THEY STILL LIVE EDITION
In yet another commercial break from Hollywood scoops and smutty jokes, we continue our Great Americans series with a look at John Carpenter and his 1988 cult classic, “They Live”.
As America reached the height of the Cold War era and ICBMs seemed to be lurking around every corner, it seemed there few filmmakers who refused to let their ‘70s era cynicism be washed away by the good vibes of “Rocky” and disco. One such man was director John Carpenter. For him, Nixon was just another corrupt authority figure waiting to be replaced by the next lying figurehead. We were all the unblinking teenagers in “Halloween” waiting for the next killer to wield his knife upon our head. And such a nightmare, unfortunately, came true.
In the 1980s pop culture birthed such icons as John Rambo, icons which seemed to embody the Ronald Reagan “morning in America” ethos, the kind of jingoism that could lead Americans to ignore clandestine arms deals and the corruption hiding behind Oliver North’s uniform. It was an alternate reality in which the Contras of Nicaragua were not a murderous force slaying farmers left and right, but “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers”. The communists were not human enemy combatants in the Cold War, they were Ivan Drago, the “evil empire”. And our proposed defense system was “Star Wars”. Is it any wonder that the fantasy genre – with such films as “Krull”, “Dragonslayer”, “Legend”, “Willow”, “Labyrinth” – flourished in a way it had not before?
Another visible arena where American optimism was drawn as a sort of grotesque Saturday morning cartoon was the world of professional wrestling. Figures in Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, all-American types such as “Hulk” Hogan, the kilt-wearing “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and the militarily-inclined Sgt. Slaughter would defend the free world against such swarthy opponents as The Iron Sheik. Ever week, young impressionable viewers – the G.I. Joe-He-man demographic -would watch diplomatic skirmishes be reduced to ref-swatting, chair-whacking, sweat-dripping hijinks. Thus, director John Carpenter could not have found in Roddy Piper a better lead for his takedown of the entire Reagan-era machine, 1988’s “They Live”.
Reagan spoke of “welfare queens”, so Carpenter set his film in urban sprawl amongst the have-nots. Reagan busted up the airline workers union, so Carpenter made his nameless lead (billed as “Nada”) a drifter in search of a job. De-regulation under the Reagan administration allowed insider trading to flourish, creating a new class of materialistic yuppie overlords, so Carpenter went and made them secretly aliens. To him, they were the scions and the moral arbiters telling us what to do, silencing (or buying off) anyone who would pose a threat to their “new world order”. And the only way one could see them was through the right pair of eyes. In “They Live” the “eyes” were special sunglasses. Piper places the glasses on his head and billboards around him are revealed to read such messages as “Obey” and “Marry and Reproduce”. But, unlike in the “The Matrix”, it would take more than a red pill to get his fellow humans to wake up.
With a trusty shotgun in hand, Piper becomes a one-man commando unit out to “chew bubble gum and kickass”. The flatness of Piper’s performance gives him a non-descript everyman quality, which makes him more inscrutable, more a canvas that can be filled. It is not unlike the blankness that Keanu Reeves employs to make Neo seem like an avatar to represent the awakening of all humanity in “The Matrix”. This same quality allows his fight with actor Keith David (a friend who refuses to try on the glasses) to seem less like a choreographed battle than a long drawn-out fight between two guys in a parking lot. In Carpenter’s view of 1980s America, the only way to penetrate the feel-good bubble is with a punch in the face. Over a decade later, David Fincher’s “Fight Club” would touch on the same themes, while slamming ‘90s Starbucks culture and Generation X.
Piper does, though, manage to thrust the glasses upon Keith David’s face, gaining an ally in his newfound war. Piper’s struggle culminates in a deadly mission to destroy the transmitter that is cloaking the yuppie aliens’ real faces from human eyes. When Piper detonates the device, Carpenter presents us with a witty montage, as aliens on TV are revealed to be those who are running for office, those who are trying to sell us useless crap in commercials, and, most tellingly, those who are working as film critics and bemoaning excessive violence. “Think for yourself”, Carpenter is telling us because there are people in power who want to keep you down because that’s how they make more money. And this was before Halliburton, Enron, Tyco, Blackwater, Jack Abramoff, the BP spill, Bernie Madoff, and the Sub-Prime Mortage-Lending Crisis. In short, the film’s message as a whole could be easily summed up in a physical gesture Piper engages in toward the film’s climax – a middle figure in the air.
Shot for $3 million over 8 weeks and penned by the director himself, “They Live” was the apogee of cynicism Carpenter had been leading up to. 1982’s “The Thing” featured an Antarctic base full of men faced with an alien threat and devolving into mistrust and paranoia in a literal “Cold War”. 1981’s “Escape From New York” had a badass loner (Snake Plissken) who screws over a president who plans to use to a nuclear threat to scare other countries into peace. (It was a Piper-esque stroke of subversive genius that led Carpenter to find a lead for both films in Kurt Russell, an actor previously known for Disney fare.)
Even today, John Carpenter’s “They Live” continues to cast a dark shadow across the American landscape. For, as we march forward into an age where political power brokers (Tea Party and the like) can sit in a debate hall and laugh about young Americans dying without health insurance, it seems Carpenter’s vision is as relevant as ever.
See you next week,