Conspiracy Thrillers

Hiding Reality in Plain Sight

They Live is campy science fiction. But John Carpenter snuck in sobering moments of reality.

They Live (1988)
They Live.

Photo illustration by Slate. Still by Alive Films/Larry Franco Productions.

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Excerpted from They Live, copyright © 2010 by Jonathan Lethem. Reprinted by permission of Soft Skull.

In the movies, homeless people—or street people, or derelicts, or bums—sometimes get to play the lead in egalitarian-redemptive comedies like My Man Godfrey, Trading Places, Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Elsewhere, they’re the common castoffs worth saving, or sanctifying as salt-of-the-earth: Meet John Doe, Sullivan’s Travels, The Grapes of Wrath, The Soloist. They can also be terrifying, a ready, invading horde of the hungry and desperate, a kind of quasi-zombie army, or a more individual specter or nightmare, a negative mirror or id vision of the self’s potential degeneration: think Ghost, or Mulholland Drive, or John Carpenter’s own Prince of Darkness.

Though the indigent in They Live will eventually be played by actors, or obvious extras (including a few comically implausible candidates for the street), the first few we glimpse below the credits are more than persuasive, sheltering themselves from the rain with broken umbrellas and cardboard crates or plastic tarpaulins, massed indifferently on street corners and with belongings clutched in paper sacks or garbage bags. They’re also (unlike the actors and extras) all black or Latino. Mostly black. The degree of verisimilitude seen here is probably out of reach of They Live’s costume department and production design—that is to say, its budget—so we can feel pretty certain Carpenter’s nabbed a few oblivious conscripts for these shots.

By exhibiting these folks, They Live pushes its political context to the foreground, reminding us there’s something or someone to be noticed in plain sight (at least for urban audiences). Nada (Roddy Piper), for his part, is technically homeless, but wants and finds work. In general he seems to float a little apart from the despondently indigent population so visible in the film’s first half-hour. In his self-reliance, alertness, and industriousness, Nada, when introduced, may recall more the kind of marginal but indomitable blue-collar type played by Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The question for that sort of character isn’t how he’ll ultimately find bed and board, but whether he’ll either find a way out of his contingency and isolation to marriage and collective affiliation (African Queen), or descend into paranoiac dissidence (Sierra Madre). Carpenter compulsively cites the apolitical camaraderie of Howard Hawks as his model, but alliances and cynical-leftist nihilism are a lot closer to what we’re given in They Live.

Carpenter shot the film in March and April of 1988; They Live was released that November. In the summer months between, Tompkins Square, a small park in Manhattan’s East Village, erupted in riots—a series of semiviolent standoffs between city authorities and the homeless occupants who’d made the park an equivalent of They Live’s Justiceville. It was at the Tompkins Square Park riots’ height that the invective chant “Die, Yuppie Scum!” (They Live distilled to a bumper sticker?) was invented. Within a year, Die Yuppie Scum was not only a graffiti standard but was also a T-shirt, and “Meet me in Tompkins Square” was a refrain in a Lou Reed song. I suppose you could take this as confirmation that They Live grokked somebody’s zeitgeist.

The parallel has its limits, though. Tompkins Square Park was marked, as Justiceville isn’t, by defiant drug use, by countercultural—mostly punk-rock—signifiers, and by overt and quasi-political defiance (cops being taunted as Nazis, etc.), as well as by the presence of protesters and interested witnesses from the ranks of the middle-bohemian class (including Allen Ginsberg). They Live’s homeless are sheepish, demoralized, obedient, and stripped of signifiers of dissident affiliation or criminal ambition. Apart from seeking to get themselves fed in Grapes of Wrath–style grub lines, they’re content to zone out and ponder television. They’d climb inside those screens if they could, much sooner certainly than they’d mass at barricades.

By depicting the homeless of Justiceville as exclusively weary and long-suffering (akin more to L.A.’s own Rodney “Why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along?” King than to the chip-on-their-shoulder ash-mob at Tompkins Square), Carpenter’s made certain that Justiceville’s destruction can be read only as Darth Vader–ish totalitarian overkill. The real threat to the overlords is in the small adjacent church, not the open-air homeless shelter. Demolishing a neatly quarantined homeless preserve serves no purpose (unless these bulldozers are clearing the way for development). In fact, it would likely displace these unsightly humans into other neighborhoods, much as the Reagan-era dismantling of the psychiatric-service infrastructure flooded urban zones with those formerly under treatment for full-blown mental illnesses.

Ironically, in the same era in which political sensitivity was demanding bums be re-euphemized as homeless persons (a shift, like drunk to alcoholic, from something verbishly active [I’m bumming, I’m drinking] to something nounishly passive [I endure homelessness, I suffer alcoholism]), the uncomfortable fact was that a highly visible layer of the people on the street in the 1980s was manifestly crazy, paranoiac, seeing things, or hearing voices. Yet Carpenter’s homeless are placid. Blind preachers and down-on-their-luck construction workers see things; the homeless see only televisions. The rebel manufacturers of Hoffman lenses inside the church will never for an instant consider distributing those potential instruments of prole revolution among their immediate neighbors in Justiceville. Better the revelatory sunglasses molder in cardboard crates than be wasted on those losers.

Copyright © 2010 by Jonathan Lethem, from They Live. Reprinted by permission of Soft Skull.