Why I Love They Live
By Dan Santelli, Programming Intern, BMFI
As a movie lover, I’ve always held a personal—and admittedly contrarian—stance that societal problems and issues (be they contemporary or historical) are worked out better and are more attention grabbing when placed in the context of the genre film than that of the “prestige” film (a la Forrest Gump). With genre films, you know what to expect when you go to see one, which gives you a greater opportunity to uncover hidden subtexts and messages. Never has there been a better example of the transcending power of the genre film than John Carpenter’s 1988 thriller They Live, which will screen at BMFI tonight at 11:30 pm as the final entry in the summer season's Late Show series.
|Director John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing) with cast members on the set of They Live.|
The premise of They Live is remarkably simple: Nada (WWE’s Rowdy Roddy Piper), a wandering construction worker, rolls into Los Angeles seeking a job. He discovers a box filled with sunglasses, which look as if they were stolen from the set of a Frankie Goes To Hollywood music video. When he tries on a pair, he realizes that the world he thought knew is merely a mirage created by power hungry, capitalist-minded extraterrestrials bent on brainwashing society with upper-class and conservative values.
From the get go, They Live is downright silly and preposterous, as all the Body Snatchers films and rip-offs inevitably are. And yet, this facet doesn’t undermine the movie as much as it only affirms Carpenter’s skill and assurance as a director. His deft, political touch involves us in the increasingly absurd tale of a burly, asocial hero as he blasts his way through Los Angeles conquering aliens and trading insults with them. It’d be too easy to criticize Piper’s characterization of Nada as less a full-fledged character than an expansion on his “Hot Rod” wrestling persona. Doing so misses the point. Much like Jack Torrance (Nicholson) in Kubrick’s The Shining, Nada is an archetype—a cipher standing in for the middle- and working-class Americans lost amidst the corruption and greed of the late ‘80s yuppie culture. Pitted in a world where friend could be foe and almost everyone’s against you, Nada carries the belligerent swagger of a conservative general (think Patton) with a liberal agenda.
|John Nada (WWE Superstar "Rowdy" Roddy Piper) ready to kick some butt in They Live.|
A USC film school grad who broke into the movies amidst the New Hollywood movement, Carpenter learned his craft by studying and lifting from masters such as John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Howard Hawks (his favorite director). With They Live, Carpenter indulges his love of the 1950s science fiction genre and their themes of Cold War paranoia (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, Red Planet Mars). He uses the tropes while turning their underlying values on their head. What was once a genre telling the audience to “fear the outsider” and promote conservative values has been updated and injected with liberal minded ideology, as well as Carpenter’s contempt for the ‘80s approach to those right-wing politics.
They Live might not be Carpenter’s greatest film, but it remains an essential 1980s genre outing and the work of an oft-misunderstood auteur. Furthermore, it possesses a power that most non-genre films lack because it plays to the mass movie-going public by employing genre conventions while, simultaneously, expressing social/political fears and anxieties in the subtext. With They Live, John Carpenter transcends the genre tropes, while still adhering to them, and offers an elaborate, scrutinizing examination of—at least from Carpenter’s viewpoint—the “evils” of Reaganomics and the ills it inflicted upon society. You might not agree with Carpenter’s political agenda, but there’s no denying his ambitions.
|"They" demand that you attend a screening of Mr. Carpenter's They Live.|
In this respect, he ranks alongside fellow filmmaker and pop-satirist Joe Dante, whose vastly underappreciated Small Soldiers—a scathing anti-war satire disguised as a kids’ summer blockbuster—plays like a hybrid of Dante’s own Gremlins and They Live by creating an intelligent argument against the practice of packaging war for mass youth consumption. The Dante/Carpenter comparison could be explored further, on a surface level at least, as both directors are apparent cinephiles and Baby Boomers who grew up in the 50s and 60s, compulsively consuming science fiction and horror movies. This love is expressed through each director’s filmography, which divides critics, audiences, and cineastes, but has garnered both directors massive international cult followings (particularly in France). Their subversive wit, macabre interests, and scattershot bankability has ultimately forced them to work outside the studio system in order to express their love and craft.
|Directors John Carpenter (above) and Joe Dante (below): Masters of the (Subversive) Macabre.|
Of course, one can’t discuss They Live without noting what is, perhaps, the movie’s most memorable scene: an infamously prolonged slugfest between Piper and actor Keith David. Beginning around the 56-minute mark and lasting nearly five minutes, it’s a pile-driving, bruise-beating, no-holds-barred brawl that almost seems to have been extracted from a Chuck Norris movie. At least Carpenter has the sense of humor and intelligence to have fun with the scene—he noted in a making-of documentary that since he cast a notable wrestler as the lead, he might as well exploit his talents in the movie. As noted by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in his review of They Live, the Howard Hawks influence on Carpenter’s work might explain why he would extend this scene to the degree that he did: “buddies have to slug it out in order to become friends.” Boy, do they ever.
They Live is crude, lewd, trashy, goofy, and sensationally silly. At the same time, it’s an endlessly entertaining and thoughtful rumination on the ‘80s culture, with messages and themes which continue to be relevant today, post-9/11. Piper more than holds his own amidst the chaos and, while he’s by no means the world’s greatest actor, develops a persona that’s charismatic and charming. He’s a classic John Wayne-inspired Carpenter hero. Alongside the (lovingly) cheesy humor and rough-and-ready special effects is director Carpenter working to provoke thought in his audiences with stimulating political allegories and social criticism. It’s a singular, ridiculous hoot and Carpenter wouldn’t have it any other way. Even if you don’t agree with the subtext, it’s impossible not to appreciate the sublime ridiculousness of a movie that contains the line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.”
|They Live, We Sleep: Sunglass vision reveals the aliens in hiding.|
Below is the They Live "making-of" documentary referenced above. Enjoy!
Dan Santelli, BMFI's Programming Intern, is a 2012 graduate of Temple University with a Bachelor's degree in Film and Media Arts. A lifelong cineaste, his favorite films (in no particular order) include Leon: The Professional, The Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil, Blue Velvet, Brazil, Apocalypse Now, Dressed To Kill (1980), Halloween, and Les Yeux Sans Visage.