November 19, 2014

The Roman Empire never really ended


They Live (John Carpenter, 1988). Newly famous for its inclusion as an important political film in Slavoj Zizek’s recent The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, They Live endures as a cult artefact of the Reagan 1980s, shaped by a veteran of the counter-cultural 60s. The settings are downtown Los Angeles and the millennial revolutionary cult that discovers there are skull-faced alien bodysnatchers living among us, and ruling us through consumerist brainwashing on television and billboards, assembles in a small church in the city – and it is the church that gives the thing an unexpected early Christian/Gnostic flavour, like a sci-fi parable that Philip K Dick might have devised. The Roman Empire never really ended? I was thinking of Richard Linklater’s amazing PK Dick speech near the end of Waking Life. (In this thorough essay, Kenny Paul Smith says that while the political dimensions of They Live have been often talked about, the religious ones have been almost ignored: “The demise of the ghouls and the world they have created is in essence a vision of the eschaton. This trope of a spiritual warfare against evil invokes an apocalyptic tradition in which an embattled Church, persecuted by the forces of Babylon variously identified with everyone from the Roman Empire, to the Soviet Union, to the Federal government will ultimately triumph.”) They Live has a weird prescience: some (including Zizek) see it as proto-Fight Club, others talk about Occupy. Personally, I was surprised that a film made in 1988 would talk about year 2000 anxiety. That it is all so rudimentary – made for just $3 million – with the most basic of screenplays and a leading man (Roddy Piper, above) who is no Kurt Russell only helps with its intention as a message film, an urgent sketch of an obvious and brilliant idea. Like a musclebound Christ, Piper’s John Nada (yes, “Nada”) bursts into a bank with the news that he’s upsetting the established order: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.” Bringing not peace but a sword and a lame 80s action wisecrack.