In the memory of the recently passed Rowdy Roddy Piper, we present a special Tuesday edition of Drive-In Saturday. From 1979 through 1993 the United States and the UK settled in under the rule of Reagan, Bush Sr., and Thatcher. British Film suffered (an all-time low in audiences and a sharp decline in film investment) overall, and the most well-received and critically significant films to come from the UK were adamantly Anti-Thatcher in their politics and remarkably grounded in their storytelling — meaning very little by way of science fiction or horror (outside of the horrors of everyday life). In the US, the anti-Reagan/Bush voices in film were more experimental (or even playful) in the way they made their criticisms public. Of course, American film has a long tradition of anti-establishment filmmakers, particularly through the Seventies as the studios broke up and more distinctive individual voices began to make themselves heard in the genres of crime films and war films. But as the Eighties began, horror and sci-fi stepped into the ring to take on political targets that might not have been so obviously engaged in earlier decades. Part of this is, I believe, a reaction to the success of Star Wars and Jaws at the end of the Seventies. Suddenly studios were willing to finance films that could be marketed for thrills and chills, which gave a number of filmmakers the opportunity to stretch their auteurist tendencies in ways that gave rise to a number of extremely important socio-political films appearing in the guise of exploitation films. Two directors in particular made the Eighties theirs: David Cronenberg and John Carpenter. Although from Canada, Cronenberg’s impact on American horror is monumental, going back to his 1975 feature debut, Shivers through nearly every film he made until 1986’s The Fly. Without a doubt, Cronenberg made “body horror” a thing that still unnerves and disturbs viewers to this day. Carpenter, on the other hand, was more of a traditionalist, with a love of Howard Hawks westerns (as seen with his early remake of Rio Bravo as Assault on Precinct 13) and a practical, hands-on style of directing that appeared effortless and almost invisible. It was the unexpected success of Carpenter’s masterwork, Halloween in 1978 that essentially gave him free reign to begin experimenting with a variety of different films over the next decade and a half; and it didn’t hurt that his films made money — never as much as Halloween did, but enough to keep the grand experiment moving. Beginning with 1981’s Escape from New York, Carpenter began focusing on specific type of anti-authoritarian hero that would take center-stage in most of his Eighties output — usually played by Kurt Russell. The Russell triumvirate of Snake Plissken (Escape from New York/L.A.), R.J. MacReady (The Thing), and Jack Burton (Big Trouble in Little China) became the model of the ideal John Carpenter action hero: working class, anti-authority, quite possibly a criminal with a heart of gold. You could bet that if they were criminals, it was because society left them no alternatives (but that’s another essay for another time). Even here, though, the social criticism was implied rather than an actual thrust of the filmmaking itself. But in 1988, Carpenter released They Live — the spiritual successor of Repo Man and Brazil with a touch of Nineteen Eighty-Four and predecessor to The People Under the Stairs and The Matrix — and in the process made what is both the smartest and dumbest film of his career. And I mean that as the highest praise. There are two books written solely about They Live, one by Jonathan Lethem and another by D. Harlan Wilson (both are highly recommended and relatively quick reads), and the film has become a philosophical touchstone as a “forgotten masterpiece of the Hollywood Left” according to philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek‘s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012). And while not conscious on the part of the filmmakers, They Live serves as a narrative experiment, exploring the use of violence and revolution along the lines of thinkers like Algerian anti-colonialist revolutionary/philosopher Frantz Fanon (particularly his assertion that the “master-oppressor-capitalist” was a different species from that of the “slave-oppressed-socialist”) or the 1880s anarchists who advocated propaganda of the deed. But it never forgets that it is also a schlocky sci-fi action movie, and therein lies its greatness. They Live was inspired by both the short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” (1963) by Ray Nelson and the comic book adaptation by Nelson and artist Bill Wray, renamed “Nada” (1986), involving a man who comes to realize that the entire human race has been hypnotized by aliens who now control the world. Add to that framework Carpenter’s growing disgust with the commercialization of pop culture and politics of the Eighties, and you have the makings of a cult classic. Instead of recruiting his go-to underdog lead, Russell, Carpenter cast wrestling superstar Rowdy Roddy Piper as the lead, Nada, pairing him up with the always-impressive Keith David (The Thing) as his initially-reluctant partner, Frank. Piper’s performance as Nada is about what one would expect from a professional wrestler in the mid-to-late Eighties once the action begins, but is surprisingly low-key and impressive before that. According to interviews, Carpenter cast Piper because “[u]nlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him.” This same year, Piper appeared in another cult classic, Hell Comes to Frogtown, and while it mostly lacks the socio-political depth of They Live, is another film very much worth seeing, and made Piper’s first year as a sci-fi leading man a solid one. Perhaps part of the reason Carpenter didn’t go back to the Kurt Russell well is that Nada really doesn’t start in the same place those Russell characters do. They’re already established as iconoclasts and rebels. Nada is something different; something a bit more innocent or even naïve. He’s a man down on his luck in Eighties America, but he still believes in the American Dream, that if he works hard, he can pull himself back up out of the muck. That idealism is born from an abusive childhood and is remarkable when you think about it. He’s sure that he can make his way through honest work and essentially being a good person. But the system is rigged. Frank becomes representative of this jaded, but true, philosophy, promoting the idea that so long as you keep your head down and don’t make waves, you may just get out alive. Frank’s attitudes aren’t necessarily opposed to Nada’s, but they’re more tied directly to the experience of life in America as a black man (something that resonates violently with today’s news). They’re both hoping to get by legally and honestly in a culture that has it out for them. They’re both just a slight push away from becoming Priest (Ron O’Neal) in 1972’s Super Fly, really (but that’s another essay for another time). Anyway, Nada mostly stays quiet, observing things around him, staying out of trouble until he notices that something strange might be going on over at the church that helps maintain the shantytown called Justiceville. The strange goings on just happen to coincide with the frequent interruptions to the local television signals by a bearded scientist-looking hacker proclaiming that “They” are “dismantling the sleeping middle class” and are creating a “repression society.” The homeless people receiving the signal aren’t impressed and we get our first inklings that there might be something a little smarter going on here than a simple alien invasion story when exposure to “the truth” causes painful headaches for the exposed. It’s easier on their minds to stay asleep, to stay subdued. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Nada isn’t the only one who suspects the folks gathering at the church. His own reconnaissance reveals that the choir practice is actually a recording and the church seems to be a warehouse for manufacturing knock-off designer sunglasses. It doesn’t seem like anything important, although the people in the basement argue that they might need to shift to more violent methods of spreading their message. This signals what is really the most frightening part of the film. Justiceville is filled with men, women, and children who are down on their luck. Unlike many shantytowns in real life, Carpenter has populated his with victims of the American system; people struggling to get by, working or panhandling or doing whatever they must to feed themselves one day at a time. He makes sure to establish Justiceville as a safe place. It’s not quite a Temporary Autonomous Zone, but something close; a place where those beaten down by the system can regroup and try to start over. Most importantly, Carpenter has positioned them as innocent victims. So when lines of police roll in with full riot-gear with shields, batons, and tanks we know that nothing good is going to come of this. Remember, this was before the L.A. riots, but in August, just before the November release of the film (after filming had been completed), the Tompkins Square Park Riot occurred in New York. Tompkins Square Park was a de facto homeless shelter, riddled with drugs and crime and when 150 to 200 protestors to an imposed curfew were charged by police, a riot broke out. Over 100 complaints of police brutality were lodged and the police confirmed that the NYPD were responsible for inciting the riot. Of course, the context in the film is very different, but the echoes in reality were shocking, driving home the reality of one of the core concepts of the film (and one we’d see years later in The Matrix, as well), that law enforcement was the unquestioning Iron Fist in the culture/government’s Velvet Glove. Here, the velvet glove is the subliminal messages urging submission, procreation, sleep, but when that doesn’t keep you in line, the powers that be are more than willing to beat you into submission. It’s a reality we still feel closing in on us today. It’s just expressed in a way here that lets the truth slip in undetected. Nada becomes first an everyman, representing all of us as we struggle to survive. But once the truth is revealed, the film takes a shift, engaging in more action-adventure topoi where Carpenter’s genius becomes clear and the audience is forced to either reject or incorporate a philosophy of violence and revolution into how they view the remainder of the film. After a brief scene where Nada interacts with a couple of different aliens, we can see a demonstrative slipping of the reins and he stops being that innocent man just trying to get by on his own terms. He is suddenly confronted with a reality where he has been held down in servitude without even realizing it. The American Dream itself is complicit with the alien agenda, right down to finding a career and raising a family. In a matter of minutes, he has effectively gone insane (by the rules of society) by realizing what sanity truly is. His reaction can be described as a nervous breakdown, followed by violent verbal outbursts, and when confronted by the police he turns violent, killing two officers who are trying to bring him in peacefully. His revulsion at the alien other has turned him into a cop-killer with little to no hesitation. This is Carpenter subverting the traditional concept of The Other in horror and science fiction, where the Other is “a repressed element of society that is perceived as a threat external to the culture.” In horror, the Other is usually represented by the monsters or the killers, their existence outside of culture leading to their inherent threat to society. This conservativism is remarkably strong and pervasive in horror cinema, but with They Live, Carpenter turns it around, making the traditional family values and cultural reinforcements the enemy of life. The Other is now authority, conformity, and consumerism (albeit, still the monsters) in a manner more in line with films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. However, in Carpenter’s reinterpretation of this relationship, class warfare plays a role and what are now called the 1%ers are complicit with our alien overlords. Compliance is danger. The American Dream is a honey trap. But what about those who just want to keep their heads down? Nada’s immediate impulse is to reveal it all to anyone who’ll listen, which unfortunately situates him as a madman. Indeed, one of the most problematic elements of the film is how it forces the viewer to sympathize and relate to the madman going on a seemingly random killing spree. As with The Matrix, to those who haven’t woken up and realized that reality is subjugation, Nada is a mass murderer, randomly killing people after his trigger event of cop killing. With control of the media, the aliens are free to shape public perception however they see fit, and Nada’s unbalanced reaction to the truth, manifesting as a possible psychotic break with reality, becomes a semiotic recoding of revolution as madness. Recast this today with an actor of Middle-Eastern descent and see how it plays. When he attempts to share the Truth with Frank, we are treated to one of the most iconic fight scenes in modern cinema. Much like Frank’s earlier cynical attempts to stay unnoticed, he can’t allow himself to see what Nada sees, because then there is no going back, no staying on the sidelines, no walking the line. But that’s subtext to what can just as easily be described as two extremely stubborn men refusing to back down from asserting authority over the other. Or it could also be read as a violent release of sexual tension, seeing as how their earlier introduction to one another was coded almost exactly like a subversive hook up (read more on that interpretation in Lethem’s above-linked book). From this point on, the two men team up to bring down the alien conspiracy. Mostly they do that by machine gunning aliens who work among us as police officers, news reporters, and pretty much any other bullshit job that “real” humans also do. Which raises another important point that the film itself glosses over (as do most critical evaluations): the aliens aren’t all the 1%ers. It seems that a lot of them are working among us, doing grunt work as a beat cop or a bank teller or a grip at the TV studio from which the alien signal is being sent. Are there different classes of aliens? Are they here on Earth working their way up through the American Dream alongside us? This is an important distinction to make, and it’s one that Nada (and Carpenter) refuse to address; at least in the actual context of the film. What happens when the aliens are revealed is left open, making Nada’s eventual self-sacrifice on the Altar of Truth a problematic one at best, and the impending implied class war maybe a little less black and white (something explored in another 80s sci-fi property, V). It’s a daring and disturbing way to end the film, and I’m not sure Carpenter actually intended that to be what I’m taking away from the story. Clearly Nada’s death is meant to be tragic and heroic, giving his life to destroy the satellite that is beaming out the something-or-other that keeps people from seeing the aliens or their subliminal messages. It’s the shot heard ’round the world, signaling a new revolution, right? The final montage of aliens being revealed doesn’t really inform that ending, though. A news crew is revealed to be alien and the most overt reaction is someone telling the woman that she looks like shit. An alien is drinking alone in a bar, only to discover that suddenly everyone around him sees his true face. Clearly he’s not one of the elite, if he’s hanging out by himself in a bar, drinking alone. Siskel and Ebert are revealed to be aliens, shaping the tastes and criticizing the excesses of filmmakers like George Romero and (gasp!) John Carpenter. Finally a woman is seen having sex with someone who turns out to be an alien. It’s frightening for her, but as far as sexual coding goes, she’s on top and he’s being submissive. Again, the aliens are situated in positions of symbolic powerlessness, empty pomposity, or emotional isolation. Whose side will these aliens choose when the class war begins? Will the class war even begin? Will exposure to Truth change anything at all? See larger image They Live (Collector’s Edition) [Blu-ray] New From: $19.78 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.