Academic journal article Extrapolation

The Mysteries of Los Angeles; or, They Live, "Eight O'clock in the Morning," City Mysteries, and the Apotheosis of the Mechanic Hero

Academic journal article Extrapolation

The Mysteries of Los Angeles; or, They Live, "Eight O'clock in the Morning," City Mysteries, and the Apotheosis of the Mechanic Hero

Article excerpt

John Carpenter's 1988 movie They Live has garnered a reputation as a powerful critique of late capitalism. High praise has come from Marxian luminaries like Slavoj Zizek, who argued in a lecture given at the New York Public Library that "They Live is the true neglected masterpiece of the Hollywood Left" because it features an exemplary proletarian and "shows you can undermine" the ideology of American capitalism. Less visible anti-capitalist intellectuals are equally enthralled with the film. For example, Christos Kefalis, writing for the website dissidentvoice.org, calls the film "one of the most devastating and sharp criticisms of American imperialism ever made" (par. 1) and posits that it represents "the dynamics of its revolutionary overthrow" (par. 3). And while not all assessments of the film's radical potential feature gushing praise, even backhanded compliments like Jonathan Lethem's assertion that "They Live is probably the stupidest film ever to take ideology as its explicit subject" {7) tend to use a superlative tone to describe Carpenter's film.

They Live has additionally been read correctly as very much a product of its immediate social and cultural context. It is a critique, in other words, of a specific kind of American capitalism. Critics often note that the film, as Shea G. Craig argues, attempts "to identify and at times satirize, the faults of 1980s 'me decade' extravagance" {123). Unsurprisingly, the year the film was released saw populist backlash against the young urban professionals who seemed to be thriving while America's working class suffered through layoffs and plant closings. As Lethem notes, during the summer of 1988's Tompkins Square Park riots in Manhattan people chanted "die yuppie scum" for the first time (18). Consequently, it's not much of a surprise that a movie in which yuppies are revealed to be intergalactic scum and then summarily executed by a working-class hero was released a few months later.

Such a tightly situated reading of the film is apt: They Live is a strident, emotional critique of the kind of capitalism pioneered in America during the Reagan years. But since capitalism, America, and rollicking critiques of American capitalism featuring working-class heroes have been around since long before President Reagan declared that it was morning in America, the 1980s themselves, along with any populist filmic or literary critique they produced, can also be understood when placed in a broader historical perspective. After all, the yuppie era of the 1980s can be understood profitably when placed in the context of what geographer Jurgen Essletzbichler has called a "fundamental transformation" in the American economy {602). Between 1967 and 1997, manufacturing employment fell from almost 30 percent of total employment to just over 15 percent. Furthermore, Essletzbichler has argued that the years between 1967 and 1982 were the "core period of industrial restructuring in the US manufacturing sector" {605). The economic and social forces that made Carpenter's hero Nada open to executing metaphorically presented yuppie scum, then, predate the film's immediate historical context. They Live arrived after two decades of deindustrialization and an investigation of the film as a critique of American economic policies could begin with the Johnson administration.

But there is no reason to limit the historical scope of an investigation of They Live's populist critique of American capitalism to the two decades immediately preceding its release. The film's critique of American capitalism not only interrogates the economic shifts that took place in the 1960s and 1970s, it also re-presents concerns about the place of the working class in American society that stretch back well into the nineteenth century. The historical sweep of They Live's populist assault will become clear when we trace two important antecedents of Carpenter's film: the nineteenth century's city mysteries genre, which helps us see the historical typicality of the general outlines of the film's critique, and Ray Nelson's 1963 short story "Eight O'clock in the Morning," which will help us compare the argument found in They Live to an argument made in a text that is arguably the source text for Carpenter's film and that was produced at a historical moment that was much kinder to the working class. …

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