Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Chewin' Bubblegum and Kickin' Ass - 20 Years of THEY LIVE.

The first presidential election I ever voted in was back in 1988, the big Bush vs. Dukakis dust-up. It was a pretty exciting thing for me to experience, finally being part of the democratic process and maybe playing a role in the future of America. I took a lot of pride and pleasure in voting for the first time, and the '88 election came at a time of great change and new freedom in my life, so it helped to mark an important time for me. No matter that my guy lost, I remember it all quite well: "Read my lips - no new taxes"; Willie Horton; Dukakis in that damn silly helmet; Jon Lovitz's "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy" line from SNL; and best of all, Lloyd Bentsen's legendary put down of Quayle during the debates. It wasn't anywhere near as exciting as this election, but I got a big jolt out of it, mostly because I felt like I was finding my voice a little bit, and I've always made sure I've voted in pretty much ever major election ever since (even took part in early voting here last week).

But one aspect of election '88 that I will also always take to heart was John Carpenter's THEY LIVE, which opened on November 4, 1988, 20 years ago today, and 4 days before the national election. No, THEY LIVE wasn't a major part of either party's campaign, and it sure as hell didn't make any waves in the election, but it was one of the first pieces of political satire that I really got and I loved the hell out of it. Looking at it again a few weeks ago, I was not especially surprised that it held up perfectly (the only Carpenter film that doesn't - at least for me - is HALLOWEEN, actually), nor was I surprised that it's still resonant (unfortunately). It was a perfect coda to the Reagan era, 8 years of the rich getter richer, the poor getting poorer, big business, increased consumerism and corporate greed taking over the country (like I said it's strangely still resonant). But what got to me about THEY LIVE in 2008 is the scope of the piece, which is a surprisingly ambitious one, as it has a lot on its mind and works hard to accomplish a lot with very little. It was the second film in a two picture deal (the first being the under-appreciated PRINCE OF DARKNESS) that Carpenter had with Island Films to make two low budget films (both under $4 million) with complete creative control. Carpenter, obviously relishing the opportunity, went to town with his ideas and desire to make a mainstream, subversive entertainment. It's actually a pretty big story that Carpenter's telling (based on Ray Nelson's short story, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning"), but like such great genre directors of the past as Don Siegel and Phil Karlson, he knows to keep the focus on just one character and let all this stuff happen around them. And like those greats, that character is an everyman, a guy who's seen tough times; who's down but not out and is able to survive on street smarts while the Powers That Be. The thing is, it becomes a pretty big story, but Carpenter just keeps us focused on Roddy Piper's John Nada, and it all makes sense to us in the end. There's a lot going on here, and a heck of a lot of setups for a low budget movie, but Carpenter knew how to shoot fast and knew what he wanted on screen and there isn't anything there that he doesn't want on there. Carpenter is in full control here, and this is what makes THEY LIVE so great.

Another huge part of THEY LIVE's success is Carpenter's obvious joy in what he's doing; this is one unapologetic B-movie, and it's really damn fun. Goofy, silly fun, and yet subversively so, because for all of its action, violence, and machismo, there's a lot going on underneath the surface, beyond the social commentary. For one, THEY LIVE is also a terrific satire of the 80s (one of the definitive of the decade), with Carpenter making sure he lampoons (and literally destroys) everything about the decade that he hates. It's not just the consumerism, but also TV, so-called "entertainment", and the moral and social crusaders of the day (Siskel & Ebert are shown to be aliens, too), making it a damn funny picture, at times. The alien makeups (often cited as one of the film's problems) are lovably goofy, certainly not to be taken seriously, but also outrageous enough and otherworldly to pass muster, so if anyone tells me they hate the movie because they hate the makeups, I can't take their opinion seriously. Even back in '88 you knew that if Roddy Piper was the lead in a movie then you should allow for some silliness, but while Piper does allow Nada some dignity, it's when he says the now-classic line (which Piper improvised), "I've come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. - and I'm all out of bubblegum", that you know he's a willing conspirator in all this. It's not trying to be stupid so much as be cleverly silly, a fine line to walk, but one that THEY LIVE does incredibly well. It's as much of a lark as it is anything else, but one from the heart and one with something to say, told with a lot of muscle and a style that is very much its director's, so as a longtime fan I'm happy to see that it's lived on and become a cult classic. 20 years to the day, THEY LIVE is still living, thriving and potent, yet another earmark of a great movie. Second only to THE TERMINATOR as the ultimate B-movie classic of the 80s, I'd watch it again in a second.

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