John Carpenter’s They Live is brilliant commentary too often dismissed as a piece of camp due to its leading man being plucked from the world of professional wrestling. Indeed, with classic lines like "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum," Roddy Piper did a great job of making us laugh so that the message behind the plot sinks in. I believe it is one of many films trying to nudge The Sleeper before the house burns down. To keep it very brief, the plot unfolds like so: Man loses job, man finds box of sunglasses in the trash, man puts them on and has his paradigm inverted by being overwhelmed by sudden evidence of a parallel world where predators are masked within the visual spectrum, man strikes back.
As you do.
More detail is in order, so spoilers follow.
Piper's character is "Nada," an everyman who is nothing/no one and therefore potentially anything/anyone. He drifts from town to town, collateral damage of the 80s recession which never really ended, and lands a job in Los Angeles digging ditches, appropriately enough. He's happy to have honest work, and still "believes in America" despite recovering from the reaming Reaganomics has given him of late. At the shelter he spends his nights, other transients stare into a TV that holds the space a campfire might have been. The insipid programming is interrupted by a hacker who struggles to suppress the main signal while attempting a wake-up call. This gives everyone an instant migraine and they resent him for it.
Nada notices commotion at the adjacent church, including flyby from a mysterious helicopter. He drops hints, gets the cold shoulder, and breaks in to satisfy his curiosity. He finds a secret room with what looks like a junior meth lab with a tape loop of hymns playing over loudspeakers. He scarcely has time to question all this before hearing arguments on the other side of the wall and sneaking back out. The police arrive to finish what the chopper started. Nada finds the trap door again. Inside is a box of sunglasses rather than the stash of drugs he expected to find. Baffled, he wanders off.
Once outside with shades donned, he's hit in the face and punched in the gut by the world that was always there, just out of sight. Rather than blocking sunlight, these "Hofmann lenses" pierce the veil draped over a stark occulted reality. Our bespectacled hero can now see the subliminal control grid laid over everything, and he can see the awful faces of a race of humanoids (called "Owners" by the preacher from the shelter) who have nested their world within ours, using power structures we consider our own to hide in sight and use us as cattle. A small band of resistance fighters hacks the TV signal to blast out spurts of warning and has secret meetings to spread awareness. They are discredited by the complicit corporate media and stalked by the pet police, who know them as terrorists and strike at them with orgiastic fervor. Flying drones, invisible to most, spy from above with weapons at the ready. I suppose this is all sounding a little too familiar by now.
The Owners (referred to as Fascinators in the original short story by Ray Nelson) have built a perfect prison for humanity, with the bars being installed within the mind rather than around the body. Billboards and magazine racks howl commands in stark bold print. TV oozes saccharin lures of magic products and brain-numbing political speeches. Even the traffic lights try to inspire drowsiness. Every media message is a behavioral program, every fad designed to distance people from each other and make them ever more shallow. The masses toil and burn out like cheap Christmas lights, chasing the carrot and dodging the stick. Meanwhile the monsters feed off human fears and lusts, making deals with the willing and disposing of resistance to their "multidimensional expansion" while keeping the majority in the dull thrall of consumption and materialism. They Live is fiction, but not far off the mark.
In his shock at all this, Nada goes a bit mad and has a bout of sketchy behavior ranging from tries to get his co-worker Frank to try on the glasses but he adamantly refuses. Being a "minority," Frank is already dealing with living in one world under the heel of another. Being a family man, he must protect his loved ones by "walking a white line" (telling language indeed) to stay out of trouble. He can't afford to ask these questions, as so many people can't. He is just trying to survive. He doesn’t want to know, but Nada won’t let him walk away. A now-infamous street fight ensues, and the men incapacitate each other. The clash of paradigms takes quite a toll on their bodies. When both men are exhausted, Frank finally accepts the glasses and both can now see. They have initiated each other into a brotherhood of two.
After a much needed beer and a night of pondering how long this has gone on and what's next, Frank and Nada team up to investigate how far the rabbit hole goes, and deep it goes indeed. They regroup with the resistance and escape through good luck into a portal as sole survivors of a "scorched Earth" level raid. They explore the subterranean compound where the Owners collude with the one-percenters who've sold out their species for cash and power, and are newly inspired to carry on the work of their dead comrades. They make their way to the roof of Cable 54 to destroy the transmitter which broadcasts the control signal, and while both perish in the effort, they succeed in revealing the truth to a staggered world just before control is absolute. Nada dies with a raised middle finger.
They Live was timely but also timeless. The dialogue ranges from cheesecake puns to poignant wisdom and the points between the lines are well-made. The imagery is iconic, kept in the zeitgeist by Shepard Fairey's Obey line and a wonderful series by Hal Hefner. Twenty-eight years on, the film has shown itself to be unfortunately prescient, like many John Carpenter films. It has deep resonance with myths and history alike, from the Matrix-like revelations of the Gnostics to the current American creep from chickenhawk oligarchy in democracy-drag to shameless corporate fascism.
They Live is not just a spot-on portrayal of cultural mesmerism and the way it enslaves and destroys us. It doesn't just remind us how quick we are to sell ourselves and each other for a piece of imagined ease. It’s also an excellent demonstration of the way that first bit of truth finds its way into the cracks in our delusions. We hear the earnest admonitions of those who can see all the time, but dismiss them as "conspiracy theorists," not realizing the term is not only meaningless but misleading and tool of our parasitic manipulators.
Then one day, we stumble upon it in a way that cannot be denied, and it shocks us. It even hurts a bit until we see it in the greater context. We feel compelled to share it, but when we try we look crazy because we’re off script. People resist, perhaps even violently. With persistence we win over a few and work with them to spread truth to those with eyes to see and ears to hear, but in the end people don’t open up to shifts in consciousness until they’re ready.
The way things are going, those who've always smelled a rat are watching the Doomsday Clock and hoping against hope for some undeniable revelation to come and knock sense into the world at large. In the meantime, it's frustrating. The water's getting hot and the frog won't jump. People don’t want to “put on the glasses.” We're terrified of what we might see or have to accept. We don’t even really know how to talk to each other. We’ve grown accustomed to talking without communicating. Nobody really cares about the weather unless it’s dangerous. Hardly anyone gives an honest damn about television or sports or politics. Yet this is what we talk about, this is how we fill the moments and spend all the chances we have to connect.
We compare notes on our distractions instead of telling stories of our adventures. When we do allow ourselves to have a good conversation, it’s like having a luxurious meal after being at the brink of starvation. We’re missing something, and we know it. Even from the safety of the screen, social media explodes daily with utter drivel and we toss it around like a ball trying to outdo each other in our performances. The computing power of a planet is available and we use it to distract ourselves from being alive, waiting for the next generation to disarm the bombs. Another spoiler alert: they never seem to get around to it.
Foreknowledge of mortality and finding ourselves in the grip of sociopaths makes us do a lot of questionable things. I don't exactly condemn us for putting on these performances, though I do insist that we recognize we’re doing it and explore the reasons why. It’s awful to contemplate the raw uncertainty underneath all this well-meaning artifice. At some buried level, the fear of silence is the fear of death. The mystery is painful until we embrace it. They say the truth hurts, but I propose that it’s the resistance to truth that causes the pain we shrink from. We seek solace from these fundamental questions in whatever answers we can find, and this opens us up to being manipulated at every level if we aren’t mindful. Present a ready-made belief system complete with behavior codes and most people will eat it up like chocolate fried in butter, but that isn’t food.
You and I probably aren't going to stumble upon a pair of Ray-Bans that double as bullshit detectors, but we can work on our inner Nada until we too can see. Along the way it's good to keep our inner Frank there to kick our asses when we need grounding. The antidote to the meme magick of The Con is con-text. You need the pieces to solve the puzzle. Once we understand how something has been used to wall us in, we can wield it to break out. To borrow a line from Ray Nelson's story, "It has to believe it can master me to do it. The slightest hint of fear on its part and the power to hypnotize is lost.”
Thus begins a little pet project of mine called Put On the Glasses, in which I will do my level best to decode and present the nuggets of truth that have always been buried in fiction for safety. I have begun it here, with this post, but hope to make the jump to video when the opportunity arises. In the meantime, for a crash course in what I like to call The Verbal Hologram, check out The Century of the Self, and definitely go find a copy of They Live if you haven't seen it! (There are rumors of a remake. I will reserve judgment and venom for now.)
Update: There will be stickers.