They Live (1988) by John Carpenter
By Nathan Smith
“In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.” - Roland Barthes, 1957
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” - Chairman Mao, 1938
“I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.” - “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, 1988
Since its release thirty years ago, John Carpenter’s They Live has proved irresistible to all points on the political alignment chart. They Live has lived many lives; even if you’re never worn the glasses, chances are you’ve seen the “OBEY” slogan adorned on the body of a hypebeast thanks to Shepard Fairey’s streetwear brand, or maybe you’ve seen the film’s most iconic moments reworked as memes. Though its iconography may have been appropriated by the alt-right, They Live remains one of the most radical and unapologetically leftist films ever produced in the shade of Hollywood’s superstructure. In a world plagued by centrism and civility, They Live is still a much-needed reminder that debates don’t win revolutions. When literal Nazis are in the streets, appealing to both sides or “reaching across the aisle” is, to quote from the film, like pouring perfume on a pig. As “Rowdy" Roddy Piper reminds us, “White line’s in the middle of the road. That’s the worst place to drive.”
In his monograph on They Live, author Jonathan Lethem notes that lovers of John Carpenter’s left-slouching masterpiece fall squarely into two camps: “those who love it for the fight scene, and those who love it despite the fight scene.” The film, with its plentitude of ass kicking and perpetual shortage of bubble gum, bears a bounty of violence, but “the fight scene” in question needs no further specification. You know it when you see it, and like the “ideology free” Real behind the glasses, once you’ve seen it, there’s no unknowing it.
Lethem goes on to describe the film’s unforgettable fight scene as “an artifact unto itself, an object if not of study then of wonder, a legend, a contested site, a nihilistic gesture, a secret code or ritual.” This archive of metaphors could be easily applied to professional wrestling, the synthesis of sport and entertainment that lends this sequence its language, texture, and shape. I read the scene in opposition to Slavoj Źiźek, who takes its staged violence as a “positive violence, a condition of liberation” (Lethem 114), a spatial and physiological representation of both the hurt inherent in seeing the world “for what it really is” and the reluctance that often accompanies such anguished revelations. Rather than examining this scene’s symbolic properties or ideological functions, I read it not as a scene at all, but as a wrestling match, inspired by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s own career as a professional wrestler. The conflict staged is not between Nada or Frank—Piper and David themselves offer no one-to-one correlation to respective political positions—but between narrative and attraction, the two tendencies that have most defined cinema in the century and some change of its existence.
The “cinema of attractions,” a theoretical framework first outlined by scholar Tom Gunning, sees cinema born as much in the carnival and the sideshow as the theater. For Gunning and those early cinema scholars who follow his lead, cinema developed first as a spectacle, like the freak show or the house of mirrors, and only later became a narrative form, which may be cinema’s most dominant mode but was not its written destiny.
Perhaps, then, the wrestling ring or mat could also be read as crucibles of the seventh art alongside the fairground and circus. In Gunning’s definition, “the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention… supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle - a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself” (Gunning 334). Furthermore, it cares little for character psychology or personality, moving “outward [toward] an acknowledged spectator rather than inward towards the character-based situations essential to classical narrative” (334).
With this definition in mind, professional wrestling appears as a bastardization of “attraction”: the immediate pleasure of pro wrestling requires colossal and colorful personalities, kindling for the furnace of larger-than-life conflicts, as much as physical contact between impossible bodies. Though the “virtue” of wrestling is, as identified by Roland Barthes, “the spectacle of excess,” which would seem to align the form with the immediacy of the attraction, the personas of wrestlers like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, especially in the wrestling industrial complex of World Wrestling Entertainment, are constructed, modified, and elaborated upon over a series of years. Wrestling fans often develop intensely personal relationships with specific stars and acquire encyclopedic archives of statistics and trivia, closer to Hollywood’s star system than the sideshow.
But these narrative appendages only function as foreplay, a delay tactic aimed at intensifying the emotional release achieved by the intense immediacy of orchestrated combat. Narrative, then, is an extension of spectacle, a beam within the rafters of attraction. Unlike Gunning, who sees narrative hegemony subsuming spectacle, the latter living on in the margins of the avant-garde before reemerging once again in the mainstream with the “tamed attractions” of the “Spielberg-Lucas-Coppola cinema of effects” (387), I see the tension between narrative and spectacle as an act of counterbalance, a necessary relationship of parasitism and mutualism. Conflict, whether the struggle of two images bound up in intellectual montage or the extended altercation between Keith David and Roddy Piper in They Live, is less duel and more co-dependence, the entanglement of two parties in a series of destructive acts essential to its existence as such. Wrestling is a dialectic that requires both the participation of more than one party within the ring and the perpetual collision between narrative and attraction, continuity and disruption, procedural execution and spontaneous combustion, essence and illusion. This dictionary of dualisms, which function not as two but one and then many, brings us to the theory’s epochal binary: the seen and the unseen, the surface and the below, defined explicitly in the writings of theorists like Jacques Lacan and implicitly within the text of wrestling.
In his text on They Live, Lethem notes the irony of Piper’s function within the film as a grand unmasker, as “Pro wrestling involves both frequent unmasking at one level and the persistent refusal to be unmasked at another” (Lethem 26). In existent literature on wrestling, masking plays a prominent role. Heather Levi’s study of lucha libre, a mutation of professional wrestling specific to Mexico and certain territories of the Southwest United States, brings our attention to the mask as an object and device, worn literally by many Mexican luchadors and more figuratively by any wrestler who dons an elaborate persona. The mask operates like the phallus, a synonym for power and authority:
The mask is treated as a fetishized object that represents the wrestler’s honor. The masked wrestler cannot let his or her face be seen under any circumstances… A wrestler thus unmasked is disempowered. Until the mask is returned he or she can’t fight, but can only clutch his or her face and wait (Levi 115).
Bruce Fink’s secondary writing on Lacan further elucidates the dualistic unity of the ritual of masking and unmasking:
Lacan reminds us that the root of the term “personality,” persona, means mask; the Etruscan root of the Latin term persona means a theater mask, the kind of mask worn by actors on a stage. Such a mask might be understood to unify a character because it is fixed in expression; it disguises heterogeneity of feeling, ambivalence, and fragmentation, creating instead something singular and monolithic. To talk about personality is thus a lure: it amounts to being taken in by the lure of wholeness, to succumbing to the illusion that a person is or becomes a unified whole.
The mask, and the persona synonymous with it, is the lure of the whole, the promise of certainty. The image of the world seen without glasses is a mask worn by decaying rulers of the world who, once unmasked and dishonored, have no choice but to cover their faces in fear.
Narrative and spectacle can be read as masks as well: narrative disguising the seedier birthplace of cinema, spectacle obscuring the immediacy of actions recorded and depicted. The wrestling match, a jarring departure from Hollywood narrative in both brutality and duration, functions not just to unmask the actors within it, but to unmask cinema itself, exposing the primal urges bubbling up underneath continuity and clarity.
The disconnect between narrative and spectacle is further revealed by the site of Piper’s own body, prized by Carpenter for having “life written all over [it]” (Lethem 26), but still inhuman and unnatural in its chiseled physique and unconvincing American accent, another mask from which Piper’s own Canadian inflection occasionally peeks. As a man of mat and stage, Piper is always already acting, even if his performance cannot be absorbed or explained by Hollywood’s hegemonic style. Like wrestling itself, Piper’s body is at once non-cinematic and over-cinematic in the medium’s reliance on narrative exposition and spectacular excess.
This six minute match, itself another body, does not function as an escape from ideology, as ideology possesses no trapdoor on its stage floor. Rather, in its function as an unmasking device, the wrestling match points toward what can never be unmasked: the self made from two that can never be re-divided into a duality, the remainder that cannot be absorbed into the whole. The match, an attempted mutation from one genre to another within the space of the same host, is like a cell attempting to flush a virus out of its system. As Lacan questions, “What is this truth without which there is no way of distinguishing the face from the mask, and apart from which there seems to be no other monster than the labyrinth itself?” (Lacan 336). There is no distinguishing narrative from spectacle, cinema from wrestling, constructed medium from ideologically informed experience. Once everything has been absorbed into itself, we are left with no monster, no labyrinth; no ideology, no reality; no “Rowdy,” no Roddy; no nada.
Professional wrestling is regularly derided for its “fakeness,” but in the prescription of the fixed end comes a kind of radical potential, perhaps best represented in “Bobby Slam,” the tenth episode of the second season of King of the Hill, Mike Judge’s animated Great American Novel. Bobby Hill, a spirited fan of professional wrestling, finally finds a sport he excels at when he joins the school wrestling team. Much to the dismay of the school’s male coaches and administrators, as wrestling is a “boy’s sport” and thus off-limits to a girl, Bobby’s friend and neighbor Connie also tries to join the team. Bobby and Connie are forced to wrestle each other in order to secure a place on the team, putting their friendship in jeopardy. Bobby doesn’t want to “lose to a girl,” but he also doesn’t want to beat his friend. Connie wants to prove her worth and join the team, but also doesn’t want to actually defeat Bobby. Bobby and Connie discover a solution: they embrace the theatricality and excessive display of pro wrestling in order to overcome the competition and conflict inscribed by sporting. Because the ending of the pro wrestling match is “fixed,” an agreement between individuals, it allows for a kind of collaboration, cooperation, and shared victory that less scripted sports do not.
To the kids at Bobby and Connie’s school, the wrestling they watch on TV—the wrestling they imitate and reenact as schoolyard ritual—is more “real” than the “authentic” Olympic variant because it allows for a kind of play, a free space where no one really ever wins and no one really ever loses. As any fan of WWE knows, professional wrestling is all about delaying finality and gratification in order to keep story alive, almost always resulting in anger and frustration from viewers who never really get what they want but also can’t stop watching. The Hollywood genre film functions much the same way: They Live may be too “corny” and “shlocky,” too limited by genre conventions and industrial conditions to ever be truly radical, but the limits of formulas and assembly-line forms also give the revolutionary spirit something to work against. Genre films are a kind of theory, asking the same questions over and over again with variations in the experimental conditions and slight changes in the outcomes. Genre and theory alike continue their investigations without end until praxis answers the question.