Monday, May 20, 2013

John Carpenter: They Live


John Carpenter’s deconstruction of the American action hero was never more honed than it was in his 1986 film Big Trouble in Little China. Kurt Russell’s portrayal as Jack Burton was filled with all kinds of wonderful moments of bumbling bravado — the perfect satire of the Rambo prototype littering theaters in the late ‘80s. In Carpenter’s brilliant, politically charged science-fiction film They Live, he offers up another ‘80s action hero prototype for deconstruction in the form of a drifter named Nada. Nada is the “Man with No Name” prototype (and in fact is never mentioned by name in the film) and is played by professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Nada, in a lot of ways, is the quintessential Carpenter action hero: quiet, terse, intense, and bound by a code of ethics akin to the old gunslingers of the wild west. A mix of catchphrase espousing Burton and the brusque Snake Plissken without the cynicism, Nada is one of Carpenter’s most memorable heroes, making They Live one of my absolute favorite Carpenter films.

They Live is as simple as the westerns Carpenter grew up admiring. In fact the film’s opening image of John Nada (Piper), a drifter that rolls into town looking for work after having been laid off in Detroit, essentially takes the classic western opening montage and places it in a more modern setting. This isn't the first time Carpenter has modernized and urbanized his love of all things Western (Assault on Precinct 13), but it’s probably (to this point, at least, since Vampires is still a ways away) his most blatant attempt to make a Western as Nada strolls through the setting he’ll no doubt affect change on while the most Westnern-y music Carpenter has ever composed plays in the background.

The story, based on Ray Nelson’s short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning,” concerns itself with a dystopian future where aliens use Earth as a third world country so that they can deplete its natural resources. Nada stumbles upon this truth after finding a small box of shades that, once donned, allow the individual to see the world as it truly is (the initial moment of realization for Nada when he’s at the newsstand constantly putting the glasses on and then taking them off is expertly paced and acted). What is the truth of this world? Well, for one thing, wealthy capitalists are aliens. Also, once the shades are on, people can see not just the aliens but also the subliminal messages of billboards, magazine advertisements, and television commercials that read: “OBEY,” “SLEEP", and “CONFORM,” just to name a few.  This aspect of the film is what makes it Carpenter’s most overtly political film. Using the trappings of a genre film, Carpenter expresses his displeasure with Reagan’s America, especially in how it pertained to “Reaganomics.”

Yeah, the political satire is a bit on-the-nose, but it does play much better than, say, similar ‘80s films that had the same anti-commercialization vibe like Repo Man. The film is probably best remembered for its dialogue and slogans seen through the shades Nada puts on. Whether it’s lines like “he who has the gold makes the rules,” or the fact that residents are being told to “sleep” over loudspeakers placed throughout the city, Carpenter hammers home the point that we must be wary of what all of the billboards and TV commercials are really selling us.  Money is god; pessimism has no place in this society (why question what seems to be working, right?). At every turn people are told (without realizing it) to CONSUME. In one of Carpenter’s cheekiest moments, he warns people against letting others think for them by showing a film review program (not at all surprising is that the show is meant to get us thinking about “Siskel & Ebert”) where the critic rails against sex and violence in horror films (of course). And as the film critic rants and raves, there’s a sign hanging above the angry critic that reads: “No Independent thought.”

The other thing that They Live is probably most famous for is the nearly five minute fight scene between Nada and his co-worker Frank (Keith David) that certainly reminds one of The Quiet Man. Even though Nada and Frank stay in one location for their fight scene, it’s just as over-the-top as the scene between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen. The scene is indicative of the spirit of Nada. Yes, he’s at times cynical and prone to one-liner’s a la Snake Plissken; however, the difference is that Nada looks for community. Whether it’s in the drifter commune that Frank introduces Nada to at the beginning of the film or his desire for Frank to “see” that acts as the catalyst for their fight, Nada is different from other Carpenter characters in that he willingly seeks to affect change. Jack Burton happens upon his heroic opportunities simply because he’s seeking money that’s owed to him from a poker game, and Plissken only agrees to rescue the president based on what’s in it for him; Nada, however, really does want to take these aliens/capitalists down — he willingly chooses to “see” the truth and, most importantly, act — he’s not going to allow himself to be apathetic towards what’s going on (“White line is in the middle of the road; that’s the worst place to drive”).

This attitude towards “the white line” is one of the reasons that Nada is such a great Carpenter hero, and a pleasant change from the equally brusque but more pessimistic Plissken. The greatest threat to these aliens-as-capitalists (or, let’s just call it as it is: they’re meant to be Republicans) is that someone like Nada (read: poor) can see the world as the rigged game that is (I love that the APB they put out on Nada boils down to, “we’ve got one that can see”). Nada’s “fuck it” at the end and subsequent flipping off of the helicopter before it blows up, crashes into the satellite dish transmitting these subliminal messages, and reveals to all the truth is actually one of Carpenter’s more upbeat endings. As said before, They Live feels a lot like Escape from New York but more focused and less cynical, and here Nada — who is just as anti-authority as Plissken — gives his life in order to uncover the truth so that the masses may truly see, whereas Plissken merely walks away in disgust. Because of that, I’ve always been more fond of Nada as a character.

And let’s talk about the man that plays Nada, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Carpenter met Piper at Wrestlemania III in Michigan. Carpenter (obviously a fan of good, old school wrasslin’) didn’t have to think long about the abilities of Piper and what he could bring to his film. However, for anyone that follows professional wrestling, Piper is known as someone that could “talk ‘em into the building.” In other words, it wasn’t so much Piper’s physical presence, it was his ability on the microphone. A promo can make or break a wrestling “angle” (storyline), and so it’s vital for the wrestler to be able to “talk ‘em into the building.” Piper was primarily a heel (bad guy) during his early days in the WWF, so people always paid to see him get his comeuppance due some dastardly deed or thing he would say. And even though Carpenter gives Piper some great lines (the now classic, “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum” comes to mind), Piper’s performance is essentially against type: it’s mostly silent. And he nails it.

I mean, Piper is a natural performer, so it shouldn’t surprise me too much. The man could play crazy better than anyone else (there’s a famous promo from his NWA days where he breaks a legit beer bottle over his head) — letting his eyes or crazy actions do the talking — so it’s not too surprising that he was able to pull this mostly-silent role off. But it really was his ability to talk that made him such a recognizable and profitable entity in the world of professional wrestling (he was just as integral to the big explosion of WWF in the ‘80s as Hulk Hogan and Mr. T were). What is surprising though is that there is no hint anywhere that Carpenter was casting “Roddy Piper: popular crazed wrestler known for smashing a coconut over Jimmy Snuka’s head.” No, it feels like Carpenter simply knew talent when he saw it and cast Piper on his natural ability to “get something over” (in non-wrestling terms, “make something work”).

Carpenter borrows a lot from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the sense of urgency for the proletariat to wake up from its apathetic slumber is the most enduring aspect of They Live (I regularly show clips of the film to my students when read 1984 or Animal Farm). There has always been some kind of political undercurrent in all of Carpenter’s films, but here his social commentary is more overt, which is not to say that isn’t effective at evoking what it sets out to evoke. Once again Gary B. Kibbe acted as DP, and even though he doesn’t paint as memorable a picture here with his camera as he did in Prince of Darkness, the film still has an appropriately low-key Body Snatchers-type tone to it, giving it that urgent, paranoid feel it needs.

They Live, like Big Trouble in Little China, is one of my favorite Carpenter films even if it’s hard to recognize it as even one of his best during that late-‘80s era. It’s not as eye-catching as the stylistic Prince of Darkness, and it’s not as goofy and good-natured a time as Big Trouble, but there’s something about it — its  anarchistic tone, Piper’s performance, and Carpenter’s bluesy musical score that portends the less synthy scores of Vampires and Ghost of Mars — that makes it so easy to come back to time and time again even if it is, aesthetically speaking, not as interesting as the aforementioned films.

The unsurprising success Carpenter had with his two independent projects in 1987 and 1988 were not a surprise to anyone that was familiar with the auteur’s work. Carpenter always had a knack for taking small scripts and making them look much glossier and bigger than they really were, specifically in regards to genres like Science Fiction and Horror. Had he stayed small, Carpenter may have really been onto something as Prince of Darkness and They Live kind of show a reborn, re-energized filmmaker caring for his craft after having been artistically neutered on his bigger studio projects. And I would have been really interested in seeing what that filmmaker was going to come up with next. Alas, we’ll never know since the siren song of a big studio project came-a-callin’ again, and Carpenter, although not the initial choice, would be pegged to direct the Chevy Chase vanity project Memoirs of an Invisible Man — one of the rare titles that Carpenter would not put his name above. Not a good sign.


  1. Really good point about how Piper is almost cast against type here, given his talking ability, and the differences compared to Burton and Plissken are spot on. Probably seen as his last "great" film by those who don't let his past great stuff in the 80s (as you mentioned) overshadow it. I'd argue that "In the Mouth of Madness" is actually his last great film, and I'm eager to see what you have to say about that one. Loving this retrospective.

    1. Thanks, Lee. I've actually only seen In the Mouth of Madness a few times, and I don't remember really caring for it all that much. I remember liking Sam Neil's performance, but other than that, I've always been kind of baffled by the praise the film receives. We'll see if my attitude has changed has been about 10 years since I've seen it. I think it's going to have a helluva hard time topping Prince of Darkness, though, as his last great horror film. Thanks for following along! I'm glad you're enjoying the retrospective.

  2. Wow, thanks for the background on RR Piper; who knew?
    Great work, and I as well look forward to your comments on At the Mouth of Madness.

    1. No problem, Ivan. I also just read in one of my Carpenter books (and I'm kicking myself for leaving this quote out of my review) that it was Piper who came up with the "I've come here to chew bubble gum..." line because it was something he would have said as a wrestler. So there ya go. His skills as a talker in professional wrestling led to the film's most memorable line. Carpenter gets credit for being a great composer and director and all of the usual things we associate with the American horror master; however, I don't think he gets the credit he deserves for having a great eye for casting non-stars in big roles (Keith David is another one from this film that comes to mind).

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