Film Flashback: They Live


Jeoffrey Pucci

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Film and cinema provide modes of explanation in the most varied domains, because they are often for us the site of profound change and reflection, crucial for self-development and experiencing what we call “the self.” Perhaps a film occurs in a manner similar to that of an “event.” For each of us it is easy enough to show that the concept of who we are and the question of how we became “ourselves” is as old as the history of the Western tradition itself. Nevertheless, the experience of molding the self is often shared — up to this point, I have sought to stake out it, marking and drawing us together into a certain nexus of experience. The function of this shared or lived experience is not to disorient us, but rather, to orient us together, balancing and organizing our horizons of meaning toward a common meridian. If each film we watch may be explained as a certain puncturing or rupturing of our distinct horizons, let us endeavor to conceive of this “event” as a profound return or remembrance of our commonality.

Now, let us consider the very basic premise of John Carpenter’s film They Live (1988): a relatively simple working class man discovers a box full of sunglasses that allow him to see the hidden message behind very common and mainstream advertisements. A billboard of a woman tanning in the sun is transformed into simple one or two word phrases such as “Obey”, “Marry and Reproduce”, “Stay Asleep”; Newspapers become “Obey Authority” and “Watch T.V.”. This experience of the decay of urban society and the blind compulsion towards acts of consumption is not difficult to locate within a certain political context. However, in order to determine the status of these glasses, the film tempts us towards a certain ideological re-inscription. We are tempted to articulate a contemporary critical (Leftist) perspective, which speaks of the alienation of labor, distractedness presented in consumerism, materialist greed eroding society, and so on. In a certain sense, They Live serves as a model par excellence for a kind of materialist interpretation of consumerism, because, as we see, it is the poor who work on the construction of objects, and are much more easily awoken to the political and economic exploitation than those closer to the ruling ideology, i.e., the construction-site workers, and the tenants of the homeless shelter as opposed to the police and store-clerks.

However, the brilliance of They Live is how it becomes an event wherein we become a sublime object of ideological reflection. Subtly, what we at first encounter is simply an ideology that is being forcibly stripped bare in front of our very eyes by another ideology. In the most basic sense, as the film unfolds we perpetuate an aggression into the landscape of this film. Thus, the “event” that I outlined earlier — a certain rupture, the puncturing motion of our common horizon, embodied in our aggression towards advertisement — is both our feelings towards the film and the brilliance of this film. Without knowing that the uneasiness we feel towards these “fake” advertisements is actually an aggression towards our own ideological position, They Live makes us both the aggressor and victim of these “glasses” of truth.

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Carpenter, the astute director, at first, perpetuates a simple horizon of meaning, i.e., we meet the main character Nada and shortly after he gets a job working at a construction site. All the signs of the symbolic world are evident around him; lavish riches, expensive cars, high rises and so on. Then we see a radical line of separation set in; Nada discovers the true message behind the advertisements and responds with an uncannily violent rampage; escaping the police, gaining multiple firearms, and assaulting a bank. In short, we, in viewing, ascend into relatively common and acceptable depiction of everyday life, and then, quickly watch it be retracted away from us as Nada and us affix the ideological glasses into our horizon. Thus, the common reality, one which we come to know as our own reality, is inverted and thrown right back at us. The changes that the film introduces do not point toward some bizarre secondary reality, one that is simply lying underneath this reality. Rather, this film makes reality, as a Lynchian would say, that seems more real than it already is — in sum, it forces us to see that this second world is actually apart of the first world — our world.

In the age of daily psychological (Symbolic) reconstitution (i.e., a new product is released, we gain opinions of the performance of it, develop ideas regarding how this product effects the brand, and so on), the role of advertisement has a distinctive role in daily life. We come to experience and know advertisements in two profound ways. The first is as either an indication of a certain system of classification, i.e., social class, or, as Jean Baudrillard says, a social code within “consumer society.” A mark that lacks actual active syntax, but nevertheless formalizes a universal system of recognition of “social statuses” or a certain “code of social standing,” as he puts it. And the second, much more simply, we opt to understand the world through these codes or stereotypes of knowledge, thus consolidating a product into a larger idea of “brand.” Thus, we understand the product only in relation to the “brand” it comes from (but also, paradoxically, only know the “brand” through its product).

Herein lies the subtle brilliance of They Live. What comes before all of this is the drive towards consumption, the desire to “know” this system, and this drive towards knowing the system manifests itself in acts of consumption.

In a very profound scene when Nada gives a pair of glasses to his best friend Frank (Keith David), he tells Frank to not wear the glasses for too long because, as he says, “It becomes harder to take them off.” What is curious of this exchange is how each character that we observe in this film, as he or she wears the glasses, seems to revert to a passive observer, one that is content with watching the different types of individuals consuming the various products present in society. It is as if these two characters need to keep the glasses on in order to make sense of the advertisements they are bombarded with on a day-to-day basis. What we have here is a hidden reversal of the film’s simple anti-consumerist political message, in which we come to say that advertisements create, as Marcuse would say, “false needs”: the obscene, uncanny, and absurd messages behind the advertisements only have a second dimension because the first dimension. Let us be clear here: we can only perceive this second “truthful” dimension because we have possession of the first.

In many scenes we are located in small shops, banks, or grocery stores, and at each, we see where there is a relatively homogeneous collection of people: some, those at banks or high brow stores are not even human, while others at lower end stores all resemble each other. The longer we observe this film, the clearer this homogeneity becomes to us. Each individual that is consuming seems to consume the same type of product as those with similar tastes, looks, and affects as him or herself. This is not incredibly surprising. However the real genius of They Live is that each individual, when given the chance to change this pattern of consumption, won’t. It is here we leave behind the simple materialist conception of consumerism, and broach a very Derridian conclusion: one “reality” only exists because of the other “reality.”

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It is no coincidence that we dreamers invent our own logic. The perception of one “reality” must be affixed to the other “reality.” Thus, in our case we must be driven towards and into a certain “reality” of consumption in order to understand this second “reality,” that is, the drive to consume objects becomes a necessary component to the individual’s life since the products are as much apart of the individual’s identity as they apart of this second “reality.” The glasses and the awakening of class consciousness observed in Nada and Frank then takes on a new dimension. As Derrida puts it, a certain becoming of the “I” – that is, one must be interpolated as a consumer first to come to see this second anti-consumerist reality.

The “event” I have called for earlier now interlocks itself with a certain rupture in the history of Marxism itself. It consists in reflecting on the status of consumer ideology and why we have not yet “replaced” this consumer reality with another one, i.e., the proletarian one. Thus, They Live ventures a very daring Post-Marxist interpretation: We cannot simply “replace” this reality with another, because the other reality would only be entangled within a system of relations and exchanges with the older replaced reality. We see in They Live that the act of consumption is never driven directly by a material mode of production nor of a societal code of “affluence”, it is rather, much more akin to our daily lives and experiences, in this discord between the visual substance and the imagery and messages affixed unto them, collectively signifying the organization of the system that one wants to have as their system of understanding.

What is consumed is not objects, but as Baudrillard says, “the relationship itself” — that is, the consumption of products, “brands”, “identities” constitutes consumption in a purely virtual sense: “[S]ignified and absent, included and excluded at the same time – it is the idea of the relation that is consumed in the series of objects which manifests it. This is no longer a lived relation: it is abstracted and annulled in an object-sign where it is consumed” (Baudrillard, The System of Objects:22). This virtual act of consumption has to be conceived precisely in the sense of the individual consumer, as we commonly say today, ‘buys into a certain lifestyle.’ Thus, we profoundly see that a consumer never simply purchases one object nor is it about simply replacing this “reality” with another “reality.” All at once, we have to think about when we purchase something, we are flushed with a new desire, one more object to adorn this manikin, within a greater constellation of reflecting and bifurcating desires. How do we escape this? Unlike the conclusion of the film, which ends in a traditional revolutionary fantasy (akin to the Leninist party with a total violent revolution), the real message is simple: these are realities of consumption, without consumption neither of these would be possible.