Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fiendish Slumber Party: A Movie About Perpetual Shut-Eye

A scene from John Carpenter's 1988 film, They Live
For many fans, the lasting value of They Live is rooted in silly, macho one-liners like “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass – and I’m all out of bubble gum.” Others enjoy John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi thriller because it so perfectly nails how the purveyors of pop culture, commerce and politics long ago sold their souls to the devil. Well, not Satan exactly, but amoral Masters of the Universe who control humanity by promoting greed, ignorance and apathy. In the cult film loosely adapted from a Ray Nelson short story, Eight O’Clock in the Morning, these demonic forces are actually ghoulish extraterrestrials disguised as mainstream Americans – some critics have dubbed them Young Republicans – walking amongst us.

Their hideous forms can’t be seen by the naked eye, only through special sunglasses known as Hoffman lenses (portrayed by Ray-Ban Wayfarers or a similar cheap knockoff) developed in an underground resistance movement. The first onscreen glimpse of the monsters that lie beneath comes courtesy of an unsuspecting drifter, Nada (pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), a name that means “nothing” in Spanish. His moment of truth takes place when he dons the hipster shades and suddenly – switching from color to black-and-white – witnesses myriad ways that the populace has been hypnotized with subliminal messages such as “Obey,” “Consume” and “Stay Asleep.” They are commands on TV, in magazines and on billboards with which Carpenter intended to exemplify the somnambulistic dangers of the Reagan presidency. Given a possible remake currently in the pipeline, nowadays the same theme could effectively target the regressive Tea Party mentality.

Last year, novelist Jonathan Lethem’s They Live, a 163-page paperback with an intense analysis of the motion picture, was published by Soft Skull Press as part of its Deep Focus series. After pointing out that Hoffman lenses might be a nod to Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who invented LSD in 1938, he asks: “What if hallucinations, once induced, revealed the fact that ordinary consciousness was itself a mass hallucination?”

Then again, the inspiration could be Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman in this bleak satire about capitalism gone amok. (Whatever the genesis of Hoffman lenses, in 2007 a self-described reggae/funk/grunge/hip-hop/dub/Gypsy ska band from Vancouver claimed the moniker. This six-piece indie group suggests their sound is “Pink Floyd meets Peter Tosh.”)

The movie’s poor are homeless masses confined to a compound called Justiceville, derived from an actual 1980s L.A. shantytown that was, in turn, somewhat like the purposely ironic Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. The encampment on celluloid is later demolished. It’s a sign of the alien-dominated government’s heartless determination to quash potential rebellion – even though these passive denizens are mostly content to sit in front of television sets that lull them into compliance with the ruling class. Hasn’t it been proven again and again that the masses will vote against their own self-interests if clever propaganda convinces them to do so?

Holly (Meg Foster) is the one non-ghoul character we meet that has willingly bought into the Big Lie for personal gain. With her ice-blue eyes, she’s the coldest femme fatale ever to strut in front of a camera. Nonetheless, Nada still doesn’t comprehend the threat she poses after surviving her attempt to kill him. This is as close as They Live comes to a romance. Maybe Carpenter wanted to find a bit of balance for all the testosterone.

A scene from They Live

Lethem contends he would select approximately ten minutes of the often ridiculous film – the “hard, chewy, delicious center” – to represent the 1980s and  “the minor tradition of the ‘self-conscious B-movie.’” He appreciates the moment Nada discovers the power of looking at reality, however harsh: “What makes They Live political is the irreconcilable distance between the revelations visible through the Hoffman lenses and the placid surfaces of everyday life.” In a supermarket filled with aliens-as-people, Nada spots a Reaganite ghoul on TV blabbering on about “morning in America,” a signature phrase of the Teflon president. (Is the entreaty to consume deceptively promoted by the gruesome occupiers all that different from George Bush’s “go shopping” advice to the nation immediately after the 9/11 attacks?) 

Piper, donning the Hoffman lenses
Although a revolution is the only possible remedy for overthrowing such a pervasive enemy, Nada remains a protagonist capable of rage but not leadership. He eventually teams up with Frank Armitage (Keith David), whose initial reluctance to even try on the Hoffman lenses prompts the two muscle-bound men to engage in a five-minute fight scene. While this sequence no doubt pleases devotees of wrestle-mania, it does little to advance the plot.  

Roddy Piper, who hails from Saskatoon, never demonstrates much skill as an an actor but does have a certain swagger that works well when battling creatures from outer space who pose as average folks. His nuke-‘em-all attitude may be satisfying to anyone keen on the idea of revenge against the vast right-wing conspiracy.

Despite his iconic status as a horrormeister, John Carpenter’s career has been on a downhill trend for decades. For the proposed 2013 remake, writer-director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, 2008) has optioned Nelson’s story and reportedly wants to do away with the Nada-Frank fisticuffs. Good idea. Unfortunately, he also plans to drop the magic sunglasses, the most brilliant conceit in the original. His interest is in reconfiguring the tale as “a psychological science fiction thriller that explores this guy’s nightmare” rather than as a film with immediacy about waking up from a fascist delusion. The Hollywood dream factory may create a less trashy They Live while also burying the genius embedded therein.

Author Ray Nelson
Ray Nelson, whose source material took aim at the McCarthy Era keeping the country in a persistent snooze during the early 1960s, surely deserves a biopic. While studying in Paris, he had gotten to know Jean Paul Sartre and other existentialists, as well as noted Beat Generation figures like Allen Ginsburg, and also helped smuggle Henry Miller’s banned works out of France.

Nelson co-wrote a 1967 alien-invasion novel, The Ganymede Takeover, with longtime friend Philip K. Dick (whose books always lend themselves to cinema, with releases such as 1982’s Blade Runner). The two men, both socialists and futurists, supposedly ingested acid together. Such experiences can unearth hidden layers of meaning and open the doors of perception – a term from William Blake’s 18th-century cosmic poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that Aldous Huxley borrowed as the title for his 1954 tome about a memorable mescaline trip.

The Old Beatnik, as Nelson has referred to himself, is now an octogenarian. He lives!

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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