‘Flesh dissolved in an acid of light’: the b-movie as second sight

Simon Sellars Film & animation

This is an earlier version of an article published in Continuum, Volume 24, Issue 5 October 2010, pages 721-33. Both versions were based on a paper I gave at the Monash University conference, B for bad cinema: aesthetics, politics and cultural value.

Recent academic discussions of ‘badfilm’ and ‘paracinema’ have highlighted the re-appraisal of ‘all forms of “cinematic trash”’ (Sconce 1995, 372). This article addresses the theme by contrasting films from two of the most well-known purveyors of ‘cinematic trash’: X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), directed by Roger Corman, and They Live (1988), directed by John Carpenter. In X, a scientist develops X-ray vision, seeing into the fourth dimension and something so shocking he rips his eyes out. This act is analogous with Corman’s career as purveyor of trash cinema: refraining from pushing badfilm’s power to the absolute limit; foregoing the gift of ‘second sight’; content to exist on a marginalised, second-tier, parallel reality to the Hollywood mainstream. In They Live, Carpenter re-empowers the thesis: the hero stumbles on a secret society that has developed sunglasses to see through the real to the alien-generated subliminal messages in advertising and politics. Rather than withdrawal, Carpenter’s hero declares: ‘I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass – and I’m all out of bubblegum’. Unabashed, glorying in his outsider status, Carpenter reappropriates Hollywood values in a cheap ‘bubblegum’ universe, deploying trash culture as a smart bomb that aims to prise apart not only cinematic convention but also reality itself.

Ultimately, both films, in very different historical specificities, and linked by the work of J.G. Ballard, offer up the B-movie as a response to the gathering global and economic forces of late capitalism, signified by what Slavoj Žižek identifies as the ‘ideological state apparatus’ of the Hollywood movie-making machine (2002).


Still from X.

Roger Corman, known as the ‘King of the Bs’, was a force of nature. An undeniably intelligent and daring filmmaker, more often than not he seemed a hyper-manic combination of accountant, adrenalin junky and huckster than a maverick artist with a vision. Reminiscing about an early script, he said: ‘I told [the production company] I would give them the film if they would give me all of my money back immediately as an advance against distribution and I would do the same thing on three more films, so I could set myself up as producer’ (Emery 2003, 120). He even seemed in competition with himself: ‘I did Bucket of Blood in five days and … Little Shop of Horrors in two days and a night, but that was really an experiment and a joke to see if I could do it’ (Emery 2003, 121). In 1963, Corman completed The Terror in three days on sets leftover from The Raven, also from 1963. That year, too, he somehow found the energy to direct X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, with its portrayal of Dr James Xavier, who experiments on his own eyes with a super-powerful X-ray serum. The ‘X-effect’ is exponential as Xavier begins to see through more and more layers of reality: right through his eyelids and beyond, then through walls and buildings. When he sees through a sick girl’s skin to discover a malignancy her operating doctor has missed, Xavier disables the doctor by cutting his hand and performing the operation himself, saving the girl’s life. Facing a subsequent malpractice suit, the funding for his experiments is cut. Feverish from the X-effect and sleeplessness, his grip on sanity worsens and he lashes out at a colleague, inadvertently pushing him out of an upper-floor window to his death.

Xavier hides out in a backwaters town. Under thrall to a manipulative carnival hustler, he performs circus tricks as a sideshow ‘mind reader’ (in actuality, he reads people’s ID cards through their clothing). Needing money to progress his experiments, he follows the hustler to another anonymous, small town, where, in a distortion of his former life, he looks through sick people’s skin to identify diseased internal organs. He then provides a diagnosis to the victim, who, having abandoned hope, is grateful and willing to reward him. Of course, he must hand over a cut to the hustler, becoming ever more embittered as a result.

Another colleague finds him and Xavier escapes with her. His observations become increasingly deranged: ‘I see the city as if it were unborn … Limbs without flesh, girders without stone, signs hanging without supports, wires dipping and swaying without poles … flesh dissolved in an acid of light: a city of the dead’. Wearing modified sunglasses, with a thickness that retards the X effect to some extent, he works a Las Vegas casino, winning money by seeing through card decks and slot machines. However, when his sunglasses fall off, his horribly blackened eyes are revealed to the crowd and he flees to the desert, stumbling across a religious revival tent complete with blood-and-thunder preacher. Now he has begun to see through the final layers of reality and into the heart of the universe. Recoiling in horror, Xavier addresses the preacher: ‘I’ve come to tell you what I see. There are great darknesses, and beyond the darkness, a light that glows. And in the centre of the universe: the eye that sees us all.’ The preacher exhorts: ‘You see sin and the devil! But the bible tells us what to do: if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out!’ Xavier, unable to bear the burden of seeing what no one has seen before, takes the advice and gouges out his own eyeballs.

Still from X.

There have been many interpretations of the film. Ann Reynolds sees Xavier’s condition as a cinematic corollary of Robert Smithson’s ‘ruins in reverse’, symbolising the illusory hopes of future utopias (Reynolds 2003, 116). For Akira Mizuta Lippit, Xavier’s experiments invoke ‘the nuclear age, a premonition of total catastrophe destined to follow’ (Lippit 2005, 145). But in this act of self-immolation – Xavier putting out his eyes rather than trusting the perceptual logic he has set in train[1] – there seems an even clearer analogy: namely, with Corman’s directing career. In 1961, Corman made The Intruder, which dealt with small-town racism. This raw, uncompromising film garnered excellent reviews yet failed to make money. Subsequently, ‘after [this] financial disaster … Corman never again forgot the importance of the bottom line’ (Dixon 2005). His films from then on would be designed to make money first and foremost, with ‘art’ and ‘worthiness’ as secondary commodities. In his autobiography, he even devotes an entire chapter to the ‘disaster’ that in his mind was The Intruder, an act of pathos according to William D. Routt: ‘What was the big artistic “risk” here? Apparently, as it turns out, it was Corman’s sense of personal self-worth. Yet here, as the details of financial risk are spelled out, what seems significant is risk itself, a nameless danger that posits the film maker as One against the Rest: art as a specific, fraught enterprise’ (Routt 1994, 57).

This moment of realisation reached its apex when Corman founded his production company, New World Pictures, in 1970. He would not direct another film for 20 years, [2] an absence clarified by this 1974 announcement: ‘my earlier theories of the director as auteur are undergoing some revision and I’m beginning to think the producer is more important than the director’ (Morris 2000). For Charles Griffith, screenwriter on Little Shop of Horrors (1960), such an outcome was assured insofar as Corman ‘uses half his genius to degrade his own work, and the rest to degrade the artists who work for him’ (Griffith in Gray 2000). Although Corman had given up directing himself, he still wielded power over New World’s staff directors. According to Paul Bartel, once filming had started on Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), Corman excised much of the black humour in the original cut, replacing it with excessive gore and positioning it as a knock-off of Norman Jewison’s blockbuster, Rollerball, from the same year. As Bartel observed: ‘It was very important to him to be the David against the studio Goliath, and to come up with a cheap version that could be marketed along the same lines as some megaproduction’ (Gray 2000, 121). For Joe Dante, another Corman protégé, Death Race 2000 was ‘a real pop-art masterpiece before Roger got to it’ (Gray 2004, 121). Inadvertently, Corman’s autobiography confirms this angle. His account of the creative process surrounding Death Race 2000 is told entirely from his own perspective; Bartel and the screenwriters are barely mentioned: ‘When I read the story,’ Corman writes, ‘I thought: You can’t do this as a straight and serious film’ (Corman and Jerome 1990, 205).[3]

Still from X.

There is no small irony at this fate befalling Corman, whose forsaking of edgy, independent drama (typified by The Intruder) for cheap, moneymaking thrills, while running roughshod over colleagues, echoes that of Xavier. After all, the scientist was finally on the verge of a major metaphysical breakthrough only to succumb to fatal hubris. Destroying his talent, he subsists by performing cheap carnival tricks solely to raise cash before eventually rendering himself blind – literally, but also metaphorically blind to those around him.[4] Again, Corman’s autobiography hints at a literal act of self-sabotage. Reflecting on his enforced layoff from directing, Corman asks himself:

‘Did I quit out of fear? Did I let myself get wrapped up in the business of New World so I wouldn’t have to confront any insecurities I may have had about my worth as an artist, as an auteur? … Was New World a way for me to remain master of my own limited universe and reject a mainstream system that would only compromise my creative freedom and financial autonomy?’ (Corman and Jerome 1990, 231)

Today, he has pushed this logic to its bitter end: Corman’s latest productions are virtually unwatchable, a view held by detractors and admirers alike. Winston Wheeler Dixon, an avowed fan, voices the consensus:

‘These later films are extremely problematic … they are all but invisible to the public, being released solely through US cable networks, or on straight-to-home-video deals… [Their] excessive … sex and violence … makes many … uncomfortable …. [They] seem devoid of any artistic impulse whatsoever, designed solely to make money.’ (Dixon 2005)

In fighting such a longstanding resistance war against Hollywood, indeed against his own talent, Corman has marginalised himself out of existence, victim of a system that today fights back in very different ways – with absorption. As the novelist J.G. Ballard cogently observes: ‘the time span between the Rebel – the Revolution – and Total Social Acceptance is getting shorter and shorter …. In the future (this is part of the problem in the arts as well) you’ll get some radical new idea, but within 3 minutes it’s totally accepted, and it’s coming out in … your local supermarket.’ (Ballard in Savage 1978, 107).

Thus, Corman’s later work, defiantly yet ineffectually schlocky, is decidedly out of step when appropriated by a Hollywood simulacrum that has not only successfully mimicked exploitation values, but also, as Greg Villepique notes, Corman himself:

‘[Before] Jaws and Star Wars … studios allotted big budgets to historical epics and character-driven dramas while tossing off exploitation films on the cheap, so Corman was at least competing in the same ballpark as the majors (albeit from left field). Since the mid-70s, the studios’ priorities have flipped and they’ve poured all their resources into aping, with far more polish, Corman’s audience-pleasing strategies – tongue-in-cheek, $100 million Arnold Schwarzenegger and Will Smith blow ’em-ups that simply out-Corman Corman.’ (Villepique 2000)

In a world of commodity fetishism, where the lag between radicalism and flaccid cliché becomes negligible, what space can the ‘rebel’ hope to occupy?


Still from They Live.

They Live begins as a sombre affair. John Nada, a humble working-class drifter, needs a job and a place to sleep. Finding work on a construction site, he is offered a bed in a shantytown. He becomes intrigued by a nearby church and sneaks inside, overhearing a resistance group bent on bringing down the government. Later, the police discover the shantytown, bulldozing it and arresting the freedom fighters. Nada returns to the now-empty church, finding a box of sunglasses left behind.

LEFT: An alien, as seen by Nada sans shades…

Putting on a pair, he is stunned to discover that they reveal hidden messages in billboards and signs: ‘OBEY’, ‘MARRY AND REPRODUCE’, ‘SLEEP’, ‘CONFORM’. Dollar bills now read: ‘THIS IS YOUR GOD’. When he takes them off, everything is normal again. But there is an even bigger shock when the sunglasses reveal that certain people are in fact shapeshifting aliens with skeletal faces and metallic eyes. Nada flees and takes refuge in a bank, where with his enhanced vision he sees that most of the customers are aliens. At this point, the film shifts gears without warning, becoming unabashedly ‘cartoonish’. At the sight of the enemy, Nada instantly slips into cocky, wisecracking mode, a jarring transition from his previously low-key demeanour, as he blows apart the aliens while spitting out corny one-liners almost as much as bullets, like a B-film version of Arnold Schwarzenegger (he is muscle-bound, too, enhancing the comparison).

LEFT: …and as seen by Nada, with shades on.

This dramatic shift in tone has been criticised widely, with many commentators lamenting its supposed undermining of the Althusserian account of false consciousness inherent in the film’s first half. Barry Keith Grant is typical: ‘They Live … abandons its cultural critique halfway through to concentrate on [Nada’s] improbable heroics … Ironically, the film becomes exactly the kind of formulaic escapist entertainment it begins by critiquing as the opiate of the people’ (Grant 2004, 18). But what if the film is suggesting there is no way to step outside of ideology, no way to unwork false consciousness, but that the best one can do is to rework it to satisfy personal need? This then speaks of the difference between Corman and Carpenter, and ultimately of the difference in cultural value of the B-film in the 1960s (loitering in some kind of rebellious ‘outside’) and the B-film today (as fully absorbed, hyperreal selling point). Nada is like a badfilm version of Schwarzenegger’s character Doug Quaid in Total Recall (1990), who does not realise he is an undercover secret agent, but is instead brainwashed to think he is an ordinary labourer – just like Nada. But when danger comes, Quaid’s training kicks in automatically and he transforms into the lethal agent he was all along, as seamlessly as Nada does when the bullets begin to fly. Nada, then – indoctrinated, brainwashed, but subliminally aware – is the secret agent of badfilm. When he assumes his wisecracking, B-movie action stance, he is turning the autonomous, controlling intelligence the film rails against back against itself.

They Live sits within a continuum of SF works that challenge the consensus reality of consumer and mass-mediated culture. Examples include: Ray Nelson’s short story ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’ (1963), the basis for Carpenter’s screenplay alongside the ‘Nada’ comic strip (1985) that Nelson adapted from his story;[5] Ballard’s ‘The Subliminal Man’ (1963); Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969); and the films Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956), The Truman Show (1998) and The Matrix (1999). In terms of They Live, ‘The Subliminal Man’ is most revealing. In fact, it seems to have inspired ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’ (and therefore could be said to be the real inspiration for They Live),[6] although Nelson’s story comes off as little more than a heavy-handed rewrite with freaky aliens added for shock value. ‘The Subliminal Man’ features a world (minus aliens) in which subliminal messages control the populace through advertising and billboards, part of a society structured around conformity and planned obsolescence. There is only one make of car (only one make of everything: cigarettes, household goods, foodstuffs), produced in the same colour and specifications each year and designed to wear out at six-monthly intervals, and consumers become trapped in unbreakable shopping contracts, locked into the pursuit of false fulfilment.

Panels from Ray Nelson’s ‘Nada’, first published in Alien Encounters #6, 1985.

A man, Hathaway, becomes agitated about a series of giant signs erected on city outskirts and shopping centre perimeters. They don’t advertise anything – their facades are blank, shuttered grilles – so their true purpose is a mystery. But Hathaway believes they carry subliminal messages designed to control the populace. As he tells his doctor, Franklin, in a scene reminiscent of Nada’s futile pleas to others to understand the truth: ‘If you can’t believe your own senses what chance have you left? They’re invading your brain, if you don’t defend yourself they’ll take it over completely! We’ve got to act now before we’re all paralysed’ (Ballard 2006, 569–70). Franklin watches Hathaway climb one of the billboards, where he attacks a switch-box and destroys the sign’s grille, revealing, in another clear parallel with Carpenter’s film, a cycling and repeating display underneath:

‘The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.


‘The Subliminal Man’, while not specifically referring to the concept of X-rays as a hard scientific process, does reveal a sense of ‘seeing beyond’ consumerism, and the fake reality consumerism begets, thereby aligning itself with both X and They Live. As Steven Connor notes in his overview of the history of X-ray vision in art, literature and myth:

‘X-rays promise a utopia of pure spiritual essences, in which it would be possible to see through the obscuring veil of materiality, and in the process leave it behind, moving to a higher plane, or to a more refined condition. [Yet] they involve an irreducible necessity for some form of material meditation, a screening, detaining, or fixing, which seems to compromise, or indefinitely to defer the immaterialist dream of a world in which all that is solid may be melted into air.’ (Connor 2008)

This dream of ‘seeing through the obscuring veil of materiality’, and the necessity for ‘material mediation’, fits well with the kind of critical terrain in the 60s and 70s that would come to position advertising as an ideological system that denies consumers ‘true’ identity by virtue of a supersaturation of all modes of informational output. For Judith Williamson, the false image of ourselves bestowed by buying into the referent system of advertising is a system which devalues and erodes our nature and obscures ‘social realities’, resulting in a situation where ‘ideology and symbolic or signifying structures combine to form a Platonic system where everything means something else, and nothing is what it is’ (Williamson 1978, 170). In fact, ‘The Subliminal Man’ fictionalises the devolutionary effects of advertising and the forbidding sense that ‘nothing is what it is’. While the story’s narrative device seems an obvious influence on Nelson, its denouement recalls both Corman and Carpenter. As Hathaway is shot by the police and falls to his death – punished, like Xavier, for the sin of knowing reality as no one else can – Franklin orders yet another new car, as if nothing has ever happened, as ‘blind’ as everyone in They Live. But while the texture of the story is undeniably prescient in its central message, that the media landscape has redefined the world as itself, it, like Corman’s film, is essentially old-style message SF: socially aware science fiction depicting one man against the system, where the hero’s rebellion is brutally crushed and his broken body used as a totem to warn the rest of society.

Panels from ‘Nada’.

What exactly was in the air in 1963? As all three texts were formulated that year, it is fruitful to analyse Ballard’s story as a hinge text that embodies elements of both Corman’s and Carpenter’s films, yet one that points the way forward to a ‘Ballardian’ solution to the problem of futile rebellion – a solution Carpenter would also arrive at. Ballard refined the thesis of ‘The Subliminal Man’ in his experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), which depicts the struggle of a schizophrenic man, ‘T-’, to formulate new sensory responses to the emergent dynamics of the burgeoning media and communications landscape in the 1960s. The Atrocity Exhibition mirrors Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the ‘medium, or process of our time – electric technology – is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life’ (McLuhan and Fiore 1967, 8). It is a work that places its protagonist ‘inside’ the image, absorbed within the Spectacle, with no ‘outside’ of which to speak or to safely retreat to. There is no limit to the multiple fantasies the media landscape feeds to ‘T-’, and which nourish his psychopathic tendencies, which then take on a life of their own: an invasion of the actual by the virtual. As Ballard puts it: ‘the nervous systems of the characters have been externalized, as part of the reversal of the interior and exterior worlds. Highways, office blocks, faces and street signs are perceived as if they were elements in a malfunctioning nervous system’ (Ballard 2001, annotations 76).

Mirroring the text’s Burroughsian cut-up narrative technique, ‘T-’ cuts and pastes the major cultural and political events of the 1960s into a bricolaged, reordered version of reality playing inside the cinema of his mind, with himself in the lead role. This is a process summarised usefully by Dominika Oramus:

‘[Ballard’s characters] live surrounded by texts which invade their minds, but they cannot focus long enough to appreciate any complex messages. The characters dream about violence and excitement in their own lives, and the mediascape (ever full of aggressive imagery) makes them long for the re-enactment of atrocities: ‘all those scenes of pain and violence that illuminated the margins of our lives’.’ (Oramus 2007, 161)

It is precisely this sense of ‘re-enactment’ that They Live inhabits, placing it further along a historical and cultural specificity that bears no relation to X, indeed to Corman’s career. In the early part of the film, Nada is as indoctrinated as everyone else, with no agency over the external conditions he finds himself in. As Carpenter intercuts banal television shows with inane conversations on the street, suggesting they are symbiotic, Nada, when asked how he plans to make ends meet, blithely parrots Reaganomics: ‘I believe in America. The opportunity will come’. Yet he does get smart, reworking those external conditions in a performative manner that evokes not only Ballard but also Simon Cottle’s sense of media consumers who, in ‘late-modern societies and, in their mediatized expression, periodically summon and galvanize collective beliefs, myths and solidarities – collective sentiments and appeals increasingly performed on a global media stage’ (Cottle 2006, 428).

Still from They Live.

Rather than Xavier’s fatal withdrawal, Nada declares, in the film’s most quoted line: ‘I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass – and I’m all out of bubblegum’. Unabashed, glorying in his outsider status, Carpenter reappropriates Hollywood values in a cheap ‘bubblegum’ universe that invades, reinvigorates and repopulates what Žižek (himself borrowing from Jean Baudrillard) calls the ‘desert of the real’ – the ideology of late capitalism (2002, 15). This intent is made blatantly clear from the opening titles, which display the words ‘They Live’ fading into graffiti on a desolate railway overpass. This simple dissolve is indicative: in Carpenter’s world, badfilm is the reality; there is no place left to stand outside of mass mediation. Perfomativity, the audience reacting within the dynamic system of media ritual enacted on the global media stage, with ‘spectators’ mirroring content back to ‘producers’, becomes, if enabled correctly, the last – the only – line of resistance.

Still from They Live.

Studying the ‘role of media in processes of manufacturing consent’, Cottle suggests that it is inadequate to conclude that mass media has an unquestioned role in enacting ironclad attitudes and frameworks through which processes such as ‘moral panics’ are channelled. Instead, he speaks to the issue of perfomativity in audience reception:

‘[Media] ritual only comes alive experientially, emotionally, subjunctively, when actively read by audiences/readerships who are prepared to ‘participate’ within it as symbolically meaningful to them, and who are prepared to accept the imagined solidarities on offer. Performativity, then, is not confined to the performative ‘doing’ of media producers but includes the ‘doing’ of ‘spectators’ as well, who actively enter into (‘commit themselves to’) the proceedings and who can identify themselves and their sentiments within them.’ (Cottle 2006, 428-9)

For Cottle, if this process can be used to enable moral panics (which are dependent on being actively ‘read’ by audiences, before being reflected back onto the global sphere), then it can also be used to re-project more intimate details of the audience’s experience and social lives, all the while remaining inside the technology of media ritual, a dynamic, interlocking system with constituent parts ‘producers, performers and participating audiences’ (Cottle 2006, 429). To return to the narrative conceit of X-ray vision, of seeing beyond, the notion of perfomativity in mediatised landscapes (mediascapes) can be seen as analogous to a form of brake or control – Connor’s ‘material mediation’ – on the capacity to see beyond. But why would we need it?

Connor describes how the very idea of X-ray vision has historically induced anxiety and terror because ‘the problem with X-rays is that, for the most part, what they like best is to go through things, and to go on going through things unless or until they meet something, like lead, that absorbs or scatters them’ (Connor 2008). To demonstrate, he identifies X as a ‘dystopia’ in which ‘every last pocket of opacity has been seared away, leaving a vitreous desert of universal transparency’, and he aligns the film with Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality, with its preoccupation with depthlessness and the fatal blurring of private and public realms: ‘In a world in which everything must be made visible, and in which “value radiates in all directions”, the transparency of evil is indistinguishable from the evil of transparency’ (Connor 2008).

In this account, seeing everything, a process to which we willingly succumb via commodity fetishism, is the tool of an oppressive, autonomous system that exposes us to its inner workings: the truth that is revealed may not be a truth we are ontologically equipped to handle, with its inescapable highlighting of the fact that our free will has been stripped to the bone, and that this outcome has been smuggled in via our own collusion. The prediction of Baudrillard’s contemporary, Paul Virilio, is also apposite. Probed about our heavily surveilled and intrusive Western society, Virilio was asked: ‘But what shall we dream of when everything becomes visible?’ To which he replied: ‘We’ll dream of being blind’ (Wilson 1994). The disturbing parallel with Xavier’s fate need hardly be stated. Thus, for Connor, ‘the problem of how to see X-rays, or to employ them indirectly as a form of visual perception is similar to the problem … with the schoolboy fantasy of a universal acid, capable of burning through any substance: so what do you keep it in?’ (Connor 2008). Appropriate to this analysis of trash culture, Connor approaches the conundrum as Superman might. After all, ‘In order to exercise his X-ray vision, Superman would need some arrangement whereby the rays could be bounced back to him, as though he were able to exude some kind of screen which could be sent out in advance of the X-rays in order to reflect them’ (Connor 2008).

Let us return to the two films, then, with this framing question in mind: ‘If you have a narrative device that can see everything: what do you keep it in?’


LEFT: The preacher from X.

They Live subverts the thesis of X in a number of ways. Both feature apocalyptic preachers, that old B-movie staple. In X, the preacher exhorts Xavier to destroy himself and he is all too willing to comply. They Live’s preacher, however, implants the idea in Nada’s mind that there is another layer of reality of consumerism to be unpeeled, thereby leading him to the church, the sunglasses and the jouissance of self-realisation.

In one scenario, trash culture destroys the protagonist; in the other, it enables him to become complete. In both films, the sunglasses themselves, a heavily iconic popcult signifier, reinforce the division. In X, Xavier’s pair hinders his ability to see through reality, but Nada’s sunglasses allow him to see beyond, with the fullest sense of liberation – ‘like a drug’, he says.

LEFT: The preacher from They Live.

Crucially, Nada is in control of the process. He can turn the ‘high’ of popular culture on and off by taking the sunglasses on and off, whereas Xavier is helplessly trapped inside a spiralling nightmare – there is no permanent way to halt his worsening condition.[7]

Further, when Xavier is on the run, the subculture he is drawn to, filled with sideshow freaks and circus workers, is unequivocally depicted as degrading, lowlife, exploitative, even as it provides him with a living. In They Live, when Nada hides out, his subcult of freedom fighters is nourishing, welcoming, each warrior dedicated to one other: ‘There’s no need to wear your sunglasses,’ he is told. ‘We’re all human in here’.

ABOVE: X’s subcult. BELOW: They Live’s subcult.

Even the character’s names are overripe with signification. ‘X’, which refers to Xavier himself (as the film’s subtitle makes clear), is the classic signifier of negation, but also a generic marker, as in ‘Brand X’. Xavier, then, is everyman, but one who thinks he can rise above it, thus negating himself, cancelling himself out in the process. ‘Nada’, too, signifies generic values, literally nothingness (in Spanish and Portuguese, ‘nada’ means nothing) but in Carpenter, the name signifies the obvious blank slate that his character has become – the bland everyman ripe for reinscription. Inevitably, Corman’s real-world circumstances yet again mirror his film world’s inherent bias. Like Xavier, he became repulsed by what he had become, and the world towards which he was drawn: ‘Fairly early on, I began to worry that New World Pictures might become too closely associated with exploitation films … I did not want to personally be identified, even stigmatized, by exploitation filmmaking’ (Corman and Jerome 1990, 188, 189).

Between the two filmmakers, there is another critical parallel/division: as Corman did before him, Carpenter, in recent times, has forsaken directing indefinitely. Yet this too effects a very different outcome. Carpenter has embraced the world of computer games, as a consultant on the first-person shooter computer game F.E.A.R. (2005). Tellingly, he describes the game in terms of ‘cinematics’, pointing out that ‘you,’ as the user, ‘are the character’ and that there is no difference between creating a suspense scene for film or game.[8] This merger between Carpenter, films and gaming was predicted 17 years earlier in They Live. When Nada and his sidekick Frank make their way up through the floors of the alien-controlled television studio, their goal is to destroy the antenna that beams the signals masking the subliminal messages and the aliens’ real faces. In the smoking hallways, strewn with debris from their shootouts with alien guards, Nada and Frank hear voices and must decide in a split second whether to fire automatically and risk killing humans. The entire sequence, with its rapid-fire decision making seen from Nada’s perspective and its ultimate goal of blowing up a vital installation in an alien base, is nothing less than a first-person shoot ’em up computer game – in live action.

ABOVE: still from They Live. BELOW: screenshot from F.E.A.R.

Here, Carpenter seems to anticipate the badfilm zeitgeist as outlined by Brendan Murphy and Jane Mills. Murphy points to the emergence of a new mode of filmic production that not only ‘blurs production and consumption’ as a result of our Web 2.0 society, encompassing social media, the aesthetics of appropriation and the cutting-edge interactivity of computer games, but that also looks to the B-movie world as a kind of shared repository of generic, iconic signifiers that create meaning across cultural, aesthetic and even political boundaries (Murphy 2009).[9] This corresponds with what Mills highlights as the breaking down of the traditional binary opposition between Hollywood and ‘not Hollywood’ (that is, most alternative/independent cinema movements) by a globalising, hybridising process that provides a ‘fluid screenscape in which cultural phenomena flow in and out of the frame’ (Mills 2009).

How does They Live resolve these strands of cultural data? According to Janet Maslin, Carpenter directs the film ‘with B-movie bluntness, but with none of the requisite snap’, while the ‘B-movie casting is another problem’ (Maslin 1988). But there are two ways to take the badfilm tropes she criticises: as a universal sign of narrative/aesthetic weakness, or, with Murphy and Mills in mind, as a liberating mesh of codes and signifiers that actually support the film’s critique. In fact, They Live draws more from Nelson’s comic strip ‘Nada’ than from the original short story upon which both comic and film are based.[10] The comic features the same sudden shift in tone from conspiracy theory to all-out ‘superhero’ action, a narrative device de rigueur for the pulpy comic-book world but apparently not for the serious world of film that Maslin wants They Live to inhabit.

Rather than lacking ‘requisite snap’, Carpenter is in fact completely true to his source material (moreover, more faithful to pulp fiction as revealing of reality than ‘serious’ literature), even if he does make one vital modification (although this in no way devalues his respect for pulp). In They Live, when Nada finally destroys the antenna, the film ends abruptly with a groan-inducing punchline. As a woman makes love to her partner, Nada destroys the antenna and the signal is switched off. The partner’s alien face, no longer electronically masked, is suddenly revealed to the woman. As she looks on in horror, he asks, ignorant of his outward appearance and only concerned with his sexual performance: ‘What’s wrong, baby?’ This awful joke is also present in ‘Nada’, but whereas Nelson hints at a subsequent war against the aliens brought on by their unmasking, Carpenter does no such thing. Instead, he immediately cuts to the credits with absolutely no hint of a new revolution sweeping out the old, no realistic, tangible sense of political upheaval: just that final, terrible gag as the film’s exclamation point.

The same joke twice. ABOVE: Panel from ‘Nada’. BELOW: Still from They Live.

Typically, Carpenter has been criticised for not being able to deliver a sense of the world after the alien signal has been destroyed. However, to return to Žižek, not even a provocateur of his experience has been quite able to imagine what exactly comes after capitalism.[11] Far more compelling in Žižek’s discourse is the methodology by which he uses examples from popular cinema as metaphoric circuit breakers in political discussion. For Žižek, Hollywood itself is the ultimate ‘ideological state apparatus’ (Žižek 2002, 16), inherently political in that it produces a cultural product – popular film – that belongs to a wider system of ideology that invents reality and supports cultural myths and institutional structures. According to Žižek, revolutionary cinema is therefore ‘cinema as the art of appearances telling us something about reality itself, about how reality constitutes itself’. When ‘the coordinates of your reality disintegrate’, the problem becomes ‘how to reconstitute yourself’ (Žižek in Fiennes 2006). In contrast to commentators who protest that They Live sells out the leftist critique it sets up, Žižek uses the film’s sunglasses premise as a crucial metaphor for the need to unwork the ‘real message’ lying beneath Republican ideology:

‘The glasses … function as a device for the critique of ideology. In other words, they enable [Nada] to see the real message lying beneath the glossy, colorful surface. What would we see if we were to observe the Republican presidential campaign through such glasses? The first thing would be a long series of contradictions and inconsistencies.’ (Žižek 2008)

Extrapolating to the aftermath of 9/11, Žižek demonstrates how the demonisation of the Islamic enemy is seen as an insidious by-product of American global expansion. For Žižek, we must reject the binary opposition that supports a war on terror, instead adopting ‘both positions simultaneously; this can be done only if we resort to the dialectical category of totality: there is no choice between these two positions; each one is one-sided and false …. The two sides are not really opposed …. They belong to the same field … The choice between Bush and Bin Laden is not our choice; they are both “Them” against Us’ (Žižek 2002, 50-1). This instantly recalls They Live, in which Carpenter ensures there is no distinction ‘between them and us’ (aligning the film with Mills’ Hollywood/not Hollywood hybridity): the aliens in their human guise are seamlessly integrated into our world, and it is only by a trick of the light that we are able to see them differently.

In the face of this ‘dialectical category of totality’, Žižek suggests that: ‘Instead of imposing our version of universality (universal human rights etc), universality – the shared space of understanding between different cultures – should be conceived of as an infinite task of translation, a constant reworking of one’s own particular position’ (Žižek 2002, 66). This returns us to Cottle’s media performativity and to Carpenter’s latter-day career as remaker/remodeler of his own B-movie legacy. Like Corman, Carpenter has his own empire – not producing other people’s work, but recycling and remixing his own, on (at the time of writing) no fewer than five big-budget remakes of his films. Undoubtedly, he is adept at ‘constantly reworking his own position’.[12] This is in stark contrast to Corman, eternally casting himself as David against the Goliath of Hollywood, yet slaying only himself (as Žižek might argue, ‘resistance is surrender’).[13] Indeed, Routt specifically examines how Corman’s adherence to the ‘outside’, and his blindness to fluidity of hypercapitalism, constantly undercuts his position: ‘Corman’s case, particularly in the “enigma” of the way in which his taste is transformed into that of the public, seems exemplary to me partly because what he … clearly thinks of as dichotomies keep melting into one another’ (Rout 1994, 60).

Meanwhile, the default critical position is that Carpenter, the filmmaker, is in decline. As Philip Kerr caustically observes: ‘the modestly titled John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars … is no exception to this decline, in that it finds the director now feeding off his own corpse … I myself was sad to see a once inventive talent eating his own excrement’ (Kerr 2001, 44). But Carpenter has always ‘fed off his own corpse’, fully aware of dichotomies that melt into one another: his entire oeuvre features repeated motifs, aesthetics and concepts, extending down to his self-composed soundtracks, with their minimal and repetitive refrains. Further, his films borrow just as freely from the films he admires as they do from his own work. As he said in response to an interviewer who detected elements from his films in other directors’ work: ‘I’ve made money off the creativity of Howard Hawks, Sergio Leone, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, John Sturges, Orson Welles, and many many others for my entire career – how can I complain when it happens to me?’ (Bright 1999).

With this statement, Carpenter situates himself as a nodal point in Mills’ ‘fluid screenscape of cultural phenomena’. If Xavier/Corman is the hubristic, overreaching modernist, then Nada/Carpenter is the exuberant postmodernist: ‘eating his own excrement’ is perhaps the Faustian pact Carpenter pays for delivering such astonishing work, a golden period stretching from his first feature Dark Star (1974) to They Live 14 years later. Accordingly, the jamming of the signal at the end of They Live is badfilm producing its own transmission, performing its own means of production, reconstituting itself from signals beamed out, mirrored back and reworked in the endless play inherent within Murphy’s proscribed repository of generic signifiers.

In They Live, that last scene – that note of purest trash reflected back to the horrified woman, back to the viewer of the film, a mirror halting the progress of the X-ray vision that demands to see beyond into the world to come – is the product of this new, reordered transmission. As ‘material mediation’, it is the ultimate solution to the problem of reconstitution, to the metaphoric problem of unstoppable X-ray vision, which, in Žižekian terms, is very much ‘your reality disintegrating’.

It is a solution that Xavier/Corman, forever scrabbling to find an outside from which to fire bullets, was never destined to achieve.

Image found on the internet. Creator unknown.


[1] Earlier, the cocky scientist had proudly announced about his experiments: ‘I’m closing in on the gods’.
[2] According to Greg Villepique: ‘As if to formally declare himself all washed up as an artist, Corman made a surprise return to directing for the 1990 time-travel stinker Frankenstein Unbound, a film sunk by his refusal to spend a little more money on effects; nobody much noticed its brief theatrical run’ (Villepique 2000).
[3] Elsewhere, he reflects: ‘We are a violent … species. If we weren’t … the sabre-toothed tiger would be … the dominant species. But the humans killed them. I touched on this in Death Race 2000’ (Corman and Jerome 1990, 162).
[4] Xavier, of course, kills one colleague and fails to heed another’s warnings about the serum’s side effects.
[5] Both Nelson’s story and comic strip are standard alien-invasion fare. Carpenter’s reworking is markedly more political, ironic, anti-consumerist and popcult-savvy.
[6] This is further borne out by publication dates: ‘The Subliminal Man’ was published in New Worlds in January 1963, while Nelson’s story appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction in November that year.
[7] Carpenter’s masterstroke, not present in Nelson’s short story or comic strip, was to use the sunglasses as the device that reveals reality. In Nelson’s original story and comic, Nada ‘wakes up’ through hypnosis and is unable to turn the effect off.
[8] In an interview, Carpenter explains: ‘There’s a quality to [F.E.A.R.’s] visual cinematics …. I’m a video game fan from the old days, and I love first person shooter games. I’m a big fan of DOOM, but this is … a leap forward in terms of graphics which is the first thing you look at as a director. How does it look and how does it play and how does it feel? … The audience, whether it’s for a game or for a movie, invests in the characters on screen and psychologically bonds with them. What happens to them is what emotionally happens to you. In F.E.A.R., you are the character, so you already step into it, assuming that things will jump out and they will be frightening”’ (Ferrante 2005).
[9] Recall Nada’s appropriation of the Quaid character in Total Recall, the latter film itself a kind of glorified, unabashed B-movie made with Hollywood money.
[10] Amusingly, Nelson’s son Walter wrote on his father’s Facebook fan page: ‘Dad’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” had been pretty much continuously in print in multiple languages since the late ’60s. In the early ’80s, a friend convinced Ray to turn it into a graphic novel called ‘Nada’. The Nada comic hadn’t been on the shelves for a week before John Carpenter was on the line. The moral of this story is that Hollywood doesn’t read books, but does read comic books (er, graphic novels)’ (Nelson 2008).
[11] As he writes: ‘One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death. Even Mao’s attempt, in the Cultural Revolution, to wipe out the traces of capitalism, ended up in its triumphant return’ (Žižek 2007, 4).
[12] And philosophical about it, too: ‘It’s a brand new world out there in terms of trying to get advertising. There’s so much going on that if you come up with a movie that people have never heard of they don’t pay attention to it – no matter how good it is. So it becomes, “Let’s remake something that maybe rings a bell and that you’ve heard of before”. That way, you’re already ahead. I’m flattered, but I understand what’s going on. They’re picking everything to remake. I think they’ve just run down the list of other titles and have finally got to mine (laughs)’ (Matloff 2007).
[13] This phrase refers to the title of Žižek’s 2007 article, in which he outlines the ‘defeat of the Left’: ‘The response of some critics on the postmodern Left to this predicament is to call for a new politics of resistance. Those who still insist on fighting state power, let alone seizing it, are accused of remaining stuck within the ‘old paradigm’: the task today, their critics say, is to resist state power by withdrawing from its terrain and creating new spaces outside its control. This is, of course, the obverse of accepting the triumph of capitalism. The politics of resistance is nothing but the moralising supplement to a Third Way Left’ (Žižek 2007, 4).


+ Ballard, J.G. 2001. The Atrocity Exhibition [1970]. London: Flamingo.
–––––– 2006. ‘The Subliminal Man’ [1963]. In The Complete Short Stories: Volume 1, 559–77. London: Harper Perennial.
+ Bright, Marc. 1999. ‘John Carpenter Speaks to the “John Carpenter Website”.’ http://www.geocities.com/j_nada/carp/interview/jcspeakstojcpage.html.
+ Connor, Steven. 2008. Pregnable of Eye: X-Rays, Vision and Magic. http://www.stevenconnor.com/xray.
+ Corman, Roger, with Jim Jerome. 1990. How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. New York and Toronto: Random House.
+ Cottle, Simon. 2006. Mediatized rituals: beyond manufacturing consent. Media, Culture & Society, 28, no. 3: 411-32.
+ Emery, Robert J. 2003. The Directors: Take Three. New York: Allworth Press.
+ Dixon, Winston Wheeler. 2005. Roger Corman. Senses of Cinema, August. http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/06/corman.html.
+ Ferrante, Anthony C. 2005. John Carpenter and game producer Rob Loftus uncover the nature of F.E.A.R. mania.com, 31 October. http://www.mania.com/john-carpenter-game-producer-rob-loftus-uncover-nature-fear_article_49967.html.
+ Grant, Barry Keith. 2004. Disorder in the Universe: John Carpenter and the Question of Genre. In The Cinema of John Carpenter: the Technique of Terror, ed. Ian Conrich and David Woods, 10-20. London and New York: Wallflower Press.
+ Gray, Beverly. 2000. Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books.
+ Kerr, Philip. 2001. Mars bores. New Statesman, 10 December.
+ Lippit, Akira Mizuta. 2005. Atomic Light (Shadow Optics). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
+ McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. 1967. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam Books.
+ Matloff, Jason. 2007. John Carpenter’s Business of Insanity. MovieMaker, 31 July. http://www.moviemaker.com/directing/article/john_carpenters_business_of_insanity.
+ Maude, Collette. 2008. They Live. Time Out. http://www.timeout.com/film/reviews/79208/they-live.html.
+ Mills, Jane. 2009. Hollywood’s ‘bad’ other. Conference paper given at B for BAD Cinema, Monash University, 15 April.
+ Morris, Gary. 2000. Roger Corman on New World Pictures: An Interview from 1974. Bright Lights Film Journal, no. 27, January. http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/27/cormaninterview1.html.
+ Murphy, Brendan. B Grade 2.0: Gondry, ‘Sweding’ and B-movie tropes in emerging social media culture. Conference paper given at B for BAD Cinema, Monash University, 15 April.
+ Nelson, Ray. 1963. ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’. Fantasy and Science Fiction, November.
–––––– 1985. ‘Nada’. Alien Encounters, no. 6.
+ Nelson, Walter. 2008. The Story Behind They Live. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ray-Faraday-Nelson/44349104571?v=feed&story_fbid=91694579571.
+ Oramus, Dominika. 2007. Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard. Warsaw: University of Warsaw.
+ Reynolds, Ann. 2003. Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
+ Routt, William D. 1994. Art, popular art. Continuum: the Australian Journal of Media and Culture, 7, no. 2.
+ Savage, Jon. 1978. J.G. Ballard, in V. Vale (ed.), Search & Destroy #7-11: The Complete Reprint, San Francisco, V/Search Publications [date not given].
+ Sconce, Jeffrey. 1995. Trashing the academy: Taste, excess, and an emerging politics of cinematic style. Screen 36: 371-93.
+ Villepique, Greg. 2000. Roger Corman. Salon, 13 June. http://www.salon.com/people/bc/2000/06/13/corman/index1.html.
+ Williamson, Judith. 1978. Decoding Advertisements. London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd.
+ Wilson, Louise. 1994. Cyberwar, God And Television: Interview with Paul Virilio. Ctheory.net, 1 December.
+ Woods, David. 2004. Us and Them: Authority and Identity in Carpenter’s Films. In The Cinema of John Carpenter: the Technique of Terror, ed. Ian Conrich and David Woods, 21-34. London and New York: Wallflower Press.
+ Žižek, Slavoj. 2002. Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on 11 September and Related Dates. London and New York: Verso.
–––––– 2007. Resistance Is Surrender. London Review of Books, 29, no. 22.
–––––– 2008. Through the Glasses Darkly. In These Times, 29 October. http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3976/through_the_glasses_darkly.


+ Carpenter, John. 1988. They Live. Alive Films.
+ Corman, Roger. 1963. X: the Man with the X-Ray Eyes. Alta Vista Productions.
+ Fiennes, Sophie. 2006. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (written and presented by Slavoj Žižek). Amoeba Film.