Saturday, February 18, 2017

They Live on Compassion

I finally got around to watching "They Live", a classic of eighties Leftist cinema. There's a lot to pick apart in this movie and reflect upon.

For starters, the glasses as the central object in this movie, that when you put them on show you the hidden authoritarian messages underlying popular culture are well worthy of analysis. In fact this is one of the very first bits in Zizek's "Pervert's Guide to Ideology" movie.

"According to our common sense we think that ideology is something blurring, confusing our straight view. Ideology should be glasses which distort our view, and the critique of ideology should be the opposite - like, you take off the glasses so that you can finally see the way things really are. This precisely, and here the pessimism of the film, of They Live is well justified, this precisely is the ultimate illusion: ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world - how we perceive each meaning and so on and so on. We in a way enjoy our ideology. To step out of ideology - it hurts. It's a painful experience. You must force yourself to do it."

And the glasses really hurt (they also give a high if worn too long.) Even the rebel television signal trying to break through the mind control rays hurts. It's a little thing that isn't plot relevant and just conveys the themes of "breaking out of complacency" well.

Notably, the biggest fight scene of the entire movie, a prolonged set piece that was considered ground breaking at the time, is just a fight between the protagonist and his best friend to get him to try on some glasses. Leading to one of Zizek's most famous memes:

NADA (in movie): Either put on these glasses, or you're going to be eating out of that trash can! 
ZIZEK (as commentator): I already am eating out of a trash can. And the name of that trash can is ideology!

They Live also makes good use of setting to explain its ideas, rather than exposition. You have the hobo camp and the church and the underground gun distribution showing what sort of forces exist in opposite to capitalism. But also when they use the alien watch to "drop into" the tunnels beneath the city, it's using the same imagery as many other movies (Brazil, Matrix, Lucky Number Slevin, etc) of the machinery below surface society that supports it, the actual ugly reality underneath everything. These tunnels connect the shoot out of rebel HQ, the elites dining in celebration at the takeover, the spaceport to the whole alien-cosmopolitan sphere, and the TV station broadcasting their signal.

(Below is the 8 minute making of They Live short. It's good insight into Carpenter's aesthetic choices for the various actors and sets.)

It's a little disturbing how the "enemy" are ugly aliens who are revealed as hiding in society, and whom John Nada can massacre with no moral regret. This has led to some commentators claiming it's an allegory about Jews secretly running the world, which Carpenter has vigorously denied, but it's never good when your logic is close enough to the Nazis that you need to deny agreement (or fall back on authorial intent.)

But it's the nuances attitude towards the other humans that I want to discuss today. Holly, played by Meg Foster, is such a subtle figure in this movie. She provides the normal romantic chemistry with Nada, but their three scenes follow a very different path than the "production of the couple" Hollywood story.

In the two minutes of their second scene together, there's real sensitivity. Holly has seen the truth and is genuinely sad over almost killing John. He's glad to make a connection with someone who isn't an alien, and doesn't even think he's crazy. This woman now represents the innocent world he is fighting for! His hope of a happy ending, with true vulnerability and believe in him!

Except (in a twist familiar to fans of Utena), this victim believes the System is too powerful to fight, and betrays the heroes at the last minute.

HOLLY: Don't interfere. You can't win... Come inside with me.

She doesn't hate John or want him dead. She wants to offer him comforting security, back within the arms of the conspiracy. John must now choose between being with her and safety, versus attacking the transmitter antenna, breaking the masquerade, and immediately being shot by polices forces. He has nothing to gain from attacking the System anymore, not even to protect the helpless woman he cared for.

This calls to mind the debate over the ending of Star Wars Episode 6, and whether Vader rebelled in order to save the entire galaxy, or only his own son. "That kinda misses the radical dimension of the ending. Palpatine isn't phased by something as basic as compassion - he's employed tons of compassionate people, and that's not Luke's motivation." (Which of course Rogue One emphasizes - rather than love for a child being Galen Erso's connection to the Light Side, his attachment to his daughter is a way the Empire realizes it can use him to get more weapons.) Compassion is just one more of Kant's pathological incentives, incapable of being the foundation of a pure Act.

So They Live says that in overthrowing oppressive systems, even our compassionate instincts will be turned against us. John shoots Holly, turns around and destroys the antenna, having caused the death of everyone he cares about, but happy that he has saved the world. His very last gesture in life is giving the finger to cops looking on in horror. Was this spiteful vengeance, or heroic selflessness?

Rather than just eliminating the Jew-figure aliens, overthrowing the system will require the (hopefully few) deaths of innocent, normal people as well. What do we think of this? Is it just an excuse for continuing the eternal chain of violence, or is an admission that doing good is not simply a matter of beating up ugly aliens, but requires things that are much less pleasant.

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