BRATTLEBORO — Which holiday is scarier: Halloween or Black Friday?
If you answered the latter, you may find comfort and fellowship on Friday, Nov. 24, when arts organization Epsilon Spires screens John Carpenter's anti-consumerist cri de coeur, They Live.
Described as a science fiction action horror film, They Live stars Roddy Piper (known to WrestleMania fans as "Rowdy" Roddy Piper), Keith David, and Meg Foster. In addition to directing the film, Carpenter (under the pseudonym "Frank Armitage") also wrote the screenplay, based on the 1963 short story by Ray Nelson, Eight O'Clock in the Morning.
The film follows Piper's character, John Nada, as he arrives, alone and homeless, in the industrial badlands of Los Angeles. Although the skilled laborer was left bereft of an income and stability by the bosses who laid him off after 10 years on the job, Nada still subscribes, in the beginning of the film, to the patriotic bootstrap myth of "hard work equals a good life."
But, after Nada has a series of eye-opening experiences - such as meeting other hard-working people who are forced to live in a homeless encampment, then seeing that encampment and a nearby church destroyed in an unprovoked police raid - he begins to question his beliefs.
Other events challenge his worldview, such as the discovery of a special pair of sunglasses that render the landscape in monotone.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Los Angeles and beyond, a plague of inhumane consumerism seems to be overtaking society. Magazines, billboards, politicians, and television all encourage the viewer to buy into the worship of money and selfishness.
Nada begins to wonder: Might there be a connection between this new ethos, the brutality of the police against already-struggling people, and those sunglasses?
While in the business district of Los Angeles, he puts on the sunglasses, and the secret is revealed. The film then moves into its "science fiction horror" phase of social commentary.
The widespread worship of money and selfishness is a plot enacted by ghoulish aliens disguised as yuppies, who have come to Earth to further global warming and kill off humanity so they can extract all of the planet's natural resources.
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As Carpenter has detailed numerous times since the film's release, They Live was his expression of rage against Reaganism.
He told Starlog magazine, in a 1988 interview, "The picture's premise is that the 'Reagan Revolution' is run by aliens from another galaxy. Free enterprisers from outer space have taken over the world, and are exploiting Earth as if it's a third world planet. As soon as they exhaust all our resources, they'll move on to another world [...]. I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something. [...] It's all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money."
Carpenter's prescience doesn't stop with just consumerism, and the film's message didn't stop with the Reagan-Bush years.
The aliens' diabolical plot to exploit and destroy the planet and humans, then blithely move elsewhere in the Solar System, may sound familiar to modern-day readers who track the shenanigans of robber barons like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Instead of using their vast wealth and power to improve this planet and the people in it, they destroy lives and communities, then build rockets to go to Mars.
As Carpenter told Esquire in 2016, just before Donald Trump was elected, "I made They Live back in 1988, and nothing has changed! Everything has stayed the same. Reaganomics has continued to flourish [...]. The problem is unrestrained capitalism. It's worshipped and adored by everybody here. Well, not everybody, but a lot of people."
On Black Friday, the biggest consumerist day of the year, instead of getting hypothermia from camping out waiting for Walmart to open, or cramping your hands from scrolling through Amazon, gather with friends and strangers in the sanctuary of a repurposed historic church and watch an ingeniously simple and subversive satire of our modern worship of mammon.
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Doors open at 7:30 p.m.; the film begins at 8 p.m. Admission is $15 and includes popcorn and light refreshments. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit epsilonspires.org.
Wendy M. Levy is a former reporter and columnist for this newspaper. The Commons' Deeper Dive column gives artists, arts organizations, and other nonprofits elbow room to write in first person and/or be unabashedly opinionated, passionate, and analytical about their own creative work and events.
This The Arts column by Wendy M. Levy was written for The Commons.