John Carpenter’s films mean a lot of things to a lot of people. The director of such beloved cult items as “Halloween,” “Vampires,” and “Escape from New York” crafts movies that succeed in being addictively entertaining, while also being uncategorizable and weird—but not abrasively or gratuitously weird like the works of lesser horror and science fiction directors over-eager to shock or prove their technical virtuosity. Carpenter’s films are deceptively grounded in things we can recognize: the protagonists are often average schmos and his movies’ humor remains organic and effortless, no matter how bizarre things tend to get. The world of his films always feels loose and familiar regardless of the monstrosities that tend to populate them, which partly explains why you’d probably be willing to sit down and watch at least one of his movies, right this very second.
What’s true of you (and me) is apparently also true of neo-Nazis. Last week, Carpenter had to publicly deny that “They Live”—the 1988 classic in which a down-on-his-luck working man played by Rowdy Roddy Piper finds a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see that the world is actually controlled by aliens—is in fact about the global Jewish conspiracy. The film is traditionally understood as an (unsubtle) metaphor for Reagan-era America and Reaganism in general. As Carpenter tweeted on January 3rd, “THEY LIVE is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie.” But great art lends itself to a variety of interpretations, and “They Live,” through no deliberate effort on Carpenter’s part, apparently speaks to the obsessions and experiences of the modern-day white supremacist. In a way, it’s a tribute to the filmmaker’s broad appeal that even the most backward and bigoted members of society can find something in his work that resonates with them.
Carpenter isn’t wrong to want to foreclose on current or future generations of anti-Semites misappropriating his work, or reading racialist themes into his class-based critique of American society. After all, Carpenter is now in his early 70s, and the “They Live is about the Jews”-meme might be confronting him with fresh anxieties over the fact that that art has a life far beyond its creators’ control. And as it happens, Carpenter has been thinking about the fluid nature of reality and the ultimate subjectivity of everything for awhile now. It’s a theme that punctuates what’s still my personal favorite of his films, the 1974 low-budget masterpiece “Dark Star.”
“They Live” is not about the Jews—but “Dark Star,” which was Carpenter’s first movie, just might be. The film takes place aboard a dingy spaceship, whose crew of four unkempt slacker-types has been roaming the galaxy on a 30-year trek. Their mission is amazingly pointless: the ship uses “thermostellar” devices to blast planets and stars out of existence, supposedly because this will make human colonization of the galaxy easier in the future, for reasons that aren’t fully explained but also don’t really need to be. The important thing is that the movie revolves around a collection of bored young men who have basically thrown their lives away on a stupid trek around a cold, lonely, empty vacuum. Hijinks ensue—one of them befriends an alien that looks like a beach-ball.
“Dark Star” has been described as “‘Waiting for Godot’ in space,” but maybe it’s more like Bamidbar in space. Like the story of the Israelites’ trek to the promised land, “Dark Star” depicts a plunge into the wilderness that leads to a sublime endpoint, reached only after a series of discoveries about how demystifying and very much un-sublime that wilderness, and thus the majority of human life and experience, actually is.
But where things get really Jewish is in the movie’s final 10 minutes, when that end-point is finally reached. A series of increasingly severe space mishaps results in the accidental arming of one of the planet-busters the Dark Star and its crew have been toting around the cosmos. Lieutenant Doolittle, the ship’s second-in-command, has just a few minutes to convince the bomb, which is a talking bomb, not to destroy the ship. The bomb, which is a bit of a smart-aleck, just isn’t having it, so Doolittle consults the ship’s captain—who’s dead, but also somehow preserved in suspended animation in what appears to be an ice block—about how he can get the bomb to back down. “Teach it epistemology,” the dead captain says.
OK, why not. And damned if it doesn’t nearly work.
“In other words,” the bomb says after pondering the fundamental unknowability of the origins of its own sense-perception, “all that I really know about the outside world is relayed to me through my electrical connections… why that would mean that I really don’t know what the outside universe is like at all for certain.”
“What is your one purpose in life?” Doolittle asks, sensing that he’s gaining ground on the thing. “To explode, of course.” “You wouldn’t want to explode on the basis of false data, would you? …You have no absolute proof that Sergeant Pinback ordered you to detonate!” replies Doolittle.
The bomb retorts that it has no proof that the order to detonate was based on false data. But, Doolittle desperately counters, the timer reaching zero, there’s no proof it was based on correct data either! “I must think on this further,” the bomb replies, retreating into its bay in order to work through these newfound doubts as to the nature of its very existence.
The bomb’s novel solution: it’s actually God! “In the beginning there was darkness, and the darkness was without form and void,” the bomb says. “I moved upon the face of the darkness and I saw that I was alone. Let there be light.” Boom.
Few science fictions movies can boast a climax this Jewish. There’s a Talmudic character to that final confrontation: The bomb can’t be defeated with brute force, but through disputation and persuasion. It’s ideas and argument that matter here. And there’s a whiff of the mystical to it as well: Survival is a battle of the intellect, but one that’s paradoxically based around the inevitable fallibility or even total uselessness of the intellect itself. Finally, the climax is a desperate bargaining with God, a manifestation of the Jewish conviction, dating from Abraham’s pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah, that it’s even possible to bargain with God, or that humankind is somehow worthy and capable of talking sense into a far higher power.
As with Sodom and Gomorrah—but unlike with, say, the Talmudic story of the oven of Akhnai— God gets the last word here. The bomb learns epistemology and ends up deciding that it’s better off destroying itself anyway. But who can’t relate? The mysteries of existence are pretty maddening, after all, for talking bombs and human beings alike. Jonah flees to Tarshish; even God takes a mulligan on the Akeda, according to certain Jewish sources. In a cosmos riven with doubt and angst, there’s elegance and perhaps even beauty in our God-bomb’s biblical sign-off.
Of course, there’s no explicitly Jewish content anywhere in “Dark Star,” although reading Jewish themes into it could, in some small way, shield Carpenter’s work from the fantasies of anti-Semitic interpreters. But when you make art that fosters deep emotional attachment, as Carpenter does, there’s no dictating how or where that attachment forms, or what it ends up looking like.