They Live, We Sleep

The Occupy Wall Street mentality is nothing new.

Brian C. Baer

I was lucky enough to catch a screening of John Carpenter’s cult classic They Live in London’s Prince Charles Cinema last week. Produced in 1988, in the beginning of a national fiscal crisis, the film is rich with disillusionment and commentary on the capitalist system. Subtlety has never been Carpenter’s strong suit, so They Live’s blue collar characters bluntly say charged dialogue like:

The steel mills were laying people off left and right. They finally went under. We gave the steel companies a break when they needed it. You know what they have themselves? Raises.

As I watched, not far away, demonstrators had been camped outside of Saint Paul’s Cathedral for almost a week. In New York City, and other sites around the world, the Occupy Wall Street movement is only growing larger. In the theater, things were starting to sound very familiar.

Everything old is new again, and the frustration and bewilderment expressed in They Live has never felt more relevant. If you haven’t seen it or don’t remember, the plot hinges on a pair of magical sunglasses. Construction worker Nada, played by then-WWF wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, puts the shades on and can see the truth – on every billboard are subliminal messages like “Obey”. Printed on each dollar bill is “This Is Your God”. Televisions broadcast signals that tell viewers to stay asleep, to not see the truth right in front of them, to not question authority. And worst of all, Nada sees the wealthy and elite members of society are actually aliens, sent to terraform the Earth via pollution and create a slave society by destroying the middle class.

Of course, this is an ’80s movie. The first act begins strong, introducing its countercultural ideas and establishing its angry tone, but then it quickly slides downhill into another campy action movie. Today, it’s mostly remembered for one-liners like “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum” and a nearly six minute scene where the two protagonists, Piper and Keith David, savagely pummel each other in an alleyway for no ostensible reason.

But behind all that is a startlingly germane idea – rich people are out to kill us. This is an extremely literal visualization of class conflicts and movements like Occupy Wall Street. The metaphor is shocking enough to provoke some thought but it’s still too cinematically hollow to be fulfilling. They Live reflects modern fury but offers no wisdom or solutions. It’s big and noisy and rewarding on a superficial level, but it’s going well beyond optimism to imagine it could make any difference in the end. Again, the Occupy Wall Street movement comes to mind.

Everyone on Wall Street are human beings. An economic crisis cannot be resolved by a professional wrestler with a machine gun and a pair of Ric Ocasek sunglasses. The recession is a complicated, deep-seated problem which is not going to disappear overnight. But, oh. Oh, if real life were an ’80s movie…

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