COMPILED BY ERIX ANTOINE
And here we are again…
Last week saw the release of a movie called The Thing. There’s no need to go into details about that movie except to observe that the response has been surprisingly positive. Oh, it isn’t getting raves exactly, but the attitude ranges from “meh” to “I guess it could have been worse” to, well… to this:
My point being that, for such a revered classic, its remake is being greeted with far less vitriol than would be expected.
But that’s okay. As often happens over on The B Action Movie Thread, we got to talking about John Carpenter and how great his Thing is (his movie not his actual “thing”) and NathanW revisited The Fog (which is pretty underrated, by the way) and so on…
With that in mind, we decided this week to spotlight one of Carpenter’s best films, which remains as topical and effective as ever. And, as it too has been tapped for remaking, we just have to count the days until we are once again bitching about the soiling of one of our classics.
Anyway, I’ll let my colleague take it from here…
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MIKE FLYNN HAS A HOMOEROTIC BRAWL IN AN ALLEY WITH THEY LIVE
In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: not necessarily to win, but mainly to keep from losing completely.
Hunter S. Thompson
Who would have thought that 23 years ago, a low-budget, minor effort from a genre legend, starring a professional wrestler in the lead no less, would have become one of the most timelessly relevant films of our time. Learned critics can cite Halloween as his best film. Children of the 80’s tend to cling towards Carpenter’s outings with Kurt Russell, and even I myself would say The Thing is his greatest achievement. Hell, even people like my mom or your parents (and, if you have a heart, you too) have a personal connection to Starman.
Of John Carpenter’s decade-and-a-half hot streak on the action, sci-fi and horror genres, They Live is my absolute, indisputable, and completely honest answer to what my favorite Carpenter film is. Like all the postmodern contemporaries and those that came after him, They Live is a film that radically tosses aside its genre identity and question norms and authority in doing so. It’s a modernized Fistful of Dollars meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a pastiche of speculative dystopian sci-fi, paranoia thriller, and the conventional action film of the 1980’s. Most brilliantly, however, is the fact that Carpenter tailored They Live to be, simultaneously, one of the silliest and most preposterous films of this ilk, and then exploiting that paint job to enlighten audiences with something subversive and not often attempted—a critique of Reagan’s America.
The Los Angeles that Nada (Roddy Piper) drifts into is less a specifically cultural and social depiction of the film, unlike similar films such as L.A. Story and Colors, which provided a more-than-apt eye inside the heart of the city. Surely, it is also not the glossy, crime-ridden L.A. we see in Lethal Weapon or Die Hard, or the gritty, sun-caked fluorescent world of To Live and Die in L.A.—here, L.A. is simply a generic American metropolis, engulfed into the mass conformity and shared ideology that two terms of a former movie star brought together in the largest sociological harmony in our country since the 1950’s.
It’s this background that Carpenter not so subtly masks its plot with, which, all due respect, is typical B-movie fodder: Nada comes to town, gets a job as a construction worker, and gets introduced by his boss, the hard-assed Frank (the legendary Keith David), to a liberal-minded community and political action group convinced that aliens exist, and all of the fair, balanced conformity is an ulterior façade for world domination.
Nada does what any skeptic would do—grab a pair of their special sunglasses, which show the world in black and white, covered in massive white monoliths that read, in bold, black letters, exactly the sort of thing that maintained the political and social unity in the 1980’s. OBEY. STAY ASLEEP. WATCH TV. MARRY AND REPRODUCE. BUY. WORK 8 HOURS. PLAY 8 HOURS. SLEEP 8 HOURS. CONSUME. CONFORM. SUBMIT. NO THOUGHT. THIS IS YOUR GOD. The messages engulf billboards, magazines, currency and any form of communication they can get their spin on with. Even worse, the most stuck-up yuppie and/or rich scum are actually freakish, skeletal aliens with dead eyes and an Orwellian grasp on anyone who tries to fight the system. The “they” in They Live is the chief antagonistic force, one represented by nameless, bureaucratic crooks who will stop at nothing to preserve Reagan’s legacy.
The black-and-white point-of-view scenes where Nada is exposed to the harsh “reality” around him are one of the film’s strongest satirical components. Perhaps it would be from the glasses’ technology, but looking closer at the world Carpenter submerges us in and the concern he has for the American way, it’s a sly way of articulating the failure to see gray areas in ethical topics, that only a right and a wrong answer exists. Of course, Carpenter wants They Live to be interpreted in the right way, but it’s yet another intelligent plea that he makes in the film.
Beyond the ideological elements of the film, what really makes the whole thing gel together as a masterpiece is the passion and effort Roddy Piper puts into playing Nada. Obviously, it’s not some kind of Oscar-baiting prestige job, but he’s astounding in the film, and I could not possibly see anyone else playing the role. How Piper was virtually, fully relegated to the direct-to-video field following this film is a baffling mystery, and his performance here is a testament to the fact that he could have been the first pro wrestler to have a prosperous crossover into acting. Much like Dwayne Johnson has been able to prove (that is, when he’s not making god-awful family films) in recent years, Piper has a masterful equilibrium between genuine charisma and self-awareness. Discussing the film in an interview, Carpenter met him at WrestleMania III and realized that “unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him.”
The prospect paid off in spades. No matter how over the top Piper goes in the lead, he is a living, breathing definition of masculinity, gliding through his badassery with ease and spewing some of the decade’s coolest one-liners. One of pro wrestling’s most famous villainous personas in the 1980’s, Piper was more than qualified to talk shit, and often, what he says wouldn’t have the same effect as Schwarzenegger or even Willis saying the same line. Hence, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum” was actually an idea of his, and since you couldn’t even say “ass” on cable at the time, he unleashed it in the film and the film’s calling card of dialogue was born. Personally, as much as I love that line, I’m tempted to say I prefer—or, at the very least, put on the same level as that line—the way Nada emphatically says “Mama don’t like tattletales” while aiming a shotgun at an alien in a bank, or best of all, when he causes a ruckus in a convenience store and deeply offends a snooty, rich middle-aged woman by calling her “formaldehyde face” and that she looks “like your head fell in the cheese dip back in 1957,” which is a slice of screenwriting or incredible ad-libbing skills that I helplessly laugh even typing out the line.
As Frank, Nada’s incredulous boss, Keith David gives one of his surliest and best turns here. Carpenter successfully tailors the character as not a mere sidekick or friend that Nada relies on. In fact, Frank is a bastard who plays as an interesting variation on the foil archetype, and he represents Carpenter’s commentary on hyper-masculinity as thoroughly as Nada is depicted. He’s a hardened construction worker who refuses to buy into Nada’s delirium, and because this is a film starring a professional wrestler that has no qualms about killing cops and random civilians because they’re actually soulless neo-fascists bent on world domination, he comes to believe Nada in a fight scene.
And is this fight scene the fight scene to end all fight scenes. In the history of cinema, only Carpenter has been able to succeed at crafting a 94-minute feature that spends a full six minutes of screen time on an all-out back-alley brawl between its leads over the refusal of a character to “put on the glasses.” Basically, it’s a wrestling match where the winner not only achieves physical victory, but ideological superiority—either Nada can keep to himself as a homicidal conspiracy theorist and be outcast from society with the rest of the secret resistance, or Frank will have to give in to Nada’s grandstanding. For a director whose previous work had hinted more at ambience and dread, this is an astoundingly well-shot scene—unlike Snake Plissken’s surprise victory in the Duke’s gladiator fight, this is a serious, if completely and utterly ludicrous, scene, and for six minutes, we’re subjected to a genuine sense of brutality and savagery as Nada and Frank beat the ever-loving shit out of each other. Then, when you think the fight’s done with, it just keeps going. Fun fact: one of the many times I watched this film was the night before Thanksgiving in 2007, with a friend who’d already been turned onto its merits and another friend and his girlfriend. Everyone was starting to get sleepy, including me, and then the fight scene happened and the room was fully enraptured and all laughing our asses off. If there’s anything that proves that They Live is a critique of Reagan-era machismo, this scene is the moving proof of it.
In fact, They Live is so unashamedly masculine that Carpenter recruited Meg Foster for the female lead. You’ve read extensively about our fun with her bureaucratic she-bitch in Leviathan, and lest we forget she was Evil-Lyn in Masters of the Universe in her previous role before this one. Blind Fury, Stepfather II and a pair of fourth-season Miami Vice episodes notwithstanding, and no offense to Ms. Foster, the film industry has engineered Foster as a character actress whose one card is that of a cold-hearted bitch—the type that’s so iconic, if Quentin Tarantino had directed The Fighter, chances are she would have been cast in Melissa Leo’s role and she certainly would have won the Academy Award for it. It’s fitting that in They Live’s world, the only female character is an untrustworthy suit whose villainy is greater defined by her ability to piss the hero off than tangible malevolence. Cry misogyny, or relish in how absolutely great Foster is.
She also sets forth one of the funniest moments in the film, where she attacks Nada in her house and he falls through a glass wall and down the hills below for approximately 30 seconds, which in They Live time is equivalent to ten real minutes. What kills me about the scene is that if it wasn’t the protagonist, you would have been dead. Seriously, the languidness and result of the scene makes Homer Simpson’s failure to jump the Springfield Gorge look like a matter of life and death that Rescue 911 would happily exploit. Unfortunately for realism, it’s “Rowdy” Roddy Piper that took the fall, and any man who had the balls to physically attack Morton Downey Jr. can sustain that sort of thing. Just ask Danny Glover in Predator 2*.
As ridiculous as They Live gets, however, what makes it resound so deeply is the fact that, since 9/11, the film has been reaffirmed and strengthened as the cautionary tale Carpenter intended it to be. With the images of the Occupy movements and the laughable grandstanding of far-right media and politics**—who, to some, are of the same species of the aliens that control They Live—the plight of the resistance and the nonsense that media pundits (watch out for the thinly-veiled jab at Siskel and Ebert, who have a very in-depth discussion about how Carpenter and Romero are tearing the film world asunder with their hyper-violent style) and politicians proclaim of feel more authentic than ever. Sure, the NYPD is not armed with laser guns and PKE meters to combat and track down the Wall Street protesters, but the juxtaposition has never rung truer.
I absolutely don’t want to spoil the ending for those of you who haven’t seen it, other than the fact that it’s the most badass Pyrrhic victory of all time, and it leads to a bizarrely abrupt final moment and line that’s just perfect. They Live is a film that deserves, now more than ever, undivided attention from any and every American who has concerns and questions about the world we live in. It’s one of very few films that I use as a sort of litmus test for friends, and almost always the result is as gushing as the last two thousand-odd words I’ve written on this subject. From the 70’s to 1988, Carpenter was a perfect artist, infallible. Everything he made then has some kind of wow factor or something to righteously commend, but nothing has ever come close to the dual purpose of sociopolitical angst and kitschy homage to 50’s sci-fi that They Live succeeds so profoundly at.
* – which, by the way, should clearly be featured in a future column, as it’s a thread favorite and a film that deserves more love.
** – Though most Bush administration figures would be the skull-faces in They Live, Michele Bachmann is a notable exception because that woman is nothing but lizard underneath what we see.
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Mike brings up a good point about how Roddy Piper never caught on as a big ticket movie star, despite making such a compelling debut. I agree. And I’d also like to point out that he gave a fun performance in a stupid comedy with Robert Carradine that you’ve never seen called Buy and Sell.
And then I got to thinking… They’ve been trying to make wrestlers into movie stars for years. And they’ve been very bad at it for years. The trend continues to this day, with several attempts being made with some people who simply shouldn’t be acting in films.
Which brings me to…
“WE CAN’T ALL BE HULK HOGAN” OR: WHY DOES WWE KEEP TRYING?
I think I first became aware of Kane when I saw him playing a Kryptonian villain on Smallville. That is to say, it was called to my attention that there was a wrestler named Kane and he was acting in a TV show. That would be the extent of my “awareness.”
I then saw him as the hulking killer in that awful horror movie called See No Evil. You may have seen this movie. But, if you didn’t, I’ll sum it up as: “Die Hard in a building” with Kane in the Bruce Willis role and Christina Vidal as Hans Gruber and you reverse that and make Bruce Willis the bad guy and you make it really gory and you’ve got See No Evil. That being said, it’s not a bad role for him. Because he’s, um, very ugly; and has the sort of screen presence that makes him believable as a big, hulking psychopath. He’s scary enough that I hope he isn’t reading this right now.
But I guess it isn’t hard to see why his film career didn’t take off. And it isn’t that hard to see because all you have to do is watch See No Evil and you’ll understand.
How to fix his career? I don’t know. But if anyone out there wants to greenlight remakes of Hero and the Terror and/or Eyes of a Stranger then, Mr. Kane, we have a fine career for you as this generation’s Jack O’Halloran.
THE GREAT KHALI
You may remember him as that guy from the Adam Sandler prison comedy where Chris Rock blows up. Or you may remember him as that guy from the Steve Carrell comedy based on the TV show from the 60s.
Basically, you may remember him as “that ugly wrestler motherfucker from that comedy I saw on an airplane.”
I don’t really know what the appeal is because he looks like that picture you see above these words and he talks like Mushmouth.
I can see that the intention is to make him a kind of Andre the Giant for a new generation of children who probably find The Princess Bride to be “a boring movie for girls and gaylords.”
I don’t think it’s going to work, though, because THE GREAT KHALI has all the appeal and presence of a bottle of Listerine.
I suppose I could see him making a big splash if they ever get around to making The Goonies Returns or Back to the Goonies or Goonies 2000 or whatever the fuck they’ll call it when they finally make it and he would be just wonderful as Sloth’s son.
Probably one of the most perplexing success stories of our age. And please understand that I don’t use the term “success” lightly as, this man clearly has had a high level of success that few human beings have or ever will achieve.
Here we have a truly terrible actor, with about as much likability and charisma as a bucket of chopped dicks. But he keeps making movies! Even though, far as I can tell, no one is watching them. But there they are.
Have you seen this movie?
How about this one?
Well… I’m sure you have seen this one.
Oh… What was that? You haven’t even heard of it? Ah… Well then just excuse the shit out of me, thank you very much!
Look… I know there are some of you out there that might have relatively fond memories of THE MARINE WITH JOHN CENA. But sit back for a minute and realize that the only reason that movie was worth your time was thanks to a truly inspired bit of richly textured lunacy from Robert Patrick, and move on.
I don’t know about you. But sitting through the very despicable motion picture 12 Rounds, only to have his simian face in FULL CLOSE UP as he thrust his finger at the screen and barked “YOU LOSE!” (and boy was he ever right) before leaping out of an exploding helicopter… That was one of the most genuinely unpleasant experiences of my recent years.
I won’t mince words. I think this whole segment was just an excuse for me to bitch about John Cena.
I want him to stop making movies.
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“HOW CAN WE MAKE AN ALL-STAR ACTION THRILLER LOOK AS ABSOLUTELY BORING AS POSSIBLE?”
Thank you! That’s just what we’re looking for. We’ll be in touch.
MORE MADNESS FROM RENE F. RANGEL
“I’ve always liked Ghosts Of Mars, and I love the score a lot and even own it. …. Still is the only Carpenter film I’ve seen on the big screen, so it gets a bit of leeway there. It was interesting how there was so much backstory given in the Fangoria cover story I bought before it came out, and we barely even get to know anything in the movie. Such things as the name of the lead alien, BIG DADDY MARS, and the fact that he’s been possessed the longest, so that’s why he’s so big. Other stuff too, but that’s what’s stuck in my head.”
That’s as good a parting thought to leave you with.