Just who are these weird people that you see when you put on the mysterious sunglasses in They Live? What do they want? More importantly, what do they mean? Novelist Jonathan Lethem investigates, in three excerpts from his new book analyzing They Live.
Top image: They Live poster by Mark Palm.
Lethem's They Live book is part of Soft Skull Press' new Deep Focus series, "A Novel Approach To Cinema." Here are three sections that deal with the movie's Ghouls:
"As the night deepened, so deepened to me the interest of the scene; for not only did the general character of the crowd materially alter (its gentler features retiring in the gradual withdrawal of the more orderly portion of the people, and its harsher ones coming out in bolder relief, as the late hour brought forth every species of infamy from its den,) but the rays of the gas-lamps, feeble at first in their struggle with the dying day, had now at last gained ascendancy, and threw over everything a fitful and garish lustre… With my brow to the glass, I was thus occupied in scrutinizing the mob, when suddenly there came into view a countenance (that of a decrepit old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age,) – a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression."
– Edgar Allan Poe, "The Man of the Crowd"
They're appalling, that's what they are. Walking disasters. Flayed, scalded, piebald, grimacing, corrupted, robotic, evoking syphilis-victim scare-photos from teenage health-ed nightmares, yet somehow accusatory, defiant inside their disguises, the ghouls present no limit of affront to a healthy construction-worker's eye. They looked burnt, yet gooey. They're also – how to say this? – affrontingly cheapo (eventually we'll even notice in their ghoul-hands what looks like the wrinkling of rubber dishwashing gloves, and so this may be another reason for the black-and-white, better to mask low-budget inadequacies). This fact frees a certain relieving hilarity yet also synthesizes with our revulsion: Something this skeezy is ruling my world? Something this ludicrous is freaking me out? (The virtuosity of Carpenter's mise-en-scène ensures it is.) The first to turn to the camera and say, more or less, 'Fuck you lookin' at? is this silver-haired, foxy older gentleman of obvious privilege referred to in the credits as "Well-Dressed Customer"; his sustained, withering ghoul-glare as he purchases his magazine (with dollars that confess THIS IS YOUR GOD) is one of They Live's icons, an instant that punches a spooky hole in time. Nada hasn't located his voice yet, so we're left undistracted, or unconsoled, by any cheese-dip-Brazilian-plastic-surgery-perfume-on-a-pig one-liners. What's brilliantly guaranteed is how totally we'd loathe this guy anyway; you may not be going home in your BMW and Rolex to soak in your Jacuzzi, but he certainly is. So, already brewing within our terror is a lavish contempt, one that finds satisfaction at the rotten-corpse visage before us. Any rich guy who's every glowered at us like we didn't belong somewhere – an outdoor magazine rack, for chrissakes! – really ought to look as sick on the outside as we're certain he is in his soul. I'm fucking looking at you, man! Nada's not quite there, but he's just a step away.
Also, ghouls wear wigs. For some reason their masterful illusion-generator can't do hair. Don't think about this too hard.
"Look at the front pages of our daily newspapers. Every title, especially when it pretends just to inform us, contains an implicit injunction. So when you are asked to choose between liberal democracy and fundamentalism, it is not only that one term is obviously preferred; what is more important, the true injunction is to see this as the true choice, to ignore third options. So, again, naïve as it may seem, the film's staging of ideology is nonetheless more complex than it may appear. Once you put the glasses on and see it, it no longer determines you. Which means that before you see it through the glasses, you also saw it, but you were not aware of it."
– Slavoj Zizek, "They Live! Hollywood As An Ideological Machine"
What's odd in retrospect about the ghoul at the newsstand is that he wants to read the newspapers. This appears far more than a show of interest on his part; he even takes one home, pausing to scowl at some headline before getting into his car. Similarly, the ghoul at the bar at the end of the film sits watching television as absorbedly as any of the other patrons. How can we account for this? Which do the ghouls' robotic orbs register as they scan (presumably like a supermarket laser run over a bar-code) the dummy media with which they've overpainted our world: exhortations like CONFORM and OBEY, or the illusory articles and photographs, or both? Maybe they're seeing some third-level media, something we'd have to call "Real Ghoul News," which is being broadcast on a wavelength perceptible only to their eyes. Huh. I wish I could say the film's given me some help here, but I'm flying solo.
But this, another of They Live's zones of lively incoherence, really raises the matter of ghoul motivation in general terms. Throw out my third-level-media theory: it's likely the ghoul cares about the delusional broadcast that rules the human world because of his investment in the mass-consensual fiction that's resulted (at both levels of the word investment). After all, these entities have troubled to turn up here on Earth, to seek out hard-to-maintain bespoke suits and clumpy wigs, to tool around in our fancier cars when they could simply teleport, and to shop for blue-corn tortillas – in most regards they've bought the same ticket they're selling. So, this gentleman's probably checking his stock prices (even with the fix in, you can never be too sure the ghoul down the street's not getting ahead of you), but also perusing the Real Estate and Fashion sections, and Arts too, to see what recordings the hip ghouls are listening to these days. Maybe he's a sports fan, too. The only part of the paper surely of no interest whatsoever would be the news per se – whether international or domestic, all such conflicts would seem to be tempests-in-teapots now, bogus distractions definitively trumped by the larger fact of alien invasion and control. Finally, it might just be that buying a newspaper to read while stopped at red lights helps this succubus feel important and real. The way he wants to feel. Human.
Tracing the film's outward logic – "we're livestock!" - suggests the ghouls are something along the lines of farmers who want to dress up as cows. At the very least, they're like borderline cool kids in high school, just trying to fit in, to get over.
"An elite is inevitable." – Jenny Holzer, Truisms
"I'm not saying things were better before, I'm just saying they're worse now." – Michael Seidenberg (in conversation)
"Maybe they've always been with us." This uncertainty, this "maybe," is a sort of undertow sucking at the toes of They Live. Our ostensible satire of the Reagan Yuppie Generation, specific in time and place, keeps gesturing toward corruptions of the human spirit and species as ancient as Lovecraft's Cthulhu, or some other force even more fundamentally Gnostic. As far as specific dates go, the film is noncommittal, though it wouldn't seem necessary for alien invaders who'd been with us for more than a few decades to spend much time bragging about their recent growth curve, as these ghouls do. At deeper layers, here the film's employed a Keatsian "negative capability": that profitable anxiety set resonating in us at the levels at which we register the confusion. If "our own cold fucking hearts" are the matter here, then who needs alien invaders? (Like most of the best science fiction, the literal devices threaten at some point to resolve into ‘mere' metaphor.) And if the nightmare's intrinsic to human history, why such emphasis on present regimes of consumer greed, dry-look hairstyles, and blue corn-tortillas?
Paging Slavoj Zizek! The Slovenian philosopher's conflation of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxist politics equips a viewer to consider the notion that human consciousness, forged in familial psychodrama, yearns innately toward totalitarian ideological control (the most recent incarnation of which, according to Zizek and Carpenter, is the inverted totalitarianism of late capitalism, with its injunctions to consume and enjoy). In other words, maybe Bad Daddy and Big Brother are more or less all one problem. Poor Nada's got an inkling; though outfitted only for rampage, his fury's more revolutionary (in Zizekian terms), not less so, for having bundled outrage at the ghouls together with recollection of both Judeo-Christian paternalism and his own father's monstrousness.