- We Allowed This to Happen
- How pretty is *your* iTunes library?
- 24 Cigarettes and One Pipe: Hammett and Chandler
- Thanksgiving at Home
- The Republican Party in a Second Obama Term
- Elvis on My Elbow, Dylan on My Calf: Tattoos
- Samsung, Stop Your Photocopiers. (And Apple, Stop Your Lawyers)
- How Hot It Was, How Hot
Tag Archives: 1980s
You’re a drifter — down on your luck, roaming from town to town with a bedroll and a tool chest strapped to your back. Everywhere around you, other people seem to be getting the breaks — although, admittedly, many more seem to be just as up against it as you are. You find a job as a scab laborer on a construction site, and a squatter’s village that at least offers a hot meal and a place to sleep. Despite all this, you don’t let it get you down. You still believe firmly in the lessons you learned as a kid: that the world is fundamentally a fair place, that people will treat you well if you treat them well, and that working hard and playing by the rules will one day get you to a place of comfort and security; maybe not the mansion on the hill, but not the squatter’s camp either. America still works, you tell yourself, and that gives you the strength to pick yourself up and keep trying.
Then one day you put on a pair of sunglasses and see things you never saw before, and your world goes to shit.
John Carpenter’s They Live looked unflinchingly at the underside of Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America. While Gordon Gekko was rhapsodizing about the goodness of greed, migrant worker George Nada trawled through a stunted shadow economy that grew like a fungus on America’s underbelly. They Live presents an America that seems decent enough to justify George’s faith: the squatters’ camp where he finds shelter runs on compassion and good old American hard work, a true expression of the generosity we hold as one of our core values. The problem, as it turns out, is the ultimate viper in the garden: the elite feeding on America’s underclass are actually aliens in human form, hopscotching rapaciously across the galaxy like a cross between Gordon Gekko and Galactus. Even more heartbreaking is when George discovers why he was able to maintain his faith in the American dream while it fell apart around him. The aliens have submerged the culture in subliminal messages, with every surface blaring a mute clarion of stasis and conformity. Thanks to a pair of sunglasses invented by the revolutionaries fighting the aliens, George walks through L.A. and finally sees, in literal black and white, the new guiding principles of America. SLEEP 8 HOURS A DAY. MARRY AND REPRODUCE. WATCH T.V. STAY ASLEEP. CONFORM. OBEY.
What makes They Live resonate so much for me, a decade after I first saw it and well after it was first released, is what it reveals about paranoia and the comforts of conspiracy. While the film bears the trappings of a sci-fi-based horror movie, its central conceit — that American society is being undermined by alien invaders — is actually more comforting than frightening, because it supports the premise that people are too fundamentally decent to create the kind of society depicted in They Live. Suddenly, we didn’t do it — it was done to us. This preserves our ideas of our own goodness while offering a tantalizing promise of redemption. An alien menace is a menace that can be fought and destroyed; what came from outside can be sent back outside. Sure, defeating a technologically advanced alien race is not going to be a walk in the park. But if there’s one thing we know how to do as humans, it’s kill those who are different from us. Whether the solution proved to be sunglasses, computer viruses or red anti-alien virus powder, we’d find a way. If, however, the problem turns out to be us — if we, not alien invaders, made the world around us, with all its greed and its waste and its callousness — then we’re probably screwed.
Being the object of a conspiracy, with untold numbers of nefarious actors working tirelessly to keep us in the dark and helpless, confirms our importance — it reassures us that we are dangerous and worth going to great efforts to deceive and subjugate. Furthermore, a world beset by conspiracy is a world that is at least governed by some kind of order and meaning, even if that order is largely bent against us and we are helpless to do anything about it. The world of They Live is a perversely tempting one, because then at least things would make sense — there would be a reason why everything was so fucked up and wrong.
As I get older, I find that in addition to constantly beginning statements by saying, “as I get older,” I increasingly subscribe to what I call the Belzer Dichotomy of Human Cognition. That is an affected way of saying that I agree with comedian Richard Belzer when he said:
You are either a conspiracy nut or a coincidence nut.
Conspiracies of course are Belzer’s schtick, and he’s carved out a secure niche for himself as the thinking paranoid’s comic of choice. To a conspiracy buff, “coincidence” is a slightly dirty word, a mark of intellectual pansyhood, a confession that one lacks the imagination or the courage to see life as it really is. But I think Belzer was actually on to something quite universal and profound when he said that. We could rephrase the line like this:
You either believe that everything, no matter how trivial, happens for a reason, or you believe that even seemingly important things can happen for no reason at all.
This is about as basic a distinction between human consciousnesses as you can make, and it doesn’t take a great deal of observation to perceive that conspiracy nuts vastly outnumber coincidence nuts. We are biologically hardwired to notice patterns and to ascribe significance to them. In a nutshell, it is why religion exists. Religions vary greatly over times and places, but the one thing they virtually all have in common is the reassurance that the world around you was created, and is advancing, with some kind of purpose. That sense of purpose is why people profess to believe things that are, by any waking, rational standard, absurd. What follows is not an original observation by any means, but even so: if you could have somehow reached adulthood without any religious indoctrination or awareness, and then been approached by a Christian or a Hindu or a Muslim aiming to make a convert out of you, would you take his or her claims at all seriously? Would it seem reasonable to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead, or that illiterate Mohammed was given the power to read by an angel, whatever that is?
I think the honest answer has to be no, but I understand now that the question is beside the point. I think a great many people who consider themselves religious either don’t actually believe the tenets of their doctrine or else are so indifferent to them that it makes no difference. It is the consolation and comfort that are important; the precepts and dogma are just tools, arbitrary elements to give the conscious, waking part of the brain something to do, like playing solitaire on a computer.
There was a story recently published on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish (I couldn’t find it again to link it) about a devout Christian who lost his child in an accident. He was overwhelmed with grief, as anyone would be. Where he perhaps took it a step further was when he asserted that the accident was God’s punishment for his sins — that the “accident” was, in effect, his fault. His family and friends tried to insist that he was wrong, that God did not work that way and that sometimes bad things just happened to those who apparently did not deserve them. He would not be persuaded, and eventually explained that he preferred to believe God had murdered his child to expiate his own sins (I’m paraphrasing slightly), because to contemplate the alternative — that his child had died, and his world been destroyed, for no reason at all — was actually more horrifying.
The point of all this is to illustrate that people will go to tremendous intellectual lengths to see the world as being guided by some kind of purpose, and that if they have to choose between an evil purpose and no purpose, they will mostly choose the former. You can see this all too clearly today. There has always been a paranoid strain in American politics, and I’m not going to claim that it’s worse today than it has ever been in the past. But the advent of the Internet and the coarsening of network news (which exists almost entirely to frighten people into watching) has expanded the scope of our fears to a degree that seems without precedent. We believe that the president is a foreign-born socialist mole aimed at instituting either a secular Communist paradise or sharia law, we can’t quite decide which; we believe that the Bush administration knew of the September 11 attacks and allowed them to occur. We believe scientists are making up global warming and hiding the evidence that vaccines cause autism. We believe in a “gay agenda” to convert straight people into homosexuals, as if the gay community were organized like the Mormon church. We believe that the media is hiding the truth about both Obama’s birth certificate and high-fructose corn syrup. Whatever we believe, there’s always a “them” to blame it on. If only we could take care of them, fix them or teach them or avoid them or just plain get rid of them, things would go back to the way they’re supposed to be. How appropriate that Carpenter named his film with that anonymous, ominous pronoun. They do live, and They are everywhere.[caption id="attachment_408" align="aligncenter" width="851" caption=""It figures it would be something like this.""][/caption]
Me, I admit it: I’m a coincidence nut. Sometimes — most of the time — shit just happens. I’m not saying that there aren’t instances where evil or self-serving people collude in secret for their own ends. And I’m certainly not saying the government and the media are to be trusted. I’m just saying that the global, sweeping, everyone-else-is-in-on-it kind of conspiracy is a figment of our collective imagination — an understandable but irrational belief stemming from our need to occupy a purposeful universe. There simply aren’t enough people in the world smart enough, wicked enough or determined enough to fake global warming or hide Barack Obama’s true identity or whatever. Someone always screws up, and someone always talks. It’s human nature. There are very few conspiracy theories that can’t be explained by a mix of incompetence, happenstance and ordinary self-interest.
We are small beings on a big world in an incomprehensibly vast universe. Even the best and brightest of us are terribly limited in our perceptions. Our brains take cognitive shortcuts that make us feel smarter than we are, and because we spend our entire lives stuck in our own heads, immersed in our subjectivity alone, we naturally interpret everything around us in terms of how it affects us personally. It takes a certain leap of imagination to jump out of this view, and it takes something perhaps more difficult: a willingness to see yourself as one tiny, tiny part of an immense whole, a whole that is largely indifferent to what you do or even to whether you’re there at all. There is no plan. There are just atoms in their peculiar orbits, joining and separating, colliding or drifting for a time into emptiness.
I get why people find this scary. True freedom always is. It scares me sometimes. I have no one to blame if I am unhappy or end up frittering my life away. And if I live in a world in which people seem to be greedy, short-sighted or just out for themselves, I have only to think of the too-frequent times when I have been one or more of those things, and to reflect on the multitudes of people in the world who have those qualities to an even greater degree than I do. It doesn’t take special sunglasses to see why a world made by people as flawed as us would turn out to be so flawed.
There’s nothing like revisiting a TV show from your youth to discover exactly how much you’ve grown up in the intervening years. (Or how grown up you already were, if you’re one of the fortunate ones.) I have no idea who that child was who took such pleasure in the Dukes of Hazzard, whose heart used to leap like a deer at the sound of “Dixie” played on a car horn; the good-ol’-boy-hating adult of today wants nothing to do with him. And I strongly suspect the kid who willingly sat through those episodes of Silver Spoons was, in fact, an alien doppleganger sent to infiltrate Earth society by posing as a witless twelve year-old whose role models were dorks. Maybe he was just a kid too lazy to get off his ass and change the channel.
Whoever those strange alternate selves turn out to be, I do feel a strong kinship to the kid who watched The A-Team. I was thrown back into his presence on the occasion of TV Land’s A-Team Fandemonium Marathon: 48 hours of dummy bullets, exploding cars, and men soaring balletically through the air. Not to mention lousy acting, weak puns, preposterous celebrity cameos, and enough specimens of Geniune Eighties Hair to start a museum. It’s probably not a good idea to watch anything constantly for two straight days, and sitting in front of The A-Team for more than a few hours inflames the human demand for plausibility into a rage-fueled geyser. “How can Hannibal Smith possibly have an acting career when he’s a wanted fugitive?” you might find yourself demanding of your roommate, or girlfriend, or cat, or the wall. “Who actually thinks Face is that good-looking? How could any doctor with brains think that Murdock is really crazy? How many stupid machines are they going to build out of discarded freezer parts or old wheelbarrows? And why the fuck doesn’t anyone ever get killed?”
But why stop at rampant implausibility when you can add repitition? All tv shows rely on formula to a certain extent, but The A-Team is in a league—a sport—all its own. It established a formula in its first few episodes and stuck to it so rigidly one could easily imagine a software program capable of generating A-Team stories. (Oh look—someone already has.) And although every A-Team fan knows the routine, and since you probably wouldn’t be reading this if reams of gunplay and cheesy jokes aren’t your cup of tea, we nevertheless must revisit, briefly, the well-oiled engine that was an A-Team story.
We begin with the Innocents in Trouble: small-time grocers or farmers or cabdrivers just trying to make an Honest Living, being steadily screwed to the wall by the Evil Bastard and his henchmen, who hold the town in an iron grip of fear. The Innocents then contact the A-Team, represented by one of Col. John “Hannibal” Smith’s array of interchangeable disguises; the team springs Cpt. H.M. “Howlin’ Mad” Murdock out of the local psych ward, dopes Sgt. Bosco “B.A.” Baracus into la-la land (the big lug is scared to fly—ain’t that precious?), and flies to their destination. Hannibal thereupon concocts a plan that invariably requires Lt. Templeton “Faceman” Peck to bully a halfwitted local merchant out of a truckload of dynamite or a crate of fissionable plutonium. At some point, the team will be called upon to assemble some Rube Goldbergian device (like, say, a deisel-powered lettuce cannon—see below), or refurbish a derelict 30-foot yacht, always in a matter of minutes and always to the crisp punctuation of the A-Team’s martial theme music. There may be a setback or two, necessitating an elaborate and thoroughly improbable escape from the Evil Bastard’s clutches, but nobody really gets hurt, and by the end Hannibal is there lighting a cigar, grinning and cackling, “I love it when a plan comes together!”
Do I protest too much? Yes, but only to point out how much The A-Team overcomes in weaving its peculiarly addictive spell. Stick with the show a little longer (say around eight hours or more—I don’t recommend this to anyone with a life) and you develop affection for the show’s silliness and Xerox-like predictability; they’re precisely what make it so fun. An episode of The A-Team is like a Tex Avery cartoon in which the characters fire machine guns and lob grenades instead of pound each other with mallets, and the more idiotic things get, the more pleased the show seems to be with itself. When the team overcomes a group of shotgun-wielding thugs with the aforementioned homemade lettuce cannon, the actors don’t bother attempting a seriousness the scene obviously doesn’t deserve; instead they grin as though they were having the time of their lives. Who wouldn’t?
At the heart of The A-Team, and the idea that still makes it a pleasure to watch, is what the characters call being on the jazz. When you’re on the jazz, nothing can hurt you and you know it—you’re just too damn smart, good-looking, and cool to die, especially when the people out to get you are such idiots. It’s the mindset that leads people to become skydiving instructors or to climb active volcanoes, and while everyone in the A-Team has it, its leader, “Hannibal” Smith, is addicted to it. Intelligent, cunning, and unshakeably convinced of his own invulnerability, Hannibal is one of those talented folks both blessed and cursed to work amongst people who are, almost to a man, complete morons. The worst thing about his job is that it isn’t difficult enough. He’s not happy merely to defeat his opponents; he has to make it look easy, like the kid with the football who stops just a foot from the endzone, seemingly unaware of everyone else hurtling towards him at breakneck speed even as he takes that last lazy step to a touchdown. Hannibal’s cool is damn near unshakeable, and in perfect keeping with the program’s bloodless approach to mayhem; far from being unrealistic, The A-Team is pretty close to how someone like Hannibal would perceive the world. In short, he’s one seriously looney motherfucker, a charming, cocky rogue with a psychotic thirst for violence and danger, like a cross between Dirty Harry and Bugs Bunny. And people thought Murdock was the crazy one.
Like all shows so dependent on formula—Batman comes to mind—The A-Team quickly started to get old, and soon the producers were taking drastic measures to shake things up.
The plots became ridiculous even by The A-Team’s liberal standards, celebrity guests started popping up as themselves (among them Hulk Hogan, Rick James, Joe Namath, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, and Boy George—Boy fucking George) and, in the last season, the program’s premise was completely rewritten: the team was captured by the government and forced to work off its debt to society, not by washing dishes, but by completing missions for smug CIA spook Hunt Stockwell (Robert Vaughan). The team was also saddled with a hideous new character in the person of gibbering wiseass Frankie Santana, a special effects whiz who seemed to have wandered in from a failed sitcom. But the worst failure of The A-Team’s ignoble final season is that, having suffered the humiliation of capture and defeat, Hannibal was never the same. His invincibility was shattered; forced to come and go as Stockwell pleased, he became just another guy stuck working for a prick boss. The fun was gone, and nobody mentioned being on the jazz anymore.
Still, it’s not as though The A-Team didn’t earn the considerable success it enjoyed in its first run. Few shows ever reach such meteoric popularity so quickly, and it’s a testament to the show’s creative team that they got so much right on the first try. From the inspired lunacy of Dwight Schultz as Murdock to the self-effacing Dirk Benedict as the kvetchy Face; from the perfectly overblown Mr. T as, well, himself really, to old Hollywood vet George Peppard, who knew when to just let go and enjoy himself, The A-Team presented an ideal balance of acting and writing from the very start. So specific a mix guaranteed eventual viewer burnout, and tinkering with it could only make it worse. The show’s very success—both popular and artistic—was the biggest factor in its decline.
Who would’ve suspected that The A-Team’s greatest failing was that it was too good?