“Where have I seen this?”: Craig Oldham talks ‘They Live’, John Carpenter and Rough Trade Books – full interview from ‘Bubblegum’
Earlier this year, we hosted a premiere of Bubblegum, a documentary exploring John Carpenter’s They Live, which featured Rough Trade Books’ creative director and editor of ‘They Live: A Visual & Cultural Awakening’, Craig Oldham, amongst its cast.
Throughout Bubblegum, Craig shares his joyful appreciation of They Live and offers insight into the politics and artistic merit of Carpenter’s cult sci-fi satire in equal measure.
However, Craig’s appearances in Bubblegum are only a curated selection of a longer and insightful conversation which further delves into Craig’s relationship with They Live and the conception of Rough Trade Books’ ‘Epiphany Editions’.
Here’s the transcript of Craig’s full interview which was conducted for Bubblegum at his Manchester office courtesy of the documentary’s director, Farran Golding.
“When I first saw it I had a strange sense of de-ja-vu … What I realise now is that that was all the references other people had made, that I’d seen, without seeing the actual film.”
Tell me about the first time you saw They Live?
The first time I actually saw They Live I was given it as a sort of bootleg DVD copy. A mate of mine who I was working with, another designer, he knew I was a bit of a Carpenter buff and I was going through his back catalogue. He came into the studio one day and said, “If you haven’t seen this, you got to see this,” and it was just a blank DVD with ‘They Live’ scrawled on it. And I was like, “Alright…” I went home that evening, stuck it in the DVD player and my mind was blown.
I can’t remember how long ago that was but it was quite some time. Probably 12 years ago, maybe, but I’d seen all the other Carpenter films up until that point. I was a massive fan of Escape From New York, The Thing, The Fog – the big hitters. I thought Christine was great. My dad used to read a lot of Stephen King so that film was on quite a lot in the house.
I don’t know why it [They Live] escaped me but it did.
Did the film’s underlying themes resonate with you straight away or was that something which came with revisiting They Live?
When I first saw it I had a strange sense of de-ja-vu. It was like I’d seen it before. What I realise now is that that was all the references other people had made, that I’d seen, without seeing the actual film. The OBEY stuff, I knew Barbara Kruger’s work before of course, and it does hint at that, and I knew Jenny Holzer’s work.
I think a lot of those sources coming together triggered a lot of things in my head, thinking, “Where have I seen this? I’d never seen it but it was an instant trigger for myself. The explicit themes in the film, like consumerism and mass media, they resonated with me - being a bit of a lefty, as it were.
It’s only through studying it and watching it over and over that the other themes which are more implicit in the film have started to come to the surface in my experience of watching it. In that sense, it’s always been a film that’s had a lot to offer and it does pay you back for revisiting it more than once. Not a lot of films can say that.
In your book, They Live: A Visual & Cultural Awakening, you write about the transformation of 1980s Los Angeles into “homeless capital” and a concentrated area of “the working poor.” Growing up in Barnsley, a working class mining town which suffered heavily during the Miners’ Strike, did you see any parallels with the latter?
It might be a bit of a stretch to say I can draw parallels between my own post-industrial landscape and the mise-en-scene in They Live but that’s not to say there aren’t universal themes there. Now, homelessness is a massive factor in all society. Particularly in Manchester - where we are now and where I live.
In Barnsley, growing up, seeing people working poor was every corner and every street. Families were struggling to make ends meet, pay their bills and keep their houses warm in winter. So, there are certain overlaps but I think it’s a completely different world, really.
LA is such a vast, sprawling metropolis. That’s not a place where you should be seeing homeless people. That’s not a place where people should be struggling to eat and to feed their families and to clothe themselves.
Halloween and Escape From New York are arguably John Carpenter’s most notable films. How do you view They Live in comparison to his other work?
In terms of his back catalogue, I think They Live is really unique. It’s his most political film by any stretch, by any means. Will it be his most famous film in one hundred years? I’m not quite sure but it does seem to stick with people.
Halloween will always be the classic for him but that’s mainly because of what that did for other people more than what it did for Carpenter, I think. That film is seminal in the genre and in the making of the slasher genre. It has become an archetype. But in terms of John Carpenter alone I think he has better films than Halloween. I think, personally, They Live, is one of them.
But for how other’s view it, because it’s lesser known – and that’s for a lot of different factors; the time it was made, the time it was made in Carpenter’s career, and as there were lesser classic Carpenter-esque films afterwards – I think it’s just struggling to catch up to the other ones. I think it will stand the test of time and but it’s got some strong contenders. His work is really singular and very strong. They Live has got to be up there but will it be #1? I’m really not quite sure.
“Halloween will always be the classic for him but that’s mainly because of what that did for other people more than what it did for Carpenter … I think he has better films than Halloween. Personally, I think They Live, is one of them.”
Going back to the de-ja-vu you encountered after watching They Live for the first time…
Would you say there’s an aspect of putting on the glasses for yourself, in regards to noticing its allusions in pop-culture, after seeing the film?
There’s an element of you wearing the specs when it comes to seeing how much it has been referenced, yeah. It’s kind of a paradox, I think. It’s kind of ubiquitous. The references to They Live, it’s themes and it’s ideas – those themes and ideas manifested visually, obviously though the black and white commands… They’re kind of everywhere and everyone has had their pound of flesh from that film.
At the same time, not everyone knows and not everyone can trace it back. So, it has this paradoxical existence in that way. For me, I joined up quite a lot of dots instantly upon seeing it but I’m not going to say everybody has the same experience of it. For example, if you know Shepard Fairey’s work when you see the film you automatically join those dots and I think it gives you a richer experience of his work as well as a more in-depth look at the film itself.
So, it is everywhere but that doesn’t mean you’re aware it is for some people. I always envy people who haven’t seen it, I really envy them. I think they’ve got a world of fucking joy waiting for them ahead. It’s such a seminal film to see and to watch different triggers go off in peoples’ minds when they see it. It’s kind of what I want the book to do really.
“The commands, I think they influence everybody whether you’re typographical or not. There’s a brutalist harshness to them. The clarity that they bring in a world now where your sensors are on overload, I think that really appeals to everybody who has a visual sensibility.”
How has the film’s visual iconography and its messages influenced your work as a graphic designer?
I’m not sure I could give the film credit for too much in terms of shaping me as a ‘creative’. There are things I see in the film that I carry with me and always have. The principles of it. As I said, I’m a big lefty, so the politics align with my politics and there are a lot of themes and ideas in there that I identify with and also support. I applaud the way They Live treats women because it sets up hyper-masculinity, action heroes and how you were ‘supposed’ to behave as a man in the ‘80s. Those things, I really identify with and appreciate. The consumerist and mass media thing of the ‘80s has only gotten worse now so that’s not necessarily something I can say has a had a great effect because technology has lead that discussion.
The commands, I think they influence everybody whether you’re typographical or not. There’s a brutalist harshness to them. The clarity that they bring in a world now where your sensors are on overload, I think that really appeals to everybody who has a visual sensibility. Even in the ‘80s it was a media saturated landscape and they didn’t have the internet then. So, I think everybody finds that appealing in the film and looks at those commands and admires the simplicity of them.
The thing is, they don’t need to typographically wonderful, they don’t need to be specimens of exemplar typography. They just work. That essence chimes with me as well, and in my kind of work. I want to get rid of all the bullshit and go straight to the point so I appreciate that, and I admire that, about They Live in the story it tells.
What sparked you to start working on the book?
Well, it wasn’t necessarily They Live that made me want to make this book, which sounds stupid, but it was actually an idea that I had which we now called the ‘Epiphany Editions’ which was to take books that only exist in films and make them for real. You see it often in many films, in many genres, where there seems to be a printed artefact that is a catalyst in the story or to a character’s journey or arc. It triggers a moment in the film and the film is never the same again. I wanted to have those artefacts and explore them in a new kind of film criticism. The film books I had seen were really great but quite academic. Film is a visual medium and I wanted to see books that explored it in that academic sense but visually so it was a bit of a challenge to that, really.
That was the idea and in seeing They Live, I knew there was one in there - the magazine he picks up. That’s why I wanted to recreate this prop because there’s so much resonating in that film, then and now, that it feels like this book could go beyond its medium of just talking about the film. The idea is… Yeah, okay, people love They Live and they might see this book and say, “I’m going to read that.” That’s great but I want them to read it and then come away from it with an interest in something else. Equally, it might be one of the contributors like John Grant, Shepard Fairey or Roger Luckhurst. You might like their work and suddenly go, “I don’t know what that is but I’ll check it out,” and come away with an appreciation of another film you’ve never seen.
That cyclical nature exists in film. When a film is made it draws on all the cultures, situations and environments it’s made in and no one can plan what it’s going to do; if it’s going to be a success at the box office, a hit, a flop – no-one can tell and I love that. This film in particular, that has this artefact, has gone on its own cult journey and means so many different thinks to so many different people and is still around and people are still talking about it and making books about it… I love that and I want my book to be able to carry on that legacy.
“The film books I had seen were really great but quite academic. Film is a visual medium and I wanted to see books that explored it in that academic sense but visually so it was a bit of a challenge to that, really.
It’s often noted how negatively They Live was received upon release even though the themes that it’s heralded for today were observed the time. Why do you think They Live has retained so much relevance?
For me, personally, it’s a layered film. There are so many different layers of ideas going on in there and they’re all universal. The politics make it’s very relevant now because Reaganism and where we are with Trump are really closely aligned. Those value systems are very relevant today but also the impact of those value systems, the way that Trump is withdrawing government from people’s lives so people aren’t getting looked after properly, Obama care is getting abolished, protectionism and literally throwing up walls around the United States... They’re all things Reagan talked about. He didn’t necessarily implement and, in hindsight, he looks quite soft in comparison to Trump in some regards.
Those things are universal, everyone gets affected by them and everybody can relate to that and the impacts. So, when anything discusses that, naturally people are able to take that. That said, the ideas and themes in They Live are amazingly crafted to the point where they’re almost explicit, in that they know what they’re talking about and they’re really targeted, but at the same time there’s enough wiggle room for people to join up their own gaps.
That’s a success and a failure of a film in some ways. In certain instances, not too many years ago, the far-right got hold of They Live and said it was a ‘Jewish conspiracy film’ which Carpenter came out and loudly and proudly denied, rightfully so. But that’s what I mean, there’s enough give in the film for people to read into it how they will.
I think that is its success. It balances that line very well because you can watch this film for ninety minutes and see a political satire, you can see the sociological effects of media, of individualism, of neoliberalism on us and what it’s like to be working poor and oppressed.
You can watch it and have that kind of discussion in your head or you can just watch a bullshit b-movie. It’s science fiction and a wrestler beating the shit out of someone else and getting the shit kicked out of him – and it still works. I think that fine line is what it’s real success is, that that broadens up so many things for people to love about it.
In his essay ‘Freedom Hurts’, Slavoj Zizek calls both They Live and Fight Club “masterpieces of the Hollywood left,” yet both films have been hijacked and been given right-wing misinterpretations in recent years. As you said, Carpenter denounced that with They Live, stating explicitly that it’s about “yuppies and unrestrained capitalism” whereas Fight Club has been misconstrued as an endorsement of the type of masculinity it satirises. Do you feel there’s a tendency for the right to subvert pieces of inherently left-wing media?
That’s a pretty heavy question. For me, the gift and the curse of film is what you’re getting at. The beauty of film is that someone can go out there and make a kind of ‘message movie’. They have something to say and they’re using film as their medium to say it but because it is fundamentally a visual storytelling medium, where these ideas that someone is trying to get across are always under the guise of another story, that always leaves room for interpretation.
Even the most perfectionist filmmaker will have their output interpreted in another way. What they mean and what they do by putting it down in film means a certain thing to them but they can’t guarantee someone watching it who has no relationship with them whatsoever and is, perhaps, continents away can pick that up and have the same thing. Everyone will draw their own conclusions and, like I said, that’s a gift and a curse.
In some ways, that’s just what happens. Particularly when it comes to political films. Your leaning will give you a certain gauge on what a film is trying to say to you or what you think it’s going to do and you’ll fill in all the gaps based on your experiences, belief systems, principles and values. That’s just what everybody does, whether they’re on the far-left or far-right. Just because Carpenter happens to be a lefty and makes this great piece of political satire I align myself with doesn’t mean someone else, who has the opposite political belief system, doesn’t see a different film.
There’s kind of no right or wrong answer to that. But do the far-right commandeer the left and the far-left commander the far-right? I think that’s kind of political warfare. I think everyone takes what they can to use against the opposition. I don’t think there are necessarily things that are better at doing that or worse, I just think that’s what any kind of ‘political soldier’ does.
Carpenter himself wrote the foreword for the book. How much communication have you had with him over the course of this project and what are his thoughts on the finished book?
When I’m doing these kind of projects I set myself these little traps, like, “If John Carpenter says ‘yes’ to this then we have to do it. It’s a goer.” It’s almost a yardstick on the quality of the project because if John Carpenter is interested then surely it’s worth doing? He said ‘yes’ and wrote this foreword and from then on it was kind of sporadic. The project took a couple of years from having that initial idea to having the confidence in that idea, to flesh it out to get it down on paper a little bit more, to then approach him and from then on to go, “Shit, I’ve got a book here, what else do I need? What do I do with this? Who else can get involved?”
I was lucky to get all of the contributors, to be honest, they’re all amazing in their own ways but John Carpenter was the cherry on the top. He was involved, in that he was open and he would answer questions if we had any. We worked through his team - Shaun who was at Storm King was incredible. I owe that person my life.
He [Carpenter] was hands on when we needed him to be and other times, when he couldn’t make things happen we might have overstretched our luck a little… But when he got the book he said it was great, he really liked it and sent me a signed copy which I’ll treasure forever.
As we talked about at the start of this, They Live is an example of something niche permeating into the mainstream – often somewhat unknowingly too. I guess the best example is Shepard Fairey’s ‘HOPE’ poster. That image is so widely recognised, regardless of whether people have an interest or broad knowledge of film, design and so on. But there’s a lineage of that image which begins with They Live.
Yeah, you could trace it back like that. I think in a way it’s in the spirit of the film that it has subverted itself into the mainstream. It’s quite a subversive act that it has morphed and twisted and, through someone else’s interpretation and influence, has gotten into a place where it might not have gotten directly on its own. I think that’s fine, I’m okay with that.
I don’t think anybody creates something hoping that only a certain small amount of people will enjoy it, I think everyone wants everyone to get as much enjoyment from something they create and They Live is no different. I think John Carpenter took a massive hit and said, “Yeah, great if on opening day this bursts box office records and stayed at #1 for months,” I think he’d have took it, and that’s fine, that’s the game we all play. But for me, it speaks more that the influence and legacy of the film is the important thing. That it still resonates with artists, creators and designers now and that it can still get into those audiences that might not know what it is. I think it’s less important that they know the link and important they can find it if they want to. You can trace back from Obama to They Live and, I think that’s more important than it explicitly being an obvious thing. Otherwise, you turn into that person that’s going, “See! See!” and nobody likes that person.
But interesting point on the Obama thing. For me, I haven’t got an opinion on it but I find it an interesting parallel that if Andre the Giant, OBEY Giant and all that visual vernacular with ‘OBEY’ underneath it has a much stronger link in its DNA to They Live and if that’s seen as a critique, or negative kind of artwork – for lack of a better term, in that it’s exposing things to you such as power structures. If Obama, by contrast, is a positive thing – I still find it interesting that they both use a similar graphic style and that he’s rendered in the same colours as the aliens.
Who knows, maybe Shepard is trying to subvert us again or maybe it’s complete coincidence. But again, that’s the beauty of the work and that’s the arguments it can have with you.. Who knows, there’s a pinhole gap you can pour endless amounts of conspiracy into.
‘They Live: A Visual & Cultural Awakening’ is available in-store and online here.
Interview by Farran Golding.You can catch Craig ‘In Conversation’ with Farran at Louder Than Words Festival on November 9th discussing ‘In Loving Memory of Work’ (a visual tribute to the Miner’s Strike), ‘Oh Shit… What Now?’ (a light hearted guidebook for young graphic designers), his work with Rough Trade Books and much more. Tickets available here.