They Live (1988)

I’ll give you a choice: either put on these glasses or start eating that trashcan.

They Live (1988)

They Live (1988)
Amazon | IMDb

I already am eating from the trashcan all the time. The name of this trashcan is ideology. The material force of ideology makes me not see what I am effectively eating. It’s not only our reality which enslaves us. The tragedy of our predicament when we are within ideology is that when we think that we escape it into our dreams, at that point we are within ideology.

They Live from 1988 is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood left. It tells the story of John Nada. Nada, of course, in Spanish means nothing. A pure subject, deprived of all substantial content. A homeless worker in L.A. who, drifting around one day enters into an abandoned Church and finds there a strange box full of sunglasses. And when he put one of them on walking along the L.A. Streets he discovers something weird; that these glasses function like critique of ideology glasses. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, publicity, posters and so on. You see a large publicity board telling you have a holiday of a lifetime and when you put the glasses on you see just on the white background; a grey inscription.

We live, so we are told, in a post-ideological society. We are interpolated, that is to say, addressed by social authority not as subjects who should do their duty, sacrifice themselves, but subjects of pleasures. ‘Realise your true potential. Be yourself. Lead a satisfying life.’

When you put the glasses on you see dictatorship in democracy. It’s the invisible order, which sustains your apparent freedom. The explanation for the existence of these strange ideology glasses is the stand-up story of the invasion of the body snatchers. Humanity is already under the control of aliens.

Hey buddy, you gonna pay for that or what? Look Buddy, I don’t want no hassle today; you either pay for it or put it back.

According to our common sense, we think that ideology is something blurring, confusing our straight view. Ideology should be glasses, which distort our view, and the critique of ideology should be the opposite like you take off the glasses so that you can finally see the way things really are. This precisely and here, the pessimism of the film, of They Live, is well justified, this precisely is the ultimate illusion: ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relation to our social world, how we perceive each meaning and so on and so on. We, in a way, enjoy our ideology.


To step out of ideology, it hurts. It’s a painful experience. You must force yourself to do it. This is rendered in a wonderful way with a further scene in the film where John Nada tried to force his best friend John Armitage to also put the glasses on.

I don’t wanna fight ya.

I don’t wanna fight ya.

Stop it


It’s the weirdest scene in the film. The fight is eight, nine minutes…

Put on the glasses.

…It may appear irrational cause why does this guy reject so violently to put the glasses on? It is as if he is well aware that spontaneously he lives in a lie that the glasses will make him see the truth but that this truth can be painful. It can shatter many of your illusions.

This is a paradox we have to accept.

Put the glasses on! Put em on!

The extreme violence of liberation. You must be forced to be free. If you trust simply your spontaneous sense of well being for whatever you will never get free. Freedom hurts.

The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music (1965)
Amazon | IMDb

The basic insight of psychoanalysis is to distinguish between enjoyment and simple pleasures. They are not the same. Enjoyment is precisely enjoyment in disturbed pleasure. Even enjoyment in pain and this excessive factor disturbs the apparently simple relationship between duty and pleasures. This is also a space where ideology up to and especially religious ideology operates. This brings me to maybe my favourite example, the great classic Hollywood film: The Sound Of Music.

We all know it’s the story of a nun who is too alive with too much energy, ultimately sexual energy to be constrained to the role of a nun.

Oh! Oh, Reverend mother I’m so sorry I just couldn’t help myself.

The gates were open and the hills were beckoning and before I…


I haven’t summoned you here for apologies.

Oh please mother, do let me ask for forgiveness.

One two three, one two three, one two three, step together now, step touch…

So, mother superior sends her to the Von Trapp family where she takes care of the children…

Kurt, we’ll have to practice.

Do allow me will you?

And at the same time of course falls in love with the baron Von Trapp. And Maria gets too disturbed by it cannot control it, returns to the convent.

Oh there were times when we would look at each other. Oh mother I could hardly breathe.

Did you let him see how you felt?

If I did I didn’t mean to show it.

That’s what’s been torturing me I was there on God’s errand.

No wonder that in old communist Yugoslavia where I saw this film for the first time exactly this scène or more precisely the song which follows this strange hedonist, if you want, advice from the mother superior. Go back. Seduce the guy. Follow this path. Do not betray your desire.

Namely the song which begins with ‘Climb Every Mountain’; the song which is almost an embarrassing display and affirmation of desire. These three minutes were censored.

Climb every mountain

Search high and low

Follow every byway

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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