E38 -

Julian Sachez & Jesse Walker join the show to discuss how John Carpenter’s underrated sci‐​fi horror movie, They Live, did more than skewer yuppies — it gave us the last word on the Reagan era

Hosts
Landry Ayres
Senior Producer
Guests

Research fellow Julian Sanchez focuses primarily on issues at the busy intersection of technology, privacy, civil liberties, and new media — but also writes more broadly about political philosophy and social psychology. Before joining Cato, Sanchez served as the Washington Editor for the technology news site Ars Technica, where he covered surveillance, intellectual property, and telecom policy. Prior to that, he was an assistant editor for Reason magazine, where he remains a contributing editor. Sanchez’s writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The American Prospect, Reason, The Guardian, Techdirt, The American Spectator, and Hispanic, among others, and he blogs regularly forThe Economist’s Democracy in America. Sanchez studied philosophy and political science at New York University.

Jesse Walker is books editor of Reason magazine. He has written on topics ranging from pirate radio to copyright law to political paranoia, and he is author of the books Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (New York University Press, 2001) and The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (HarperCollins, 2013).

Summary:

The narrative of They Live follows the social‐​democratic political story described by George Monbiot in his book Out of the Wreckage. This story “explains how the world fell into disorder” as a result of the “self‐​seeking behaviour of the unrestrained elite.” Julian Sachez & Jesse Walker join the show to discuss how John Carpenter’s underrated sci‐​fi horror movie, They Live, did more than skewer yuppies — it gave us the last word on the Reagan era.

Transcript

[music]

0:00:03.0 Natalie Dowzicky: Welcome to Pop & Locke. I’m Natalie Dowzicky.

0:00:05.3 Landry Ayres: And I’m Landry Ayres.

0:00:07.1 Natalie Dowzicky: They influence our decisions without us knowing it, they numb our senses without us feeling it, they control our lives without us realising it. Do you need any more hints for today’s movie? It also includes the longest fight scene to probably ever grace our screens. Here to discuss John Carpenter’s They Live, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, Julian Sanchez.

0:00:29.3 Julian Sanchez: Hey.

0:00:29.7 Natalie Dowzicky: And the book’s editor at Reason, Jesse Walker.

0:00:32.2 Jesse Walker: Hello.

0:00:33.0 Julian Sanchez: Do we wanna do like a capsule summary of what the movie is actually about for people who were are putting this on without…

0:00:39.5 Landry Ayres: Sure!

0:00:39.7 Julian Sanchez: We can just jump in…

0:00:39.9 Natalie Dowzicky: Yeah!

0:00:41.1 Landry Ayres: Give us the CliffsNotes. CliffsNotes? CliffNotes? Sparknotes. We’ll go with Sparknotes. Give us the Sparknotes They Live.

0:00:49.1 Julian Sanchez: So John Carpenter’s They Live is about a young drifter played by Roddy Piper, not actually ever named in the film itself, but identified in the credits as Nada. So for the first 15 minutes, this is a movie kind of really lacking in fantastic elements. It’s about this drifter who’s come from Colorado to LA to look for work. During rough economic times, ends up befriending a Black construction worker named Frank, and they kind of establish their worldviews. Nada is kind of an optimist who, despite rough circumstances, believes in the American Dream. Frank is much more cynical. And then after witnessing this seemingly kind of unprompted act of police brutality where they raid a church and break up a homeless encampment, Nada finds a pair of sunglasses, that some kind of apparent insurgent or radical group using the church as a cover has been manufacturing. And putting on the sunglasses, suddenly sees the world in black and white and begins to see through the veil of illusion that has apparently been placed over reality, Matrix style. Begins to see television advertising and billboards and magazines as actually containing subliminal messages urging people to obey, marry and reproduce, stay asleep, no independent thought.

0:02:15.2 Julian Sanchez: And begins realising also that some individuals in the world around him are ghoulish alien‐​looking beings, who quickly become alerted to his ability to perceive reality. He goes on a violent killing spree, ultimately hooks up with a woman who works at the local television station. And then finds his friend Frank, who he, in a painfully extended alley fight scene, he forces to wear these glasses and perceive the reality. To keep this brief, they eventually formulate a plan with the help of Holly, who at first did not believe any of this, but seems to have come around and joined up with the resistance, to make a raid on the television station where they believe the illusion signal is being broadcast from. And they stage an assault on that location, but at the last minute that it is revealed that Holly too has sold out to the aliens, shoots Frank and Nada, but ultimately does not prevent him from destroying the satellite. And so the final scenes show that the world at last awakens to the truth of the ghouls’ existence.

0:03:26.2 Jesse Walker: And I should add, since this is all being beamed out from one satellite dish on the roof of a building in Los Angeles, a single earthquake could have had the same effect and reveal to everybody that there are aliens walking among us.

0:03:42.4 Landry Ayres: Viewing this film today, it is kind of hard to miss some of the symbolism and tropes that many read, I would argue, mostly rightfully so, as at least lightly anti‐​Semitic, if not outright. You’ve got David Icke reptilian overseers with Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Power and collaboration forming a New World Order that the world is blind to, save for the White working class, down on his luck protagonist who turns violent, Nada. How much criticism of Carpenter is warranted for using such what is now blatantly anti‐​Semitic tropes in the film? How much is on Ray Nelson, the author of the short story, Eight O’clock in the Morning, that you could also say, uses them even more? And is any criticism warranted for those use? Does that matter? Do these symbols have a meaning that they can be divorced from and diluted at least to a sort of more palatable or understanding meaning?

0:04:55.6 Jesse Walker: Well, Carpenter has said that he does not like it when people read anti‐​Semitic messages into his movie, that it’s not how he intended it, that he doesn’t see how anyone could do that. That that’s just not the intent. It’s pretty easy to see how someone armed with an anti‐​Semitic point of view could see that reflected back to them by the movie, but of course there’s other ways to read the movie as well. All the elements here that resemble anti‐​Semitic conspiracy theories also resemble other conspiracy theories, and it’s the nature of conspiracy theories to be adapted from one use to another with different people put into the villainous roles.

0:05:42.7 Jesse Walker: Even some things that we think of as just innately anti‐​Semitic because they’re so closely attached, like the blood libel, the idea of the Jews secretly meeting to consume the Christian babies and their blood. That appeared in medieval and early modern times. It was applied to heretics and then to Protestants. You go to late antiquity, there are stories like that about the early Christians. So to me it’s not that They Live is an anti‐​Semitic text, it’s more… How interesting is it that an anti‐​Semite can read their worldview into this, as many have? To what extent is that a coincidence, to what extent does that mean that he’s doing some drilling for oil some place close to where these other people were. I certainly don’t think he’s a bigot. And I don’t think he’s ever said anything in his career that implies he has a worldview like that.

0:06:39.3 Julian Sanchez: Yeah, I think there’s a… I forget the name of the author, there’s a book called The Formation of a Persecuting Society. The tropes, they’re not even staples or even modern conspiracy theories about early modern… Formation of a demonized other in the form of heretics, lepers, Jews, of course. Eventually, that has evolve many of those sort of tropes evolved into the witch craze that swept through early modern Europe. I think it almost works as a kind of Joseph Campbell formula for the conspiracy narrative, these are features you see repeated in a lot of context. And one of the keys to the enduring cult status of They Live is that flexibility. I think it’s pretty clear that the intent of the movie, the most natural read, is as an anti‐​consumerist, anti‐​1% allegory. But as Jesse notes, it’s been adapted, to Carpenter’s dismay, by anti‐​Semite. Really, anyone who senses that perhaps people in power do not have the best interest of the rest of us at heart, or that a lot of media is not well designed to keep us informed, is able to project their favorite version of that into that allegory.

0:08:09.9 Jesse Walker: There’s a line, and I don’t know how often Marx gets quoted on Pop & Lock, but there’s a line I see attributed to him, I don’t know if it’s misattributed or not, where he calls Antisemitism “the socialism of fools”, and there is a sense… Since this is also often read as a Marxist movie which Carpenter has pushed back against. But I think there’s a much stronger case for that, at least underlying some of his views when he was writing this, you can see the way that’s Marx, or whoever he is was speaking in Marx’s name, acknowledgement that this world view that sees one’s group of enemies can be detourned into this other direction by people with a different political agenda.

0:08:53.5 Julian Sanchez: Right. It’s an easy read that what Nada achieves is class consciousness in the most literal sense, where not just so you suddenly become aware that there’s this the most salient organizing principle is these class relations, but literally the rich and the powerful are another species.

[chuckle]

0:09:15.3 Jesse Walker: But this is one of the most interesting things about They Live. In general, it’s interesting, and this is much more sort of widely accepted now. I think that everybody knows what fan fiction is and things like that, and now that there’s this whole sort of interpretive, free‐​for all on social media for every new episode of a cult TV show, unfolding in the same place where people talk about monetary policy. Or I shouldn’t have said that, when we’re talking about anti‐​Semitism. [chuckle] Ordinary policies and so on, is that audiences are constantly adapting texts for their own ends. And They Live is really built in a way so that it’s easy to do that.

0:10:01.1 Jesse Walker: Umberto Eco has an essay, which it’s gone out under a couple of different titles I think, but the one I read, it was under the title “The Cult of the Imperfect”, where he talked about the ways that… Well, I’ll just quote from it: “To give rise to a cult, a film must already be inherently ramshackle, shaky, and disconnected in itself. A perfect film, given that we cannot re‐​read it as we please from the point we prefer, as with a book, remains imprinted in our memory as a whole in the form of an idea or principal emotion. But only a ramshackle film survives in a disjointed series of images and visual high points. It should show not one central idea, but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition but it should live on, and by virtue of its magnificent instability.” And this is a movie that’s I mean it’s very ramshackle, and I say that with absolute affection, I enjoy this movie very much.

[chuckle]

0:10:58.9 Jesse Walker: But when I first saw it, I would have been 19 or 20, ’cause it came out when I was 18 and then I saw it on VHS, so a year or two later. And I can remember even at the time, on the one hand, really being impressed by the scene where he puts on the sunglasses and sees the world as it really is, and by some other moments in there. And also having that kind of “What’s going on here?” thing with this fight that goes on forever, and some of the dialogue that doesn’t really ring very well in your ears and so on. And then what you find, years pass and there’s the stuff that sticks in your head. And you watch it again, there’s stuff you don’t remember, or things that you thought of as central are actually out on the periphery and you’ve created this whole new movie, almost, in your head from your memories of it and your conversations about it. And that’s true of everything, but certain sorts of texts are especially suited to that. Eco talks about in film Casablanca and then in literature “The Count of Monte Cristo”. But They Live is a perfect example of this kind of thing, and the fact that you have multiple audiences that come to it for their own reasons.

0:12:12.6 Jesse Walker: I mean, set aside the fringe anti‐​Semite. You’ve got the cult film audience, you’ve got people who are interested in it politically, whether it’s from a Marxist direction, libertarian direction, fascist direction, all sorts of possible readings. Whether it’s action film fans, maybe there were some pro‐​wrestling fans who are really into “Rowdy” Roddy Piper at the time this came out. I don’t think he’s got that. Nowadays, he’s got a fan base because he was in this movie, [chuckle] but at the time, he was a famous pro wrestler. And as part of what was going on in that scene, of course, is they get to show off some wrestling moves, and all these people are bringing different things to the movie and taking different things away from it. And so if you’re interested in the ways that audiences interact with texts and create their own meaning, They Live is just a perfect specimen for thinking about that.

[music]

0:13:07.9 Natalie Dowzicky: I was curious why to make this movie in 1988 and what it meant to that audience then versus what it means to a 2021 audience. Because I watched it for the first time two days ago, so I had seen there’s popular memes that come from the movie and all that kind of stuff. So I knew generally that the movie was horror and was kind of strange, but that’s also because Landry picked it, so I just made those assumptions off the bat. But…

0:13:41.0 Landry Ayres: Listen, I don’t need this.

[chuckle]

0:13:44.9 Natalie Dowzicky: But I’m curious how the original audience might have viewed the film versus how we view it now and what was important to them or what they leaned from the film then. What do you guys think?

0:14:00.3 Julian Sanchez: One thing that I think jumps out now or reads a bit differently now, is we see the process essentially of Nada becoming awake or radicalized at the start. He looks on with more of a seeming indifference as a blind Black preacher is hassled by the police. But then right before he discovers the glasses that let him see through the illusion, he witnesses a scene of really unpleasant police brutality as they savagely beat an old man and the same blind preacher, and then walks through the ruins of a wrecked homeless encampment with an ad for high fashion playing in the background. So this is the moment where he’s already essentially seeing through, saying as he’s had his worldview changed, then it’s physically confirmed with the discovery of the glasses. But the pivotal moment is essentially directly witnessing this act of state violence.

0:15:09.9 Julian Sanchez: This is a guy who is set up as believing in the system, believing in America, and begins to see things differently when the police that you presumably saw as protectors, he now comes to see as a repressive and violent force. And so you know, this is a moment when, of course, a lot of Americans, because of the easy spread now of images of what police interactions look like for a lot of Americans, has created obviously a huge demand for a form of policing. And I think there’s been a lot of people, having a sense, had a “Nada moment”, seeing things like the George Floyd video and re‐​evaluating how much accountability these state agents are actually subject to. Obviously, this is in the context of the Reagan era and yuppies and this is about Carpenter’s disdain for that.

0:16:19.6 Landry Ayres: In this, can someone break down the yuppies thing for me? ‘Cause I think that was a big cultural touchstone for a time that I think has faded. I know yuppies was a thing and people didn’t like yuppies, but it just is a vague catchall. Is it like a weird upper‐​middle class working in office corporate drone thing?

0:16:42.3 Julian Sanchez: Technically, maybe it’s a mislabel because the yuppies was short for “young urban professional,” but most of the ghouls we see are actually older people.

0:16:53.7 Landry Ayres: See, I didn’t even know that it stood for that.

0:16:55.7 Natalie Dowzicky: Yeah, young urban professional.

0:16:56.8 Landry Ayres: I didn’t know that.

0:16:58.6 Jesse Walker: There was competing jargon between yuppie and yumpies, for young upwardly mobile professionals.

0:17:06.8 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh.

0:17:07.0 Jesse Walker: Yuppie has caught on more partly because of the relation to yippies, which was a ‘60s thing, when you had like Jerry Rubin, who used to be a yippie and levitated the Pentagon and so on. Actually, was Rubin there? I don’t remember if he… In Chicago and so on, and in the ‘80s, he started working on Wall Street and arranging networking salons for young urban professionals at the Palladium, and embracing the label “yuppie” and went on a debating tour with Abbie Hoffman in the mid ‘80s, Yippie versus yuppie. And then they had on the cover of Newsweek, yuppie, with a picture of a couple of characters from Doonesbury, all looking button‐​down, they had the anti‐​yuppie “Die Yuppie Scum” buttons, it was very… It just represented… In some ways, it just represented an idea of consumption signifiers that nowadays it’s weird people associate it together ’cause the ‘80s are long in the paths of Perrier, Sushi, certain forms of car, certain forms of watches and so on. The idea that this was thought of as an elite thing seems weird now ’cause everybody eats it but back then it was thought of as strange.

0:18:21.7 Jesse Walker: But it also represented this idea… I mean when someone… Jerry Rubin talked about it, he was stressing the continuities between ‘60s individualism and ‘80s individualism and self‐​expressiveness moving into things like business but keeping a social conscious and so on. But there was also very much around it, the idea of the sell‐​out and a big part of ‘80s left‐​wing narratives. Speaking as someone who’s a left‐​wing teen in the ‘80s was they were a group of people who had been down with fighting the man, and now they were off with Jerry Rubin and Eldridge Cleaver, not that Eldridge Cleaver was a yuppie, but he had moved to the right, and Bob Dylan was a Christian now, I think you heard. And so there’s all these thoughts that were in the air as well. But I don’t wanna break off ’cause Julian was starting to make a point, I think in this movie, the yuppies are represented less by the ghouls than by the human collaborators that we see in the last third of the movie with the ghouls.

0:19:21.0 Jesse Walker: Because those are the people who decide the thing to do is to sell out, to give up a bit of your soul and just get what you can out of the system, ’cause it’s not like you can bring it down but you can make something for yourself. Like the drifter character, who we see at the end in this like a button‐​down suit and all and gives them the tour, he’s not a yuppie in the… He’s not the right age as Landry was saying, but he represents I think, that vision of the the yuppie as a stock character. When Carpenter wrote this. Julian, we got far away from whatever you were starting to say.

0:19:58.3 Julian Sanchez: Since you mentioned Abbie Hoffman, it’s worth noting the sunglasses that allow Nada and then Frank to pierce the veil of allusion illusion and see the systems of control as they truly are, are referenced a couple of times as “Hoffman lenses”, and most people think that’s a reference either to the ‘60s radical, Abbie Hoffman, probably best known for Steal This Book. Or possibly to Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD. Two different takes on the piercing through the veil of allusion.

0:20:30.0 Natalie Dowzicky: Very different directions! [laughter]

0:20:30.9 Jesse Walker: Julian and I, I know, have both read Jonathan Lethem’s little book about They Live, which is a great piece of film criticism for anyone who wants to read the a book length exploration of an ‘80s cult movie. It’s a lot of fun, but he also notes that, and this is kind of getting back to what Landry brought up at the beginning, there is an anti‐​Semitic writer by the name of Michael A. Hoffman II. Had a number of fringe views, he believed that fairies exist in the Holocaust did not. So it’s a whole bunch of the worldviews colliding there, but some people on the more anti‐​Semitic site of this movie’s fan base have pointed to him as a… And nobody thinks the Carpenter was thinking of Michael A. Hoffman. I think Albert Hoffman is a much more likely the candidate, but that’s another sort of coincidental connection for that reading.

0:21:26.1 Natalie Dowzicky: Speaking of the glasses, I’m kind of curious in terms of a visual element, what you guys think the significance of the colorized versus the black and white is other than it being it’s obviously striking to the audience that you’re looking into the real world. But I was wondering why they’re flipped. You would think that the world… Why isn’t Nada living in the black and white world, and then the real world’s the one that’s in color?

0:21:53.8 Landry Ayres: A reverse Wizard of Oz scenario.

0:21:56.6 Natalie Dowzicky: Yeah!

0:21:57.3 Jesse Walker: Yeah, and there’s a moment in the… When he goes to the underground cell of the people meeting before the police break in and start shooting everybody, where you can hear someone saying, “We’re colorized.” Maybe it was “it’s colorized”, I don’t know. But I heard that as “we’re colorized.” And the idea, colorization of movies, of course, was another thing that people were fretting about in the ‘80s. And there’s a funny idea embedded in here that maybe we live in the sort of rich black world of these black and white classic movies, but those ghoulish aliens have brainwashed us into thinking it’s all technicolor. Or it could just be another weird coincidence, ’cause he was looking for what would work in terms of having the Hoffman lenses sequences. So much of this movie, you don’t know what’s intentionally evocative and what’s accidentally evocative.

0:22:57.7 Julian Sanchez: I do think part of what’s going on is that, I don’t know if folks know the artist, Barbara Kruger, who is I think pretty clearly the visual inspiration for the aesthetic of that whole sequence where Nada begins seeing the subliminal messaging. So she works a lot in the stark contrast of black and white with large slogans, essentially, in block lettering on a surface. So it may be in part absorbing that aesthetic influence.

[music]

0:23:31.0 Natalie Dowzicky: Jesse wrote down an interesting question in prep for this, and I think this might be a good time to ask it. He wrote down “Is “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s character a mass shooter?”, and I’m curious why you thought of that question.

0:23:44.9 Jesse Walker: Well, I mean here’s this… From the point of view of… First of all, there was an interesting a little elision in what Julian said. And this is the sort of thing I had forgotten between viewings, it’s like, how do the aliens become aware that Roddy Piper, that Nada, can see it? ‘Cause it’s not like they have special alarms to let them know that someone’s putting on the glasses. It’s because he loudly announces the fact, tells this woman who turns out to be a ghoul that she’s ugly, and then goes into a bank and starts shooting all the ghouls he can see. That’s sort of this instant reaction to all this. And what you can wonder, is this necessarily the best possible way to react to this discovery? But even setting it aside, let’s take it for granted that the best way to deal with these infiltrators in our midst is to start shooting them on site, even the ones who even though they supposedly ruled the world, appeared to have kind of working‐​class jobs in like a TV studio, or just doing ordinary things like watching the TV sets that everyone else is watching with the subliminal messages and so on.

0:25:00.1 Jesse Walker: But setting all that aside, from the point of view of someone in the bank or in the TV station that sees him shooting, he’s just the guy who start loudly announces that he’s gonna start kicking ass and start shooting people apparently at random. And as with the Matrix, which also raises these questions, there’s the thing… Isn’t this kind of the world view of someone who goes on… I mean, people going shooting sprees for different reasons, but some of your classic most infamous and feared at shooting sprees, the rationale sound kind of like this. And it’s interesting to watch this or to watch the Matrix from the imagined point of view of someone in the line at the bank who suddenly sees someone showing up with a bunch of guns firing at what are as far as you can tell, ordinary human beings going on about their business.

0:26:00.1 Julian Sanchez: It’s worth noting, that Nada is maybe up there with Wagner’s Siegfried in the pantheon of moron protagonists he is portrayed as a brave and good natured, but he’s obviously not particularly bright, you know he again, finds these glasses, discovers that there are aliens in control of everything around us, and the first thing he does is to loudly berate one in public and make clear that he’s able to… Able to see their real forms, and of course, instantly makes himself a target, but the interesting thing you gonna get there is that the film fair shows us, well, there is an organized resistance of intellectuals and scientists who have discovered this, but they ultimately seem ineffectual, it is, it is not as unplanned crude violent outlash that ultimately, I suppose, with a little planning at the end proves effective. I don’t know to what extent that is a kind of an intentional critique of, I suppose, intellectual radicals.

0:27:06.4 Jesse Walker: One of my favorite lines in the Jonathan Lethem book is where he says, no offense, but “They Live” is probably the stupidest film ever to take ideology as its explicit subject. It’s also probably the most fun, and that’s true, both on the obvious level of like what the film is doing, but also that kind of goes through to things like Piper’s character and his approach to performing to the performance.

0:27:32.2 Natalie Dowzicky: Well, speaking of performance, we cannot do this podcast without talking about the fight scene, so there has to be a reason, a more logical reason why the fight scene was so long. What’s our take on that? Also was it worth having a fight scene that long?

0:27:52.9 Landry Ayres: I mean, if you think about it, looking back, it certainly helps cement the movie’s legacy as it makes it memorable that it has this long thing and then it’s re‐​created it’s happened on South Park, I believe it’s Adventure Time, it’s several other things, but there is the easy explanation could be that Roddy Piper is a professional wrestler and they were like, “This is an action movie, and if we’re gonna hire a professional wrestler, we might as well get him to really put on a show for us.” So that could be one more I don’t know if it’s practical, you could say, but it’s one way that you could get butts in seats…

0:28:33.3 Jesse Walker: Yeah, yeah it also gets it up to that 90‐​minute running time.

0:28:36.5 Landry Ayres: Yes. It’s true.

[chuckle]

0:28:38.8 Julian Sanchez: Yeah, there are actually took two completely different takes on it, so the first is what the film sets up from very early on, that seeing the truth of how the world works is a painful process at the very beginning, one of the first indications of something hanky afoot is a hacker who’s broken through the TV broadcast and some of the folks in this [0:29:04.6] ____ watching, and he starts saying, “Well, they control us all they have put us to sleep,” and everyone starts getting headaches, and they do this a couple of times, so the idea is that somehow part of the system of control is that we’ve been indoctrinated or influenced in some way to find the process of trying to shock us out of it, it’s self painful. This is fodder for from [0:29:28.9] ____, readings, obviously, that we can enjoy the ideology we’ve consumed, and so part of what’s going on here is Frank. Frank, who is set up as the cynic, who in some sense already knows this truth that the 1% are not your friend, the system is rigged against you. Still fights against putting the glasses on, and so stretching that fight scene out so long, actually in a way makes it painful for the audience as well, this is not a kind of Hollywood style fight scene where to choreograph ballet there is a real kind of… It’s unrealistic in that people take a lot more hits than a real person would without being unconscious, but…

0:30:11.7 Jesse Walker: It’s not a Matrix‐​style ballet, yeah.

0:30:15.6 Julian Sanchez: Yeah a painful process for the audience in some sense as well, it’s kind of uncomfortable to watch these guys go at it for that long, it’s an interesting inversion by the way that Frank is the one who resists this when Nada was the one who he believes in America, and if you work hard, you’ll be rewarded, and you wonder if maybe Frank is played by Keith David ’cause he is a Black guy. And maybe part of the subtext here is Nada is naive about the consequences of realizing the truth. He starts yelling at the aliens and berating them, apparently not having it occur him that well, there are gonna be personal consequences for you of this when they become aware of this. Frank, the Black guy is well aware of what it might mean to draw the attention of the power structures, the other kind of gloss on this is… And there’s a kind of easy queer reading of “They Live”.

0:31:15.5 Julian Sanchez: And John Carpenter is not as far as I know, gay, but he’s been married a couple of times, but the early friendship between Frank and Nada is just super overtly coded as a kind of gay flirtation you got a shirtless Roddy Piper doing kind of a cheese cake pose and they’re, “Hey, you wanna go get a meal at the wire,” it’s not subtle. And there’s actually also a movie, right, that sort of makes the hetero nuclear family, one of the parts of the system of control when Nada first puts on the glasses, he sees the messages, “Obey, conform, no independent thought, and then marry and reproduce,” is part of this series, so the idea that traditional hetero family life is part of what is designed to keep you anaesthetized, and so with that kind of backdrop of this pretty heavy‐​handed kind of homoerotic tension, sexual tension between Frank and Nada obviously, the fight scene itself takes on this kind of almost erotic charge. So they’re saying, “If well look, this alien sexual structure is one in which the physical attraction between these two guys ends up having to be supplemented into violence. That this really should be a sex scene,” and instead we get this, this very heavy breathing, exhausting fight scene.

0:32:52.5 Jesse Walker: Just to add to your queer reading of the film, I’m reminded the woman who seems to be set up as not his love interest turns out to betray him and in fact, when you think about it, and this is one of those things that jumped out of at me when I saw it again decades later, and is that there’s really no rational reason why to expect them to be together based on what happened in the movie, other than some sort of a movie cliches. She is introduced at the point in the movie where the love interest would be introduced, there’s that kind of kidnapping to save yourself kind of thing that we’ve seen in other movies where the man and the woman get together ultimately, it doesn’t happen here, and it’s almost comic the way he’s just sort of like, “I got to save Holly. Where is Holly?” As though there’s been all this interaction between them, when in fact all that’s really happened between them, is he kidnapped her and then she beat him on the head with a bottle and threw him out the window.

0:33:54.1 Jesse Walker: I will say about the fight scene before we leave that all together, when I saw this the first time, at age 20 or whatever, I thought the fight scene was the dumbest thing about the movie, I thought that… And just sort of aspects of the way Roddy “Rowdy” Piper approach did some line readings were, what kept us from being a great movie instead of this sort of Ramshackle good movie I had fun watching. And then I watch it again, decades later. It’s probably like the third or fourth time I’ve seen it, but it’s been a long time to me, that fight scene became almost like [0:34:33.8] ____ style endurance, and it’s a sort of like an anti‐​art aspect to it that I really appreciate it, that every time you think this could end it goes on some more. And sometimes you become self‐​aware and they start to talk about each other about something that happened in the fight.

0:34:54.6 Jesse Walker: And it’s almost like we are going to… This fight scene, which in some ways is the most low‐​brow action movie thing that happens in the film, is also the part of the film that most steadily refuses to conform to what anyone expects from a mainstream movie‐​going experience. It does not have the Jackie Chan style, Buster Keaton antics or amazing fights a fight form. It goes on so long, it keeps teasing you with it being about at the end and then doesn’t end and it’s almost like just some sort of experimental theory thing that’s been dropped this… And I’m not gonna call it the best part of the movie, because the best part of the movie, of course, is when he puts on the sun glasses, but and that’s the most impressive part of the movie, but it is impressive to me that Carpenter was willing to do something that so defied the expectations has put in this utterly endless combat between his buddy heroes.

0:36:08.1 Landry Ayres: It also, to me, very much seems in a very sincere or artistic way to be a reference to not just, “Oh, we’ve got a pro wrestler in the lead role, so let’s throw a fight scene in there,” it is sort of emblematic of the art of professional wrestling, like we talked about before, the sort of willful suspension of disbelief that some of these yappies and people that are sort of seen as… Some of them are villains but not all of them are the sort of people that look into reality and still willfully ignore what is true and go on believing what they want to believe, and then you have this extravagant drawn out artistic performative fight scene, much like sort of the… That is self‐​referential and with a thin veneer of reality, but it’s still sort of this kayfabe professional wrestling style show that they put on. So I think it might be something to do with utilizing that skill and the sort of meta‐​textual readings of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in a movie like that, but as it is in a way, a celebration or sort of using him to say, “This is how you’re used to looking at Roddy Piper, and you can kind of view him in the same way in this scene,” and how does that re‐​contextualize the movie?

0:37:41.8 Julian Sanchez: Yeah, the movie is loves just playing with these different layers of reality in the same way that Nada is seeing through the veneer that the aliens have constructed. The very first thing we see in the film is the title card, “They Live”, but then the first shot fades in behind it, and so what was a super imposed text becomes a… Part of the graffiti on the wall and the backdrop of the scene. So it’s already sort of playing, well, is that really part of the scene, or was that a superimposition? And then the next thing we see, I think, is a credit. The screenplay by Frank Armitage, who is, of course, a character in the movie. The screenplay was actually written by John Carpenter, but he’s already playing with… Blending the different levels of reality in the same way they run back to at the end, when we are in a bar and we see an alien ghoul movie reviewer deriding directors like John Carpenter and John Romero for the crass and violent stuff they put out. And we… And then immediately after that, of course, we end on like a completely gratuitous titty shot and a… And a sex joke.

0:38:57.7 Natalie Dowzicky: Exactly. [chuckle]

0:38:58.8 Jesse Walker: Which also shows us that the ghouls have been, not just living among us and working with us, but having sex with us, maybe have… Entering relationships with us, and you really kind of… Again, makes me wonder about exactly what ghoul life is like. I mean, it does not seem like this is the… All the Illuminati in their secret castle looking down on us in luxury. They’re just other people. Is there that much of a difference between these sort of people on the low end of the ghoul hierarchy, or what we assume is some sort of ghoul hierarchy, and the… Or earthlings, I should say, who have… Humans who have joined up, and become part of the willing collaborators with the ghouls that we also see in the film. And this is one of many… One of many issues that the movie sort of raises without exploring, and you wonder to what extent it’s self‐​conscious, and to what extent, again, it’s accidental.

0:40:01.1 Julian Sanchez: It is sort of, I think, a nice inversion where you… In this kind of movie, or even in the title, it’s sort of playing with a kind of ‘50s Sci‐​Fi trope. So you think there’s gonna be a part where you finally see their high‐​tech spaceship and hear about their real master plan, how they’re all gonna pave the earth and I don’t know, eat all the humans or something. But no, it’s… They have a kind of shoddy looking kind of hotel‐​style conference room where they’re talking about profit margins, and revenue growth, and their kind of evil plan is our existing reality, right?

0:40:42.6 Landry Ayres: Yeah, it’s the status quo.

0:40:44.4 Julian Sanchez: Like there is not… Right. There isn’t some… As far as we can tell from the film, some further agenda. What they want is to stay rich, and have the rest of us happy eating junk food and watching sitcoms.

0:41:00.0 Jesse Walker: I just read a book with my younger daughter. One I had read many years ago, Daniel Pinkwater’s, “The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death.” I don’t know if there are any other Daniel Pinkwater fans on this podcast, and so on, but…

0:41:13.0 Natalie Dowzicky: What a title.

0:41:15.5 Jesse Walker: It’s… Everyone should read Daniel Pinkwater, especially “Lizard Music,” and Alan Mendelsohn, “The Boy From Mars.” Both of which I will say are masterpieces, and two of my favorite novels in any genre of the ‘70s. But, this one… And “Lizard Music” actually plays with the idea that pod people are here, and you don’t wanna get too upset about it, because that’ll turn you into one of them. He sort of like plays to that kind of paranoia about paranoia tropes, and it’s a bit of dialogue. But in “Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death,” which has a whole bunch of different ideas happening at once. And it’s a very funny book and deliberately silly, so he can afford to just throw in one bitter. And one thing that gets thrown in at the beginning is there is a crazy character who claims that all licensed realtors have been possessed by extraterrestrials, by people from outer space.

[laughter]

0:42:06.4 Jesse Walker: And then this is sort of like a sign that this person was crazy, and all these characters are crazy in different ways. And then later on we find out that the Avocado of Death controls this computer, and it’s gonna be part of their way of defeating the licensed realtors. Or, you know… And again, that’s just sort of like a background gag though, but we realize there’s more to it. And then when they have the whole thing where they find the kidnap victim and they’ve… They’ve arrested the criminal sort of Moriarty‐​style mastermind, and all of these things. In the last two pages, the mastermind says, “But I still destroyed the computer, blah ha ha.” And so… And one of the main character says, “Does this mean that we’re going to… That we… What are we gonna do about these invaders from space who have taken over all our licensed realtors?” And the final line of the book is someone saying, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to learn to live with it.” That’s the great being able to end the science fiction story on the concept of, “The invaders are here, they’re just doing their thing, they’re selling real estate, and we’ll just have to live with some of our people actually being the ghouls from They Live.” Although that book came out four years before They Live.

0:43:22.0 Jesse Walker: I actually was gonna go into something else, but then I went off on that tangent about the book I read my daughter. I will say, it just seems we’re talking about how this movie is ramshackle, and a lot of things you can’t tell if they’re accidental. There is a lot of stuff that is deliberate, and I do think there is kind of an argument built into the film on such a structural, structural level that I think it’s almost certainly deliberate. It’s 90 minutes long, three half‐​hours, three acts. The first act ends almost exactly on the half‐​hour mark with Nada putting on the sunglasses. And the first half‐​hour is done… It’s just about the exploitation of the underclass. If you see this movie as a critique of capitalism, then this is like the… This is about these sort of people who are the refuse of the system, who are on the outs, who can’t find work, or who are doing sort of menial work, in ways that don’t work out very well for them.

0:44:20.9 Jesse Walker: And then the second half‐​hour begins with them putting on the glasses, and ideology is made manifest. You had some stuff in the background with like TV and advertising being mocked, but again, it’s in the background of the first half‐​hour. Now he’s seeing the world as it is, and you see it… Capitalism presented as a system that pushes people into these rigidly defined forms of behavior. The ones that are laid out as obey and conform and marry and reproduce and so on. And in the third half, we see the collaborators, the folks who… At the time, you would say yuppies. And it’s the people who essentially have seen through the system, but nonetheless decide to go along with it. And each half‐​hour of the film really moves the camera towards another part of the system that Carpenter disapproves of, and it’s… That’s so cleanly done. Again, I was joking when I said maybe he did the fight scene to pad out the 90‐​minute running time, but it really does pad out at the second half‐​hour. So just at the two‐​thirds mark, we suddenly move into this whole other section of the movie. And it does suggest to me that Carpenter was more than just kind of a B movie auteur with a odd ball collection of ideas who got lucky in stumbling into a cult favorite here.

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0:45:49.0 Landry Ayres: And now for the time of the show where we get to share all of the other things that we’ve been enjoying with our time at home. This is Locked In. So, Jesse, Julian, what else have you been enjoying with your time at home?

0:46:02.2 Julian Sanchez: The last thing I read was Claire North’s novel, The Pursuit of William Abbey, which is a… In the early 20th century about a doctor who is one of… As it turns out, several people who have been cursed with a kind of phantom that very slowly follows them, and as it gets closer compels them to speak the truth in other people’s hearts. Which is, it turns out, is a highly sought after skill by intelligent services, so he becomes sort of conscripted into the British Intelligence to be used as a tool, and develops a sort of antagonistic relationship with one of his handlers. So it’s a fun romp, and I’m reading Gene Wolfe’s legendary Book of The New Sun series. It’s a four‐​part kind of very, very, very far future. Sort of so far in the future. It almost reads like kind of Medieval fantasy novel about a young torturer named Severian, who is sort of unreliable narrator as we kind of discover over the course of the books.

0:47:09.7 Jesse Walker: I know I am six years late to this, but I am finally watching Better Call Saul, and I just made it to the beginning of the fifth season.

0:47:17.0 Landry Ayres: I’m gonna be even more late than you.

0:47:18.7 Jesse Walker: Yeah.

0:47:19.0 Landry Ayres: I’ve been I’ve heard nothing but good things, and I have yet to sit down to watch a single episode.

0:47:22.9 Jesse Walker: Yeah. Well, I had not, before the pandemic, even watched Breaking Bad. It was one of those things. I was sort of putting off Technically… As I… Like I remember when I finished my last book, I celebrated by finally watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer a decade or so too late. And I did that with Breaking Bad, and then I figured, “Well, the next thing to watch is Better Call Saul.” Which is much better, I think, than Breaking Bad. I mean, Breaking Bad is a good show, but there are… I can make criticisms and so forth, I find Better Call Saul much… I mean, they took my two favorite characters from Breaking Bad, Saul and Mike, they gave them their own show, and then they built out from there, and I find it much richer, I find the… I guess the first show is ultimately about the ongoing corruption of a character, or the revealing of sort of his corrupt nature that was there to begin with. But in this case, we’re seeing a sort of ongoing transformation often in a corrupt direction of these characters in… In ways that I think are… Since there’s more than one person doing this, it’s… I don’t know. It just feels richer, and it’s… It doesn’t… I’m enjoying the show very much, and that’s the main thing I’ve been consuming.

0:48:41.2 Natalie Dowzicky: So, right now, what I’m watching is Veep, and I am binge watching it for an episode that we’re recording next week. I had never seen an episode of Veep since… I guess until I started last week, and I don’t know how that one slipped through the cracks, because it’s very much like my style of leisure watching. But I’ve been watching Veep. And then on the reading front, I am on a quest to basically read every World War II fiction novel that exists. So I started another one this week called Those Who Save Us. It’s really interesting. It’s… There… It’s in parts. So the first part was about this woman’s mom who was German living through World War II, and she was a single mom, and the story is told from the daughter’s perspective. So, it bounces back and forth from when the daughter was two to when… Now the daughter is a professor at the University of Michigan, and she’s doing a project on interviewing both Holocaust survivors and the role of German women in the war. It’s very interesting, I’m about like 200 pages in, so I’m not exactly sure how it ends but… And then I still… I have yet to see the Godzilla vs. Kong, and I don’t really know if that’s worth my time. But we’ll see, maybe I’ll throw that one in for next time.

0:50:07.7 Jesse Walker: Natalie, what’s the best of the World War II novels you’ve read so far?

0:50:11.3 Natalie Dowzicky: The Invisible Bridge. Trevor Burst actually suggested it to me. That one was excellent. Me and my sister are like… Keep going back and forth and suggesting each other more World War II fiction books, but that’s like… That’s my bread and butter for book genres.

0:50:26.7 Landry Ayres: For me, I also have not been watching as much recently. I have been watching my wife play a video game, because she is obsessed with Dragon Age: Inquisition. ‘Cause we just got a PlayStation, so she is just devouring it. She has two different save files going, so she bounces between them and does different sort of story choices and narrative trees throughout each and just… She cannot get enough of it. So I end up watching her play that game a lot, and that has sort of taken over our television time. I haven’t watched any new shows or movies much lately, but I have been reading. I re‐​read a few books recently that I really, really liked. One of them, or two of them, are short fiction collections. One is the Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant, and another one that’s a little bit older, but I had read a long time ago and revisited, that is… Tends to be much shorter reads, is Tabloid Dreams by Robert Olen Butler, and they’re very sort of interesting, magical realism, short stories that are great and easy to read.

0:51:37.6 Landry Ayres: I also just re‐​read How To Wreck A Nice Beach by Dave Tompkins, which is about the history of the vocoder and how the, sort of, intelligence agency… Or intelligence sector during World War II, and Bell Labs, and AT&T gave rise to inventing the vocoder and cryptography during the war, and then into funk music and Africa, Bambara and Craft Work. And so it’s a really interesting through‐​line that explains how this device that, when you hear it, you immediately are sort of… It’s in so much now, and it’s strange wartime roots. So if that’s something that interests you, How to Wreck a Nice Beach. And I am in the middle of There There by Tommy Orange, which is a phenomenal novel told from multiple perspectives all about Native Americans living in the Oakland, California area in modern day. And I don’t know how it’s all gonna tie up, but they’re all sort of bound together by these ties and end up somehow related by this pow‐​wow event that they are all connected to, and it’s heartbreaking and so well‐​written. I think it was a finalist for the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, one of those. I highly recommend There, There by Tommy Orange.

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0:53:06.5 Landry Ayres: Thanks for listening. As always, the best way to get more Pop & Locke‐​related content and to connect with us is to follow us on Twitter. You can find us at the handle @PopnLockePod. That’s pop, the letter n, lock with an e, like the philosopher, pod. Make sure to follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. We look forward to un‐​raveling your favorite show or movie next time. Pop & Locke is produced by me, Landry Ayres, as a project at lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. To learn more, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.

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