday, August 17, 2014

Precis: They Live

            While many of the themes and messages in They Live have been covered both in class discussions and in our readings, the role of religion in an oppressive society was never really addressed. Therefore I wanted to cover the religious elements found in the movie and explain them in the context of a Marxian framework. Religion in They Live had a two-fold purpose: 1) to unite the proletariats and 2) to be the agent that wakes the people and shows them the truth.  Leninists will interject here and quote Marx for stating, “Religion is the opium of the people,” but that’s a misconstruction of Marx’s intent. The content of religion, namely the belief in an afterlife for those who suffer in the present world, is a tool used by the ruling class to subject the oppressed. However, the methodology of religion is a legitimate form of protest by the proletariats. It is the form and not the content of religion in They Live that carry out the two aforementioned purposes. There are two clear examples in the movie that support this: the church and the blind preacher.
            The church is the hideout for the rebels; the place unites all the rebels on a literal level. However, the church in the film is only the shell of religion. There is no Christian message. The gospels sung inside the church are merely recordings and the preaching of the Church members are not parables, nor biblical passages, but “Wake up! Wake up!” a message embedded in reality than in the supernatural. The rebels are not evangelists but active combatants, engaging in semiological guerilla warfare and culture jamming to fight back against the oppressors in present-day conditions.
            The blind preacher is a further extension of how the form of religion servers as the unifying factor and the agent that incites change. The preacher is the very character Nada sees in the film although there is no interaction between them in the beginning. Nada sees the preacher surrounded by a group of people who are listening to him. However, the preacher isn’t citing the Bible nor is he talking about redemption in the afterlife. Once again, he’s talking about the present world and about fighting back. He says “They have blinded us to the truth… Outside the limit of our sight they're feeding off us.” The irony behind these statements is not lost on the viewer, but they wouldn’t be ironic if the form of the preacher, a blind man, was not shown to the audience. Of additional importance is social status of a preacher. They are perceived to be exemplary figures, deserving our attention because they have something important to say.  If the blind man was an ordinary man, he’d be dismissed as a lunatic, sort of the like the people you see at Sproul.

            The form of religion in the film plays a pivotal role in establishing authority so that people will listen and join their cause. After all, we saw what happens when Nada tries to use his own personal authority to convince Frank to join. It took a 10-minute brawl to finally convince Frank to look at the truth. At that rate, Nada will never get a revolution going on his own. But the social perceptions of clergy members enable the rebels to expedite their cause.


Aaron Baum said...

Very interesting precis. I agree that religion has been overlooked in discussions of "They Live", and I did notice its use when I first saw the movie. However, I was wondering if Carpenter is actually using religion in a positive light. In my opinion, Carpenter's views on religion are the same as so many other conventional critics of how the elite controls the masses, i.e., that religion is a way to subdue and placate those who prescribe to established churches. Particularly, as I pointed out in a comment on another precis on "They Live", 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. I wonder what you think about this? Maybe I interpreted this image incorrectly?

Furthermore, I don't think that the presence of the preacher and the Church necessarily indicate that religion itself is the one doing the "waking up". As you pointed out, the preacher was not preaching about religion at all, and was instead talking about oppression. Additionally, as you said, the Church was not used as a church, but rather as a meeting place for rebellion. By looking at all of these images, I have come to the conclusion that Carpenter is engaging less in a promotion of religion and more in an ironic making fun of organized religion. I think it is not very overt, but he is being ironic in that he is using what would normally be a place for oppression instead as a place for revolution. In some ways, this may be indicative of his own project. Just as the revolutionaries are taking a stand against established oppression in the scene of established oppression, Carpenter is taking the same stand inside of a sci-fi action film. This conflict has been discussed so often on this blog I don't think I have to restate the argument.

In conclusion, I think Carpenter uses religion to demonstrate that all revolution must be necessarily subsumed in the status quo (as other authors we've read have also pointed out), and he points this out particularly to acknowledge the irony of the film as an action film itself.

King said...
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King said...
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J Seagull said...

Well, this is certainly the beginning of an interesting conversation. I got a totally different impression from the use of the religious elements in the film. Who knows what Carpenter was going for, but the way I interpreted it was something like this:

A lot of religious movements have come into being in response to oppressive social situations -- christianity included. I mean, jesus was this loving hippie running around telling people to reject the oppressive material culture, stop caring about money, and be nice to lepers and hookers, right? And I actually see the kind of "material obsession-consumerism" culture that Carpenter is criticizing in the film to be the same kind of thing that Jesus was against. Jesus was using love to fight against a world that had had the heart sucked out of it. [And just to be clear, in case it matters at all, I'm not Christian, I'm an atheist, but a nice and cuddly one. Or I try to be, anyway]

But now we are getting into a whole big mushy area where this is dependent both on my interpretation of the film and my interpretation of scripture, which, oddly enough, seems rather aligned with Wilde's. I totally loved this little gem of his: "'Know Thyself' was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, 'Be Thyself' shall be written. And the message of Christ to man was simply 'Be Thyself.' That is the secret of Christ." (Wow!)

So, now to go into an even weirder and squishier terrain, where Oscar Wilde, Jesus Christ, and John Carpenter combine into a mindfuck-trifecta.... Basically, the film is showing us a depiction of our consumption obsessed culture as something that is confusing people, distracting people, from whatever "reality" really is. If we ask Jesus, he might say that reality is something like having nice food to eat, sunshine, and hugs. [Or was that Nietzsche? ;) ] The people who were living at Justiceville took care of each other, because that's what really matters. And the battle between the world created by the mind-control monsters and the world of "let's hang out and be nice and take care of each other" is basically the same battle that's been going on since forever, the battle between loving and appreciating life and people and the world, and hating it and wishing it was something bigger and better and just MORE. Wait. Am I actually talking about Nietzsche?

Dear Dale,
Thanks. I think this class actually broke something in my brain.

King said...

One of the most interesting things about religion in movie that I think needs more discussion is the sunglasses needed to see the aliens are found in the church but provided by the blind preacher.

The glasses that the blind preacher wears are the same ones that Nada and every other revolutionary seems to need to see aliens. I found the fact that the primary evangelist of the religion by extension the religion he preaches are blind yet he and by extension they, needlessly use the exact things that can make others see the truth, to be very interesting.

J Seagull said...

It seems this blogging platform does not allow the option to edit comments on posts, only original posts. So I just want to add an amendment to my comment above, since, in re-reading it, it seems like my jumping to talking about Justiceville may have seemed like a bit of a non-sequitur. Justiceville was in part supported by the christian church across the street. Even though it was a front, not really a church, in the movie, it was engaged in the project of helping people and trying to open their eyes to the truth, something that pretty much every organized religion claims.

Leah Daoud said...

Just to contribute my two cents to this very interesting conversation -- I didn’t get the sense that Carpenter was necessarily mocking organized religion - but that he thought it irrelevant. I think his political vision aligns with the church only in so much as both politics and religion are a site for digression from the status quo. As such, the church is empty because God is no longer needed but that location, so traditionally associated with sanctuary and truth, becomes the site of a modern truth for a modern audience.
@ King, I never thought of that!

Aaron Baum said...

J Seagull and Leah Daud,

J, wow, very interesting comment, especially the link to those other authors. I definitely agree that the origins of religion were meant to help rather than hurt, and there are still a lot of religious organizations out there who are dedicated to charity. At the same time, it is difficult to miss the fact that while the church and the preacher are strong actors in the movie, there is a noted lack of actual religious content. We see no actual preaching of scripture, and there are no scenes where Christianity as a religion takes place in an either beneficial or harmful sense (unless I am forgetting a scene, which if I am, I would love to hear and talk about). For this reason, I believe that because many of Carpenter's surface level arguments about consumerism and control are fairly conventional, when he makes no argument about the benefits or harms of the act of Christianity by only showing the symbols of the Church and not the actions of it, he then defaults to the conventional left view of the Church, i.e., that it is harmful and oppressive.

However, I don't feel that showing the Church as oppressive is necessarily his aim. As I said before, he never says that Christianity is bad, but just makes it seem contradictory that a resistive force would be using the space of a usually conservative organization as the headquarters for resistance against conservatism. So in a sense, I agree with Leah that Carpenter thinks that religion is irrelevant. He doesn't employ religion because he thinks that it is good or bad because it doesn't seem to me that he is making any arguments about its inherent goodness or badness; he only uses the contradiction between what is conventionally liberal and what is conventionally conservative to mirror his own project, as I elaborate in my earlier comment.