7 April 2010
They Live, I Watch
Excuse me Mr. Speaker, you've got a little something on your face.
It's good news to my ears that John Carpenter has a new film out later this year: The Ward (2010), about an institutionalised woman terrorised by a ghost; it's his first proper feature in nine years, so that'll do. (His last feature was the underwhelming Ghosts of Mars (2001), which was admittedly below par for him.) Nearly a decade is a long wait for a staunch Carpenter fan. During that time I've revisited many of his previous films as a way of filling the gap during his respite from feature filmmaking (although he did contribute two 60-minute entries - one excellent, Cigarette Burns; one half decent, Pro-Life - in the 'Masters of Horror' TV horror series in that time; and was no doubt prepping more new work, too). I've rewatched Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), Escape from New York (1981), The Fog (1980), Christine (1983) and now, recently, They Live (1988) - which is still a much better film than its underpraised reputation suggests. It rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as the likes of The Thing and Escape (two of his much-cherished films among fans), but in its own way it's every bit as much fun, and as pertinent.
As Carpenter himself says, in a ‘making of’ featurette on the region 2 DVD, “it’s basically an action film.” Although by all common appearances it's better defined as a mid-budget science fiction, it's indeed the action scenes that impress the most. And Carpenter excels at inventive action scenes. What I love even more than that though is that it’s a crafty little polemic, delivered with just enough cheeky irony, wrapped up in a downbeat alien invasion film. One of the slogans in the film sums it up well: ‘They live, we sleep’. Laid back hero John Nada (Rowdy Piper) is an out of work workingman, short on luck and shacking up with the homeless of L.A. It all begins with him. In keeping with his name, his personality is kept to the bare minimum: he’s a pair of fists and a bad attitude. There’s no overlong intro or exposition, just him. Oh, and a league of alien beings disguised as humans intent on taking over the world - but not before turning everyone into passive consumer slaves.
Mullet, check. Lumberjack shirt, check. Look of baffled disbelief, triple check.
The narrative unfolds via Nada's viewpoint and allows for the film to set out its agenda well: are we being subliminally kept in check by warped powers from above? The scene where he puts on the ‘all-seeing’ glasses is a great film moment, and a whole lot of fun (as, too, is Piper's lengthy fight scene with Keith David - which stops the plot dead for five-or-so minutes, but makes for a nicely pugilistic interlude; both fight for real here, without stunt aid). Nada sees for real what the billboards and signs around him actually say ("Conform", "Sleep 8 Hours", "Consume", "Watch TV", "Obey"), a realisation which rouses him to take up arms and lead the combat against these bewigged, skeletal alien enslavers. Nifty, punchy, huh?
This is where the film's social commentary gets interesting and the real ballsy fun begins - and the put-upon pull out the big guns. It's all very daft (there are copious exchanges of lame dialogue, with many of the lines delivered in a rather wooden fashion), but to moan about this would be to miss the point: it's a concise and bluntly-paced film with time only to thrust forward its non-consumerist message in short, sharp blows. Carpenter lets his ideas go to work and executes everything else with a gutsiness that has little regard for panache. There’s nothing prestigious or ponderous about They Live, and thank god for that; nobody surely goes into a Carpenter film expecting to see it crop up at "high-end" awards ceremonies come the end of the year.
Aliens go for the hard sell in They Live.
Piper and David were right fits for their roles, and both take everything sluggishly in their stride, whilst not seemingly taking anything or anyone at face value (Piper’s mullet and lumberjack shirts were all the characterisation required), and it was nice to see Meg Foster in a deceptively small support role that made good use of her sharp and duplicitous scowl (she was the underrated B-movie bitch of the '80s). The performances, locations and gloriously dated 1980's sheen all work wonderfully cohesively, but at the same time They Live's rough-hewn qualities (it shows its age well, as it did even then) seem adrift in today's film world to the degree that it's more likely to get laughed at, not with. But another way to look at it is that it utilises its imperfect cinematic apparatus to make a comment on the potentially imperfect future.
I hope that whatever Carpenter's new film is like, he will some day return to making films with the sly, playful effectiveness as this one. It's an angry statement dressed in sci-fi get-up. The graffiti on the wall during the opening titles ("THEY LIVE" in white spray paint) is a desperate, rallying cry against materialism consuming the masses. The aliens infiltrate the higher echelons of society to influence those under them into accepting mundane order and zombie-like commitment to their cause. It says: money = this is your God. On its release the film was an effective dirty little fly in the ointment for the conservatism of the late eighties' Greed is Good ethos. But maybe it's just as pertinent now, albeit with a small shift in emphasis (especially if transposed to the UK). If Carpenter's film tried to challenge the unjustness of the phrase 'the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor', maybe we could do with borrowing a pair of John Nada's glasses for whenever David Cameron is on the television this coming election.