Before we get to discussing things that were already mentioned before, such as Capital-from-outer-space: Carpenter is both machistic and mysoginistic from today’s perspective, and THEY LIVE is in many ways a man’s movie. Which is interesting. To what extent are the capitalist aliens – female forces?
You mean because the two heroes are he-men? (“Ain’t love grand?” says the main guy to his buddy after they’ve just enjoyed a knock-down, drag-out brawl in the alley.) And also because the Lauren Bacall-type woman proves to be the traitor to the human race who gets the heroes killed by the aliens? She does have a very nice apartment, doesn’t she? I guess I can see what you’re driving at. How about the woman’s neighbors, the gay couple? Kind of prissy and aestheticized, they seem to know what’s going on in her apartment and are passively complicit in her undercover intrigues.
I am connecting this to my recent thoughts in the post on the Soviet Pussy Riots (at the Parody Center). I stated my belief that neoliberal capitalism uses feminism and homosexuality as devices to install political control in the ”patriarchal” places like Russia. I think this is easy to confuse with ”homophobia”, which is a Western-liberal term derived from the same neoliberal ideology and based in identity politics. In other words I think capitalism isn’t interested in defending the human rights of women and gays, but in grounding these ”identities” or ”entities” in the free-market, i.e. the unbounded reign of individual/consumerist choice and freedom. This is by no means an original thought, as Naomi Klein already mentioned it in NO LOGO some fifteen years ago. But in THEY LIVE it takes on really ominuous proportions because it is tied to the networked power of the aliens – and networked i.e. technological power is basically feminine in nature. I think this is why the Bacall character is such a treacherous, duplicitous film noir bitch. Of course in the end Carpenter errs by suggesting that there’s a ”central transmitter” that you can just turn off, as there are many network modes and the network therefore cannot be turned off. But the suggestion of networked power is already there, in the whole set-up with the aliens and how they protect each other with the magic watches. In any case I think the ”new matriarchy” is closely tied to the rise of digital capitalism, and Carpenter being the visionary that he is sensed it back in 1988 (interesting also that this Regan-era movie looks so much like the 21st century, meaning that the trouble began in the Regan era, and maybe this is why we keep going back to the 1980s)
You might have a case for identity politics being a divide-and-conquer niche marketing strategy for capitalism, but I don’t see feminism or strong womanhood as the enemy in the Carpenter movie. More men than women seem to be aliens as revealed by the Hoffman lenses. The revealed aliens aren’t obviously either male or female. Some of the subliminal messages promote sex and reproduction as a distraction from the truth, but so are booze, consumer goods, etc. Late in the movie someone makes a speech explaining that the aliens are “free enterprisers” who go around the galaxy exploiting planets for material gain. That seems straightforward enough. Here’s the dialog from the screenplay:
“What do these things want?”
“They’re free-enterprisers. The earth is just another developing planet. Their third world. Deplete the planet, move on to another.”
Somebody points out that the cops are allied with the free-enterprisers because they’ve been told that the anti-alien insurgents are commies. In the context of the story, for men to blame the women or vice versa would be comparable to the two heroes fighting each other — a futile distraction from the real enemy that the free-enterprisers might readily encourage.
but I don’t see feminism or strong womanhood as the enemy in the Carpenter movie.
I think that networked power (which as I said is feminine) is the enemy or at least the form in which the enemy attacks. This was later developed in THE MATRIX, though I vastly prefer THEY LIVE. Carpenter appears highly ambiguous towards the strong woman – he has a self-professed proclivity for strong female characters – but seems to also suggest that she has a terrifying effect on the male heroes. Hence their latently homoerotic shenanigans.
And it’s not like the woman could ever be the enemy – it is the Phallic woman, that is to say a woman instrumentalized by capitalism – the LESB’AN.
“he has a self-professed proclivity for strong female characters – but seems to also suggest that she has a terrifying effect on the male heroes.”
I agree with that. And it’s explicit that, while the two male heroes are physically strong, the woman foe is ultimately stronger than they are. But the man does succeed in the end in exposing the aliens. As you point out, this is possible only because the aliens had a centralized command center. Maybe if they had been more networked, more distributed, more feminine in your scheme, they’d have succeeded. The implication is that decentralization is a more powerful strategy, not just for the free-enterprisers but also for the insurgents. Every time the insurgents concentrated their forces in one place, and every time as individuals they directed macho posturing toward the aliens or toward one another, they became vulnerable to attack by the collective force of the aliens and their police-state allies. The insurgents needed to be more covert, less hierarchical, less centralized — less manly in the old-school patriarchic sense. Ultimately so too did the aliens.
This ambiguous sense of sexualized power is true also of the previously-posted movie, Shock Corridor. The men are undone by the “nymphos,” seeming to result in their subjective destitution not just psychologically but also politically. They become emasculated in their ability to uphold their resistance to racism, to fascism, to militarism. In a sense the nympho is symptomatic rather than causal, because the men also seem unable to fight successfully against sexism. It turns out that the male guard in the psycho ward killed an inmate who became aware that the guard was sexually exploiting the psychotic lesbians, corruptly wielding his institutionalized male dominance over them. The inmates who try to resist this sexist exploitation wind up getting sedated and/or killed by the male-dominated institution.
I have Shock Corridor on my to-watch list this week, so I’ll be getting back to that. But this plus personal trouble made me return to Bruce Fink, where I read in the chapter on psychosis that a failure of the ”paternal function” can indeed cause psychosis. He spends some time discussing how we are to view this in lieu of the fact that the paternal function is less and less important in modern Western society, and the problem is that in order to replace the paternal function with something, that structure first needs to have been developed; if it was never developed before, then there also isn’t a way to replace it. This sounded quite logical to me.
My favorite part of the movie starts around 0:22 (the police raid scene). Up until that moment we were peeping Toms together with the wrestler; but now, suddenly, there is a terrifying raid and we don’t know where we are anymore. The shock is not just in the violent proceedings, and the danger, but also, in the fact that we were ”caught” as voyeurs. Carpenter’s suspense thrillers are always socially aware, aware of our passivity, of our scopic jouissances, and how they destroy society. Like in Halloween, when Jamie Lee is running away from the killer, and nobody in the alienated neighbourhood wants to open the door.
Image is one of the battlegrounds in the movie, between the bland Channel 54 product, the subliminal alien messages of control underlying it, and the competing rebel signal. But even as the rebels break into the Ch. 54 signal and spread the news about the alien invasion, what do the viewers do? Bitch about the interruption of the soap opera, fiddle with the tuner, complain about having a headache, walk away. Only those actively involved in jamming the signal and sending out the competing message are alive. Still, even those who are outfitted with the Hoffman lenses, the ones with eyes to see behind the spectacle, find themselves overcome by headache after awhile — it’s hard to stay focused on the truth. Interestingly, the glimpses of reality conveyed by the Hoffman lenses are black-and-white, as if the color of the world is itself an illusion and a distraction. In Shock Corridor color intrudes from the other side of the reality-illusion split.
Interestingly, the glimpses of reality conveyed by the Hoffman lenses are black-and-white, as if the color of the world is itself an illusion and a distraction. In Shock Corridor color intrudes from the other side of the reality-illusion split.
Or simply that reality is much more drab than televised fantasy?