' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: They Live (1988)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: They Live (1988)

As “They Live” opens, an astutely named vagrant, John Nada (Roddy Piper), talking of coming out west because there was no work back east, settles down at an L.A. hobo camp, a laconic yet insistent blues riff underscoring these hard times. It feels like the 1930’s. Yet, the technology, the shimmering skyscrapers taunting the shantytown in the distance and John Nada’s mullet betray its real time and place – this is 1988, the last year of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, an era that in the context of John Carpenter’s film looks less like Morning in America than Nighttime in Hell. Born from the tradition of 1950’s sci-fi films, walloping Eisenhower-era allegories that saw suburbia-infused America as a place more or less overrun with dutiful aliens, “They Live” is an obvious yet no less effectively scathing parable of Reaganomics, imagining the 1% as aliens from outer space who consider the lowly earthlings beneath them as “third world.”


Carpenter has generally been something of a low-budget minimalist and more than any other film of his, perhaps even the seminal “Halloween”, this moneyless modesty works in delightful harmonic tandem with the finished product. “They Live’s” do-it-yourself attitude merely enhances the grass roots movement that the impoverished and the screwed eventually organize against their oppressors. That homespun sensation is also captured in the central casting of Piper.

As detailed in The Masked Man’s loving, comprehensive, honest obit for Piper at Grantland earlier this month, “Rowdy” Roddy pulled himself up by the bootstraps, not a golden boy but a fall guy made good, one who felt deserving enough to be a champion even though he was never afforded the privilege of actually holding the preeminent belt. Yes, Piper is noticeably stilted, in his delivery, in hitting his marks, occasionally even in roughing people up, and that’s okay. “Figures it’d have to be something like this,” he says in that way only a burned out day laborer indifferent to the world’s myriad of social injustices could. You couldn’t have Cruise in this role just as you couldn’t have Kilmer as his best friend – no, that part goes to Keith David, casting as perfect as Piper. David is not a star, not even close, but rather a quintessential journeyman, the kind that puts his head down, whatever the product, and does an honest day’s work, a quality that defines his “They Live” character, Frank Armitage.

“They Live” is just as effectively economical when it comes to props. It is by the grace of sunglasses that John Nada deduces he’s in the midst of a covert alien takeover. By putting them on, he is able to see which humans around him are merely pods for their outer space invaders. Not only that, they turn him onto the nefarious reality of advertising, revealing billboards as a media form of facism, to quote the future Celine, someone who probably appreciated “They Live” on late nights at the dormitory at the Sarbonne. The sunglasses themselves are the kicker. They aren’t “Top Gun” Ray-Bans but the oversized just-keep-the-sun-out-of-my-face utilitarian sunglasses from the drug store. If he saw himself through his sunglasses wearing the sunglasses he’d probably see “Buy Ray Bans.”


“They Live”, however, is not simply a case of standing back and taking satirical potshots at the rich and famous. No, Carpenter turns it back around on the rest of us, suggesting our own complicity. “I’ve walked a white line my entire life,” says Frank. “I’m not about to screw that up.” “White line’s in the middle of the road,” replies Nada, “that’s the worst place to drive.” In other words, toeing the line as a means to ignore the reality of what's happening all around you will only lead to dire consequences further down the road. There are distinct parallels to be drawn to modern day America, one where the middle class has all but eroded, where the rich just get richer and the poor just get poorer and every morning on the train into downtown I see a makeshift shantytown sprung up along the cement banks of the Chicago River in the shadow of tall buildings.

Midway through, for a few moments, it seems like “They Live” will abandon its gleeful satire for a good long bout of B-movie ass kicking. Yet that never quite happens. Just when it’s revving up, it cools back down. Carpenter never loses sight of what he’s sending up. And that goes just as well for the film’s most spectacular set piece, a “Rowdy” Roddy Piper wrestling match that is jam-packed with thematic heft so many movies that fancy themselves “award contenders” or “avant garde” couldn't dream of transmitting.

Nada wants Frank to put on the sunglasses. Frank won't do it. Nada insists. Frank refuses. That leads to punches. And then more punches. For a full six minutes, Nada and Frank have a back-alley boxing match. This wasn't simply a concession to Piper fans in the audience just as it wasn't a question of eyewear style for Frank; those sunglasses were the blue pill/red pill when there wasn't even a PowerBook. Nada was giving Frank the choice to see reality and Frank wanted to just say no to what was really going on. It might have been morning in America but Carpenter was well aware that too much of America was still asleep and in “They Live” he was telling everyone to wake the hell up and put on the fucking sunglasses.

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