Like horror movies, I like to have an appropriate theme when the holidays roll around. While Inauguration Day isn’t exactly a holiday, it is an important event, so I wanted to pick a movie that exemplifies the specific mood. My first thought was to go with something apocalyptic, but I didn’t want to be so pessimistic. Instead, I wanted something that more accurately reflected the challenges this new administration presents. So I settled on John Carpenter’s 1988 political dissertation, THEY LIVE.
Note: I try to be subtle with my opinions of our new President (except for here, and here, and here), but I must confess, this one isn’t going to be subtle. If you are not a fan of heartfelt, half-baked commentary… why are you on this site? That’s kind of my thing. If you are specifically not a fan of heartfelt, half-baked political commentary, you may only want to read the first half. Go ahead and read the second half too, though. You’re tough, you can take it.
Nada (Roddy Piper), a down on his luck drifter, discovers that powerful forces in the government are deceiving and exploiting the American people for their own selfish gains. Without realizing it, citizens are being bombarded with messages promoting apathy, social division, and unquestioning support of the traditional status quo. Elite white businessmen and the super wealthy collaborate with the evil forces, getting richer while the middle class shrinks and the disadvantaged suffer. Nada and his friend Frank (Keith David) join a grassroots resistance organization that has developed a way of seeing though the illusions and exposing the evil forces for what they are. They have their work cut out for them, though, because the evil forces use their media platforms to publicly discredit the resistance and sanction an excessive police response to silence their enemies. Nada and Frank have to fight their way to the highest levels of power if they have any hope of revealing the insidious plot against the American people. Oh, did I mention that forces of evil are disgusting skull faced aliens with poofy ‘80s hair?
THEY LIVE is one of those movies that gets better with maturity. I liked it when I first saw it in 1988, but I didn’t love it. My favorite Carpenter movies at that point, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE THING, and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, all got the action started immediately out of the gate. THEY LIVE takes its time. The lengthy opening is all about setting a dreary atmosphere of hopelessness and socio-economic disparity. Carpenter waits a full thirty minutes before showing the first alien. That’s a long while to wait when you're a kid, especially when the trailer is wall to wall with crazy ghoul faces.
Coming back to it more than 20 years later, though, I found the opening to be dead-on perfect, right down to its bluesy, haunting soundtrack. Carpenter gives us time to not only invest in the plight of the lead characters, but of everyone struggling to get along in the world. Being an adult having to worry about money and a familyvcompletely changes everything. Not all of us can relate to the kind of poverty and hardship faced by the squatter camp where Nada and Frank are staying, but we can at least imagine it. Unless you are one of those snooty and condescending rich bastards like in the movie. But fuck those guys, they aren’t the intended audience. I doubt this is a very popular film with venture capitalists and hedge fund managers, anyway.
Nothing defines my deep admiration of this movie more than Nada and Frank’s epic, five minute long back alley brawl. Nada’s eyes have literally been opened to the aliens’ hidden messages of conformity by a special pair of illusion dispelling sunglasses. The conflict comes when Nada, who has reacted violently to this new reality, wants Frank to put on the sunglasses, too. Frank does not. Being stubborn, stoic men, they begin a discourse with their fists. It is a clumsy, unglamorous fight that looks very authentic (it mostly was, the actors only faked the face and groin shots) and goes on until both men are completely exhausted. Even though I appreciated fisticuffs when I was younger, I remember wondering why Frank didn’t just put on the stupid glasses and get on with it.
Watching it now, I totally get it. Frank’s resistance isn’t just sheer stubbornness. Nada is wanted for mass murder (according to the news) and he is going on about aliens that only he can see. By all accounts, he is a complete nutjob. In addition to not turning him in, Frank actually gives Nada money so he can leave town. He’s gone far out of his way for a friend he just met a few days ago, now all he wants is to be out of it. If Frank humors this lunatic, even for a second, he risks getting entangled in Nada’s delusions. At best, it could get him in trouble with the cops, at worst it could get him killed. The most sensible thing he can do is make a clean break. If it has to be across Nada’s face, so be it.
I would have done the same thing as Frank. Except that the fight would have lasted about twenty seconds before I woke up with a pair of sunglasses over my eyes. Keith David has a few pounds on me.
Once Nada realizes what is really happening, he says, “Figures it’d be something like this.” It’s a great line, because, yes, that would explain a lot about why society is in such bad shape. It also lets humanity off the hook...kind of. Greed still compels some assholes to willingly sell out their species. It offers up a convenient excuse why the rest of us accept the state of the world, though. The reality is that we don’t need aliens with subliminal messages to dupe us down the wrong path.
John Carpenter wrote the screenplay (adapted from a short story by Beat Generation writer Ray Nelson) as a comment on Reagan era politics. In some ways, THEY LIVE is an inverse of politics today. In other ways, it is sickeningly accurate. In the movie, the working class sees through the lies of an organization that works against their interest. In reality, the working class elects a con man working only for his interests. It’s funny that Frank cynically explains the Golden Rule, “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” This is a quote that Donald Trump has actually said (source: his Facebook page). He’s wasn’t being cynical.
Trump’s secret message isn’t “Don’t Question Authority”, it’s “Don’t Question What You Want to Hear”. He is an absolute master of manipulating the confirmation bias, when people tend to put more weight on statements that match what they believe while ignoring contradictory information. We are all susceptible to it, but even in the political world, it’s rarely used with such blunt, calculating, and effortless impact as with Trump. He is so good at it that he can make an indisputable lie, like “No one respects women more than I do,” (said on national television after his “grab them by the pussy” scandal) seem reasonable to his most ardent supporters, even when everyone else is rolling on the floor laughing or trying to force down the vomit.
If I looked hard enough, I bet I could match up the THEY LIVE subliminal messages with actual Trump quotes. In fact, it probably wouldn’t take that long. It took me 0.5 seconds to find these on Google just now.
The greatest irony is that Trump convinced people that he was standing with common, blue collar Americans against the elite. Never mind the fact that Trump, living in a fucking golden tower, is the definition of elite. Pack all of his unqualified billionaire Cabinet picks into a ball room and I imagine it would look exactly like when Nada and Frank stumble into a celebration for the aliens’ human conspirators, drinking Champagne and applauding the 39% gain to their portfolios.
The only difference in that scenario is there is no way Trump would let a sellout bum like George “Buck” Flowers join the inner circle. The most he would get for his collusion would be a hat. Of course, given that Flowers just assumed Nada and Frank were fellow sellouts and gave them a full tour of the aliens’ secret command center, it might be the wiser policy.
Luckily, there are a lot more people whose eyes are opened to Trump’s lies than there were to the THEY LIVE aliens (though not enough). And the people who did vote for Trump aren’t stupid. They were just looking for change and got caught up by a brash, unorthodox, and entirely unique campaign (although anyone who agrees with his racist, misogynist, bullying viewpoints can totally suck it). Once Trump fails to magically bring back the obsolete manufacturing jobs he promised, or to be the most job producing president God has ever created, more eyes will open. America will see him for what he is. The realization will be gradual; we don’t have Nada to destroy the signal that clouds everyone’s perception. It’s not going to be like the last scene where the woman suddenly sees that she is having sex with a decay-faced monster. Unless her name is Melania.