They Live and the B-Movie Brecht
There’s probably no need for a close reading here. Any film that ends with a whore being fucked by a corporate monster has its agenda front and center. John Carpenter’s They Live is a direct attack on the capitalist paradigm, wrapped in the b-movie bacon the director had been perfecting since the seventies. That it’s as scathing in a post-Shepard Fairey world as it was in 1988 is perhaps more indicative of the twenty-first century’s desperate consumer fortitude and the longevity of Marxist thought than any filmmaking bravado, though Carpenter brings a holistic vision to They Live that sets it apart from his previous efforts and cements the film’s subversive ideology in a fantastic world all its own.
Carpenter’s collaborating DP, Gary Kibbe, reiterates the film’s binaries of seeing/blindness by alternating between a radiant color pallet, seeped in the loud, primary colors of 1980s florescent lighting and stark, newsreel black and white footage. The color is the cover-up, a visual “watch the birdy”, and an effort by Kibbe and Carpenter to capture the ironic sterilization of a saturated culture. If everything pops, nothing pops, and hiding in plain view just means turning it up a notch, bigger, better, and more, until the brightness is overwhelming.
When the movie’s antagonists bust up an underground rally or a Hooverville-esque outdoor slum, Carpenter and his art department flood the scenes with an oppressive red hue. Road flairs, used as low source lighting, behind a swirling haze of fog give these scenes the detached, surrealistic quality of a music video, reemphasizing the underlying commercial intentions of all art, even cinema. Casting Roddy Piper (at his rowdiest) as They Live’s disillusioned protagonist again delineates the film’s awareness of its own conflicting interests, one part incendiary political tract, and the other, palpable, box-office garbage. The concept of professional wrestler as acting hyperbole recalls Brechtian distancing effects, severing the film’s suture, and bringing the phoniness of wrestling to the forefront. This is a stage. This is an act(ion movie).
They Live’s most daring moments come at the film’s climax, whereupon the mirage that sustained the corporate machine is shattered and the populace sees the rich for who they truly are, fakers and goblins. However, instead of changing the film stock back to black and white, the raw medium in which Piper’s character saw reality, Carpenter choses to bring the news in bright, effervescent color. After all, why would someone conditioned to the monotonous homogeny of bigger, better, and more, pay heed the dull vision of black and white? To beat them, one has to join first, and throw them all the bones they can eat. They Live shows up at the doorstep of consumers everywhere, and it comes with a professional wrestler, and an MTV aesthetic, then it flaunts its gloss, relentlessly, until the audience has no option but to take a look down and see just what’s been fucking them, what sort of monster, what sort of lie.