I’ve written a bunch before about how obsessed John Carpenter seems to be with manly men doing manly things with each other. They Live is so, so, so not the exception. For those not familiar with it, the movie’s plot is that the earth is inhabited by evil cadaverous aliens who disguise themselves by broadcasting mind control signals so humans see aliens as one of us (gabba gabba.) A resistance movement develops sunglasses which allow humans to see the aliens for what they really are (and, incidentally, allow you to read the real messages on billboards and advertisements — “consume” “don’t think” “procreate” etc.)
Ostensibly, this is all about critiquing consumerism and sneering at yuppies; the suggestion is that people are willing to accept working class disempowerment and the general crappiness of existence because of the evil alien propaganda (that is, television.)
Fair enough; but the movie is also absolutely obsessed with barely contained male-male attraction, its deferral, and its attendant homosexual panic. The main character is John Nada, played by Roddy Piper. His central relationship in the film is with Frank Armitage (Keith David). Both men are barely-getting-by construction workers; the first spark between them occurs when Frank notices the massively-muscled John working shirtless. The two then head off together to a shantytown where the laborers live communally; John has no family, while Frank’s wife and child have conveniently been left in another town: he hasn’t seen them in months.
The two men have a love/hate relationship, which culminates in the film’s emotional climax, an extended, brutal fight scene where the two men knock each other around an alley for way, way longer than seems necessary, grunting, bellowing, and grappling with each other. The fight is caused because John wants Frank to put on the magic glasses which will allow him to see the world as it really is.
Or, to put it another way, John wants Frank to be able to distinguish those who are straight from those who are just passing. The glasses are a kind of gaydar, bound up with violent homosexual panic. After putting them on for the first time, the formerly rather mild-mannered John starts blasting away with a machine-gun, shooting down all the aliens he sees. Similarly, the fight in the alley is all about Frank’s refusal to put the glasses on. When Frank does lose and wear the glasses, the two quickly reconcile and check into a seedy hotel together, where, looking at the bed, John makes a homophobic/homoerotic crack (if I remember rightly, he says, “So this is love.”)
There is one female character in the movie; Meg Foster the putative romantic interest. But she’s hardly onscreen, appearing only long enough to establish her deep (and almost completely unmotivated) untrustworthiness. The real emotional tie is between the two men; an emotional tie which can only be expressed through violence and then end, inevitably, in tragedy. The movie itself ends with the aliens exposed for all to see. The last image, in fact, is of a nude woman copulating with the standard porn-star exhalations; she looks down and sees she’s riding an alien. The anxiety about concealment is an anxiety about sexuality — what is passing as who, and how can we keep them from fucking us?
Just out of curiosity…is there any John Carpenter movie where he shows the least interest in any kind of heterosexual relationship? Oh wait…he does in “Prince of Darkness”, though there’s certainly a ton of homosexual subtext there as well. And, yes, in Big Trouble in Little China — though the hero there does decide to eschew heterosexual bliss in favor of a more meaningful relationship with his truck. Anything else? (I’ve now seen Escape From New York, the Thing, They Live, Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble, and Halloween (the last of which features a butch woman who seems to survive precisely because she doesn’t seem to have any sexual urges to speak of.))
Oh, and just to irritate Uland and amuse Tucker: The Thing is a masterpiece, They Live and Escape from New York are quite good, Big Trouble is pretty good, Halloween is okay, Prince of Darkness is crap.