Who owns "They Live"? : a half-assed essay

Author Jonathan Lethem has a boner for the movie They Live (1988).  So much so that he's just written a book about it.  And this week he's hosting a screening of the film, followed by a conversation with John Hodgman. 

It's curious that over 20 years after its release, this B-movie movie has gotten the attention of academic-types.  They Live is an excellent combination of form and content: if you want to make a message-movie for blue-collar audiences (about how they're being systematically screwed) make a sci-fi action movie starring a professional wrestler.  But if you attend Lethem's screening at the  Greenwich Village IFC theater, do you expect the audience to be made up of "haves" or "have-nots"?

John Carpenter's They Live has something in common with George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978): both feature bit characters that reflect the bearded Lefty intellectuals (they're not wearing leather-elbow patches, but they might as well be.)  In both cases, these talky apparitions appear mostly in TV screens (as if they exist inside the television and not in the same world as the characters, the same way some would criticize academics who live inside the Ivory Tower.) Their ideological ramblings are fragmented throughout each film.  In They Live, a character listed as "bearded man" hacks into network television signals and gives a direct-address about how "They" have created a repressive society that's turning "us" into livestock  (watch a clip here, from 2:01 - 3:55)  Dawn of the Dead's nameless, bearded "TV Commentator" insists on the need for logical behavior, and then calls the studio audience "dummies!" (watch a clip here)

I can't wait to see what Lethem makes of the "bearded man" character.  Reading a lengthy excerpt of his book, you get connections to photography by Weegee and the shadow painted gardens in Last Year at Marienbad, but no reference to the bearded man (let alone any self-conscious comparison between himself and the speaker.)

They Live is all about "waking people up", but it's unclear how director John Carpenter feels about the bearded man's efforts to wake people up. Is he mocking the heady pundit for his inability to reach the people he's trying to save? (When the "bearded man" first appears in a broadcast, a pair of drifters turn off the TV because his talk is giving them a headache.)  Or is it the bearded man who inspires Roddy Piper's Nada to take action?  In They Live and Dawn of the Dead, the well-meaning scientist-types are on the side-lines while a war is going on (alien colonization and zombie plague, respectively).  To quote another action movie from the era, "a man is defined by his actions" (Kuato, Total Recall).  So it's not Nada's knowledge of the alien invaders that make him the hero, it's his willingness to chew bubble gum and kick ass.  

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A few months ago, my wife published a Romance novel.  Like They Live, it's a pulpy paperback that's loaded with class politics.  She and I had talked a lot about how there aren't many examples of working-class intellectuals in mainstream media.   I wondered if the people that John Steinbeck wrote about actually read his books.  But I also wonder if that matters.  

Carpenter and Romero have blue-collar backgrounds, and their films frequently feature class politics. And God knows Jonathan Lethem has his share of working-class guilt (you and me both, Johnny!) Could it be that these guys are really writing for their own audience of people who got out?  Is the audience "yuppie liberals" who escaped their factory towns by going to a psedo-Ivy League college on scholarship?   Jeff Foxworthy admits that he makes money from middle-class social climbers who see his shows to re-connect with the "redneck roots" that they escaped.  Maybe I'll go to the IFC screening next week and take some photos to post and we can decide "who owns They Live?"

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UPDATED: (12/29/10)

I did attend the screening and got some photos (below) The audience was a mix of people who love They Live but are indifferent to hearing Lethem intellectualize it and people who are fans of Lethem but wouldn't necessarily pay $15 for a book when they could hear him talk about it.

Hodgman opened the talk by referring to us as "the Human Power Elite" (a joke about the traitors who go along with the aliens and betray the human race.)  It was a funny joke and very smart.  But later during the discussion, he'd cut off Lethem's analysis in favor of going for a joke.  I definitely understand the need to keep the laughs coming (except sometimes the audience didn't like hearing jokes at the film's expense.  People actually booed when John Hodgman said things like "I forgot how horrible the movie is."

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Bonus material: 

Ray F. Nelson's short story Eight O'Clock in the Morning (which They Live is based on.)

Another armchair expert/bearded man, here's my AMC web-show episode dedicated to They Live. (No analysis, just trivia bits.) 

"Dummies!" (aka "Dawn of the Dummies")


andrew said...

What did he have to say on the subject of the bearded man? And, I guess, lefty intellectual rabble-rouser types in general?

Kevin Maher said...

Sadly, Lethem did not address the bearded man during the talk. His book recognizes the bearded man as the movement's academic figurehead (working in tandem with the spiritual figurehead), but he didn't really get into the role of the intellectual rabble-rouser in film or in politics.

When I got my book signed, I talked to him about more trivial stuff since I only had a minute. During the talk he referred to the idea that Reagan President makes it seem like Republicans are "ghouls"/alien invaders. When I spoke to him, I noted that the movie's :30 TV spot (which isn't on youtube or any DVD of the film) features two ghouls having a Presidential debate -- which suggests that ALL politicians are "ghouls." That definitely goes along with John Hodgman's observation that the movie has a "tea party" feel.) Lethem was surprised to learn this and said he'd include it in the next printing of the book.