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John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ as a Subversive Masterpiece

John Carpenter's 'They Live' as a Subversive Masterpiece

John Carpenter’s been largely absent from filmmaking for the past decade, with only a handful of “Masters of Horror” specials and the disappointingly generic “The Ward” to his name, but few genre filmmakers were more exciting in the 1980s. After revolutionizing the horror genre in 1978 with “Halloween,” Carpenter had a great run with cult classics like “Escape from New York, “The Thing” and “Big Trouble in Little China” and underrated gems like “The Fog,” “Christine” and “Starman” (“Prince of Darkness” has its fans as well, though I’m not among them).

Carpenter capped off the decade with “They Live,” a subversive anti-consumerist flick that’s sometimes wrongfully seen as a goofy so-bad-it’s-good movie. But over at Rolling Stone, Joshua Rothkopf made the case that the film isn’t just one of Carpenter’s most substantive films, but “the last word on the Reagan era.”

Rothkopf argues that the film is not just an attack on Republicans and Reaganomics, but on the whole “greed is good” sentiment, and a call for working-class heroes to abandon consumerist lifestyle choices and see the yuppies for what they are (in this case, monsters literalized as “goo-faced” aliens). Writing about the scene where, given sunglasses that show hero George Nada (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) the true faces of the yuppies and the subliminal messages behind their advertisements)

Nothing can prepare you for this sequence, a near-wordless piece of sociocultural smackdown smuggled into a sci-fi flick…The moment has been rhapsodized by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and appropriated by culture-jamming artist Shepard Fairey for his iconic Andre the Giant posters. Carpenter’s target was advertising but also a slick television-dictated lifestyle, putting his movie in the prickly company of media satires like “Network” (this is very much the training-wheels version). Mainly, though, the scene makes you gasp: Are we really going there? 

That comparison to “Network” is astute, with the film working as much as a spiritual sequel to that earlier film. Where “Network” saw the rise of a corporation-dominated world, “They Live” shows it in full effect, with the common man too complacent with his magazines and boob tube to wake up. As Rothkopf argues, though, Carpenter’s method is less didactic, more by way of an onslaught of assaultive satirical images (store signs reading “CONSUME” and “MARRY AND PROCREATE,” money labeled “THIS IS YOUR GOD”). Also, ass-kicking. Here’s Rothkopf on the famous six-minute fight between Piper and Keith David.

…he does magnificently with the film most infamous scene, a six-minute slugfest with costar Keith David that’s just stupefying in its duration. Nada only wants the guy to put on the shades and join the crusade — amazingly, this is a serious sticking point, one that leads to body blows and pile-drivers. The scene goes on and on. Carpenter has called it an homage to John Ford’s “The Quiet Man,” a touch too foxy as references go. More honestly, it’s a concession to Piper’s fans. Yet isn’t there something depressing about the brawl as well, an utter waste of energy that could be better spent against the Republicans?

The scene also works as another literalization, this one covering how much work one has to put into convincing someone to see the world for what it is and take action. No one goes quietly. They need to be smacked out of complacency…or, in this case, pile-drived out of it.

But Rothkopf also sees it as a view of Carpenter’s mindset in the ’80s. While most of his ’80s films are now seen as classics, at the time many of his films were financial disappointments (“The Thing,” “Starman”) or outright bombs (“Big Trouble in Little China”), and Carpenter had to fight studios and moneymen to get them made. “They Live” isn’t Carpenter’s last good film, but it is his last wholly successful one because it shows him damn near exhausted by the times.

“They Live” was a bridge for some of us, a bona-fide act of subversion from a filmmaker who invested his famous style of clean widescreen compositions and Hawksian gab with something larger, something flattering to the audience’s intelligence. You feel alarm and desperation emanating from the film: the passion of a director lunging for significance, maybe because he saw his crazy run of a career butting up against Hollywood indifference. It’s a sad movie, a Lorax-like cry.

Still, for all of the film’s blues and misery, it’s also a thrillingly defiant one, a movie that theorizes that even if we can’t win, we can show the bad guys for who they are and give them a hearty “fuck you.”

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