Saturday, October 29, 2011

Director's Spotlight 1.6: John Carpenter's They Live

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and why some of their films work and some don’t. This month, the director in question is Master of Horror John Carpenter, and the focus on his 70s and 80s horror films. October ends with his last great movie: 1988’s They Live.

Grade: 84 (A-)

In a way, John Carpenter’s They Live is a spiritual successor to Sidney Lumet’s great 1976 satire Network: both picture a world dominated by corporations and greed-minded individuals (Network in the rise, They Live when the rule is in full effect). Both feature an America dumbed-down by consumerism and mindless entertainment. Both are gloriously unsubtle, Network’s preaching excused by its inflation to near-theatrical levels of existence, They Live’s by the fact that it’s also as hard-hitting as action/horror/sci-fi gets. John Carpenter’s films all have some subtext about the times they were made in: Halloween in its subversion of suburbia and portrayal of incompetent cops, The Thing in its world of 80s paranoia. Even 1987’s lousy Prince of Darkness has its nuclear waste/AIDS allegories. But in 1988, Carpenter’s take on Reagan America was especially stinging.

George Nada (pro-wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) is a drifter, an out-of-work laborer who comes to L.A. to find a job. Any job. He manages to find a lousy construction gig, where he befriends Frank Armitage (Keith David), who takes him back to the shantytown he lives in. Frank sends money back to Detroit, where his wife and kids live. He muses on how great the divide between the rich and the poor has become with great lines like “The golden rule…he who has the gold makes the rules” and “We gave them a break, they gave themselves raises”. Nada notices a local preacher screaming about how the masses are controlled by the greedy men who have infiltrated the system. TV broadcasts are interrupted by a hacker warning of the numbing of the middle and working classes. Nada finds that many of the shanty residents are part of a resistance, and they’ve created these special sunglasses: devices that let the wearer see the world as it really is.

Nada puts on the glasses: billboard advertisements really read “OBEY” and “DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY”. Store shop signs read “CONSUME” or “MARRY AND PROCREATE”. Money (hilariously) reads “THIS IS YOUR GOD”. And many of the people (stockbrokers, bankers, politicians, policemen) are really lizard-skinned aliens lording over the masses. And the humans who have made advancements alongside the aliens are working with them. Nada isn’t going to stand for this. As he says when he enters a bank with a shotgun, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum”.

Where to begin? Carpenter starts with Piper’s character ambling his way into town, looking ragged and world-weary. Nada is still optimistic about America, that he can succeed through hard work. His optimism won’t last. Los Angeles looks like hell: a towering metropolis over the common man, mocking the cardboard boxes the poor have found for themselves. A synth-blues score (Carpenter’s best outside of Halloween) makes it clear that these are hard times, a new Depression for anyone who isn’t rich. And the saddest and most frightening thing is that the ones oppressed don’t want out. The transmission preaching on behalf of the oppressed is greeted by the average working-class men with a typical “that asshole” or something of the like. The common man is too scared or too complacent thanks to his boob tube and his magazines to take notice that he’s been bamboozled.

A great detail, alongside the hilarious “OBEY” headlines, is the look of the creatures. It’s no coincidence that the aliens that have infiltrated us (a bit differently than in The Thing) look lizard-like. There’s no doubt that  this is at least somewhat to resemble the lizard-skinned president of the time, Ronald Reagan (the “it’s morning in America” sentiment of the 80s is repeated by an alien-politician in the film). At the end of the Reagan presidency, not enough people were up in arms about Iran-Contra or the effects of Reaganomics or the Drug War on inner cities (one homeless man smokes crack to get away from it all). Many of the great filmmakers mocked the crass consumerism or love affair with the 1950s that happened at the time with terrific genre films (Blue Velvet, Poltergeist, Back to the Future). Carpenter’s take is especially good.

Of course, satire can only go so far in film without a filmmaker’s gifts, and Carpenter is in top form here. His characters are as great as ever, with two great central roles in Nada and Frank, two working class men who can no longer deny the truth. Keith David is as terrific as ever as hard-ass Frank. If there’s a flaw to the film, it’s Piper’s performance as Nada. Piper ad-libbed the great “bubblegum” line, but he’s not a great actor, and while he gets the job done, it’s difficult not to wonder what Carpenter-muse Kurt Russell would have done with the role. Piper isn’t too distracting, though, and the effect his character goes through is still powerful. Nada is the everyman (albeit one able to deliver great wrestling moves), the man who’s down from the man’s rule, and who sees the villains for what they really are. It's time to fight back, even if we might not be able to win (Carpenter certainly doesn't think so), and in the end all we can do is give 'em the middle finger. Carpenter also makes the city a character, festering from woes of the poor, but towering as a shiny, sleek world for the villains to inhabit.

Personification of 80s woes and living spaces aside, They Live is a spectacularly made action-horror film, with great gunfights, fistfights and one-liners. In the film’s most famous scene, Piper tries to get David to put on the sunglasses and see what’s going on. David doesn’t trust Piper, who’s been killing aliens left and right, but there’s also a reluctance based on his refusal to see what’s really going on. The ensuing brawl shows the great struggle to wake someone up from their sleep. It’s a great six-minute set-piece that seems like it’s over several times only to start up again with more fury. When David finally puts the glasses on, he can hardly take them off, only Piper notes that the longer they’re on, the more your head hurts. Certainly it goes the same for anyone who can’t pretend what’s going on with Wall Street, with Reagan, and with his followers (even to this day) is OK.

With the end of the first Director's Spotlight series on John Carpenter, I decided to move onto a filmmaker I found strangely comparable to Carpenter: Steven Spielberg. But rather than spending one month on a director with such an expansive catalogue of great movies, I decided to spend November AND December on Spielberg. November will focus on classic Spielberg adventure films where December will look at his work in the 2000s and the contrast between the two. It'll all wrap up with the releases of The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse at the end of the month. Oh, and for now Director's Spotlight will be two or three times a week, usually on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Director’s Spotlight Calendar:

October 31: Jaws
November 3: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
November 5: Duel/The Sugarland Express
November 7: 1941
November 10: Raiders of the Lost Ark
November 12: Poltergeist
November 14: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
November 17: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
November 19: Gremlins/The Goonies
November 21: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
November 23: Always/Hook
November 30: Jurassic Park

December 1: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
December 3: Minority Report
December 5: Catch Me if You Can
December 8: The Terminal
December 12: War of the Worlds
December 15: Munich
December 20: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (w/ The Lost World: Jurassic Park)


  1. December 23-ish: The Adventures of Tintin
    December 26-ish: War Horse

  2. I never interpreted the Aliens as "lizard-skinned" but as rotting corpses. works both ways.
    Also, don't know if you know this but Nada is Spanish for "nothing"