Slide show: The "Motherless Brooklyn" author peels back the many layers of John Carpenter's "They Live"
The Opening of the Eyes
A dream or nightmare is underway: out of darkness an ominous, admonitory phrase resolves, in hand-lettering, under the director’s name. John Carpenter’s “They Live.” The black fades up to a graffitied wall, on which the title phrase takes its place in a chaos of urban, spray-paint cartoons. It’s atypical, “unrealistic” graffiti, featuring too many childish drawings — of what look like public-housing projects, a floating hypodermic syringe, a monumental Christian church — and too little flamboyant font. The wall seems flat, a “title card,” just for an instant, then a leftward pan claims it as an element in a location shot: an overpass in a train yard. The camera’s movement halts, shifting the title phrase nearly offscreen to the right. But the viewer’s ability to calculate what’s moving and what’s still is complicated by the rightward drift of the train cars that now center the frame (and, in a film that will concern various kinds of public language, bring with them their own odd phrase, shock control).
So: a triple optical confusion in thirty seconds of screen time. A warning — matters of competence in “reading” images will be at stake here. Now, the camera movement and the passage of the train act as sliding doors to reveal our hero, Nada, played by the possibly recognizable-to-some nonactor (or aspiring actor) “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, professional wrestler.
Garbed in default blue-collar duds and wearing a backpack, Nada picks his way out of the distance, across the tracks, toward us. Like Toshiro Mifune in “Yojimbo,” or Randolph Scott or Clint Eastwood in any number of American or Italian westerns, our hero strolls into the story’s frame through civilization’s back doors, unnoticed, an entrance simultaneously suggesting modesty of means, self-reliant competency, wraithlike anonymity, and (at least to begin) neutrality as regards any preexisting conflict.
We can’t be certain, but Nada’s probably been riding the rails. In any event, what he does from this point is walk into Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Plays Itself
“Every film is a documentary of its actors,” declared Godard. The same is true of cities, according to Thom Andersen’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” an essay-film on the subject of Hollywood’s inadvertent enshrinement of Southern California settings as backdrops. “They Live” shows up in Andersen’s documentary as a typical example of how the city idles in the background, candidly disclosing itself to whatever eye may care to notice. Carpenter’s film neither declares its Los Angeles setting as a subject nor troubles itself to conceal it. Denver and Detroit are mentioned in passing, default locales for an out-of-work white guy and an out-of-work black guy, respectively, but the Los Angeles to which they’ve migrated goes unnamed. Still, the Los Angeles Athletic Club is visible in several shots. Various other buildings are framed long enough to be identified, but they’re mostly unmemorable. Carpenter avoids — or can’t afford –anything as distinctive as the Bradbury Building’s interior. His use of L.A.’s downtown feels documentary itself, in the helpless manner dictated by the film’s low budget.
The most distinctive location in the film isn’t architectural, per se: the blasted rise on which the homeless compound Justiceville has assembled itself, and from which it will shortly be cleansed by an army of bulldozers and riot police. I asked Thom Andersen for more on this location’s history: a marginal zone west of the Harbor Freeway, it had in fact been cleared by speculative developers in the late seventies and early eighties precisely to make way for more of the luxury towers contemplated by Nada and Frank as they gaze across the freeway in the distance. So, “They Live’s” urban-renewal subtext embeds a bit of real urban history, knowingly or not. According to Andersen, the planned towers never exactly showed up. When the area filled in, it was with cookie-cutter, middle-class condominiums.
Left unengaged is Los Angeles’s car culture; apart from the police, no character seems to even own one until Nada kidnaps Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) in the garage where she’s parked. The L.A. of “They Live” is dominated by foot traffic, and not only that of the homeless, but also of the boisterously populated streets around the newsstand, grocery store, and bank. “They Live” ignores the presence of the film industry, too. The alien broadcast emanates from a TV station, eliding Hollywood, the official U.S. Dream Factory (the equivalent of setting in New York City a film about mind control, but ignoring Madison Avenue). Television is one of “They Live’s” preoccupations, but there’s no acknowledgment of the thin line between film’s and television’s production culture.
In fact, Roddy Piper, as a wrestler, could be seen as a version of the TV star who’s attempting to move into feature film. Traditionally, that’s something like a baseball player trying to jump from the minor to major leagues: a routine attempt, but still carrying a hint of embarrassing hopefulness, and no guarantees. Nada never uses his decoding sunglasses to peek at a movie marquee, to see whether the title of, say, “Good Morning, Vietnam” — the top-grossing movie in the months during which “They Live” was filmed –might translate to “Sentimentalize War.”
The musical score’s entrance performs its own sleight of hand: documentary train-yard noise resolve seamlessly into a drum tick, so we can’t be sure where one leaves off and the other begins. John Carpenter’s most celebrated eccentricity may be his insistence on composing his own scores, which tend to feature an idiot savant repetitiveness, along with synthesized sounds that, to some ears, date badly — a thrifty man’s Tangerine Dream. I treasure them, myself.
“They Live’s” score may be the most tauntingly circular in film history, short of “The Third Man’s” zither or “Eyes Wide Shut’s” one-finger piano: a rootsy but menacing three-note bass line, ascending and descending along a blues scale, joined by taunting saxophone and a long-suffering, rueful, old-man harmonica: Bum-bum-bum, waaah-wah. Drum and synth join to raise the pulse when cops or guns walk through the door. The bass line is ominous enough to claim “something’s happening here,” undercut only by the harmonica’s rebuke: “same old, same old.” Ultimately, the blues motif telegraphs the film’s underlying air of nihilistic resignation. It lightly mocks Nada’s (and the viewer’s) panic at the film’s revelations. You knew this already, didn’t you? No? Really? (Or, as Nada groans when he glimpses the Reagan-ghoul, “It figures it would be something like this.”) If the film’s opening evokes some kind of homeless advocate’s public-service documentary — or at least an attempt at blue-collar v
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper
Roddy Piper (a stage name for Roderick George Toombs) will remind nobody of Humphrey Bogart, really, despite all my insinuations. Or even Clint Eastwood. He’s a professional wrestler, representing a minor stop on Hollywood’s journey from Johnny Weissmuller to The Rock. (Ours was, of course, the movie era where Schwarzenegger and Stallone proved how decisively a weightlifter turned actor trumps an actor turned weightlifter: the former goes from laughingstock to box-office-champ to Governor of California, the latter from Oscar-winning character actor to washed-up oil painter.) Under Carpenter’s hand, Piper wears his aspirations lightly, seeming barely to have shrugged off his other career for these duties. That said, he isn’t bad. As you’d expect from someone with hundreds of hours’ experience playing opposite other professional wrestlers in what is essentially live, semi-improvised theater, Piper’s best in scenes opposite Keith David or some other strong male presence, worst in his scenes with Meg Foster or other women. Piper is the blunt tool this job requires: conveying fear and rage is in his wheelhouse.
“Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him.” This, John Carpenter’s explanation of his casting choice, expresses a typically masculine discomfort with the fakery and costumes of acting. Like much to do with “They Live,” the remark embeds a matter-of-fact dichotomy — us against them, “life” versus acting — while begging us to tease out the buried ironies: the “life” Piper has written all over him is his life as a famous, straight-faced fake. Anyone wearing the glasses of good sense knows that pro wrestling is acting. Yet unlike “real” actors, who willingly take off their disguises and discuss the secrets of their craft, professional wrestlers — like They Live’s ghouls — will never admit their deception except amongst themselves, unless forced at gunpoint, or perhaps under sworn testimony.
Piper, with his slight acne scarring and not-intolerably-leaden vocal delivery (including occasional slips into a Canadian accent) makes a fair token of the real. If he knows how funny it is that he should be asked to act shocked at finding himself in the unmasking business — since pro wrestling involves both frequent unmasking at one level, and the persistent refusal to be unmasked at another — he keeps it mostly to himself. The exception will be the alleyway fight scene, where, allowed to unveil his “real” life expertise in “fake” hand-to-hand combat, a teasing irony plays over Piper’s expressions. More on this later.
The Black Guy and the White Guy, Together Again for the First Time
We’ve been watching this movie our whole lives, with minor variations. It provides something we need at the bluntest level, an assuaging counterexample to the fact that, when we look around us, the white guy and the black guy mostly aren’t together. If it’s Eddie Murphy cast opposite the white guy then the black guy’s the dominant star, which maybe tweaks vicarious guilt (on the part of the white viewer) or compensatory fantasy (on the part of the black viewer) even more thrillingly. If he’s Will Smith there’s a risk he’s Bagger Vance, the dreaded Magic Negro, offering redemptive guidance on the white guy’s more essential voyage. Most often, though, he’s Danny Glover, in what we might, in tribute to “Miami Vice,” call the Tubbs Placement: just a tad behind the white guy in significance and charisma, perhaps a bit slower off the blocks or on the uptake, but situated alongside his white compatriot in a gallant role distinguished from the villainous or colorless figures that otherwise populate the story. No doubt that’s where Frank’s headed. It’s not the worst place in the world.
The demolition of Justiceville is more than a tableau of urban renewal in fast-forward — it takes on the quality of sci-fi nightmare. The filmmaking methodology is in the spirit of the Jean-Luc Godard of “Alphaville,” or the George Lucas of “THX 1138,” who forged their “futures” out of alienated modern urban spaces. Who needs Terminators when your wide-angle lens can frame helicopters and bulldozers for maximum techno-angst? Riot gear turns the phalanx of L.A. cops into another kind of machine, a collective chewer or thresher, before the battle breaks down into sporadic commando sniping. Score-wise, churning synthesizers now overrun the homely bass-and-harmonica blues, reinforcing the John-Henry-versus-the-Steam-drill feel. Remember Mario “put your bodies upon the gears” Savio? Tonight, the gears are winning.
Carpenter, who directed Stephen King’s “Christine” (a murderous 1958 Plymouth Fury) shows a special relish for the menace lurking in mechanical transport. His favorite villainous vehicle is the helicopter: Nada will later be killed by a sniper shot from one. Helicopters hound the noble alien visitor in “Starman” and the Invisible Man in “Memoirs of an Invisible Man,” and they usher in the Thing’s arrival in that film’s opening sequence. But there’s a twist: Carpenter himself is a helicopter buff, and he rarely missed a chance to climb aboard.
He’s credited as “Man in Helicopter” in several of his films. So, in “They Live’s” ironclad us-versus-them scheme, the director’s affiliation with his persecuting machines points to a subliminal ambivalence, or even complicity. So far as helicopters go, John Carpenter’s one of them.
They Colorized It
In “They Live’s” scheme, color is lies, black-and-white the truth. This links the world the Hoffman lenses reveal to “The Monolith Monsters,” that black-and-white creature-feature movie seen earlier [in the film], and to an era of stripped-down and formally pure cinema Carpenter fears is being overrun by the ethos and aesthetics of the yuppie-Reagan eighties. Later, during the brief resurgence of the anti-ghoul revolutionary cell, a background voice is heard exclaiming indignantly, “They colorized it!” — a film buff’s in-jokey reference to the outrages then being perpetrated by Ted Turner’s TNT channel upon helpless black-and-white classics, begun in 1985 with the Michael Curtiz-directed James Cagney musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The elegant framing and slow cutting of “They Live’s” black-and-white “revelation” sequence, together with the welcome evaporation of the musical score, reminds us of Carpenter’s capacities for, and commitment to, a classical mise-en-sc
Holly, played by Meg Foster, enters story and frame in an explicitly Hitchcockian shot, derived from the opening of “Marnie” particularly: walking away from a worm’s-eye view, our sense of receding perspective enhanced by her framing in the center of the pillar-and-beam architecture of a parking garage. A neat pale-gray purse and matching heels, plus Foster’s hypnotically smooth stride, complete the reference.
Nada’s lurking in the garage. Improvising a plan to convey himself out of the bank’s vicinity, he’ll carjack Holly, making her the last arriving of the film’s major characters. Here, “They Live” slows, to give the two a chance to make their pensive, peculiar connection — a truth-sinking-in interlude for both Nada and the viewer — and to tempt us briefly with notions of solace, exchanged confidences, even romance. But it’s to be a wrong number, in the end.
There’s a tenacious movie archetype afoot in this next six minutes of film: the persecuted (usually wrongly accused) man who attaches himself to or absconds with an unwilling female, who then finds herself challenged to evaluate his protestations of innocence, and/or the credibility of the paranoiac plot he claims to be the target of. The point of origin is probably “The 39 Steps” (1935); if some earlier denominator exists, credit for conveyance of this narrative gesture into the filmgoer’s imaginative stockpile surely goes to Hitchcock anyway, and he reuses it, with variations, in “Young and Innocent,” “Saboteur,” and “North by Northwest.” (Even “Rear Window” has an element of paranoid-guy-pleads-his-case.)
The gesture often involves some negotiation of class difference, or simply a taming-of-the-shrew toppling of the heroine’s snobbish reserve toward a frantic Everyman. The great example, outside Hitchcock, is the Robert Redford-Faye Dunaway relationship in Sydney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor” (1975); Pollack deftly shifts the film’s subjectivity toward Dunaway’s character, letting us feel the threat of Redford’s invasion of her sanctuary even as we’re rooting for him to persuade her of his story. Nada’s kidnapping of Holly feels like a compressed low-budget retread or even satire of “Condor,” due partly to the poor man’s Dunaway of Meg Foster’s sultry-bordering-on-somnolent performance: you’re no Redford, Piper, and, no, you’re not getting any! The versatile “39 Steps” motif found its nadir in Richard Donner’s punishingly literal “Conspiracy Theory” (1997), where the distance between Mel Gibson’s justified paranoiac (complete with stalker behavior and black government helicopters) and the harassed patience of Julia Roberts proves to be a bridge not worth crossing. Something like blowing up into the sly next minutes of “They Live” into a glib and shrill full-length feature.
One Great Shot
The breathtaking, close-overhead shot as Holly smashes the wine bottle over Nada’s head, then leverages his bulk through a plate of glass and out of her life, owes plenty to the legendary close-overhead from “Psycho,” where Norman-Mother closes on the detective Arbogast at the top of the Bates-house stairs, assaulting him simultaneously with a knife blade and with gravity. In both shots the victim is hacked about the head, then plummets.
Carpenter’s choice might seem ostentatious, but we’re forced to respect its startling efficiency as an assault on our nerves — and this functions metonymically for the startling efficiency of Holly’s assault on Nada. Like a hostess keeping wineglasses topped without anyone noticing she’s even pouring, Holly uses her right hand to sweep the bottle from its place and, with it, brain Nada, then replaces the bottle as she completes her turn. Meanwhile, her own glass remains serenely cradled in her left arm’s fingers, even as her left elbow is used to judo him through the window. If this were a cocktail party, Holly would now resume small talk. Everything in this staging serves to destabilize our sense of a reliable and comprehensible physical environment. Even before the violence begins, the shot creates a spatial rupture: we had no idea, from the earlier shot-countershot, that the couch and the window, or Nada and Holly, were as near to each other as the overhead reveals them to be. Since control of his own (apparently dominant) physicality is all Nada’s got — we’ve reveled at his ability to mow down ghoul cops and evade capture — the costs here, to the viewer’s vicarious powers, are immense.
Holly, introduced with a Hitchcockian shot, now goes out with one (her sudden and bracing act of self-defense may also recall Grace Kelly getting ahold of the scissors in “Dial M for Murder.”) Raymond Durgnat suggests that what “Psycho’s” overhead shot conceals (without making it obvious that anything’s being concealed) is Norman-Mother’s face. The same shot in “They Live” cloaks Holly’s expression as she demolishes our strongman. Yet would seeing what played over her features at that instant have given away Holly’s affiliation? Given the serenity of her phone call immediately following, I doubt it.
How to legislate between these great constituencies: those who love “They Live” for the fight scene, and those who love it despite the fight scene? Indefensible by its deep design, the “longest fight scene in movie history” (according to Carpenter, who has also claimed that Roddy Piper and Keith David rehearsed it for three weeks) expands in cultural memory as an artifact unto itself, an object if not of study then of wonder, a legend, a contested site, a nihilistic gesture, a secret code or ritual, possibly akin to Fight Club before “Fight Club.” Yet for all its uses as a screen for fannish or critical projections, the scene’s the opposite of ponderous with significance, or irony. The incident merely unfolds, growing out of an ordinary exchange, never declaring any special status or demanding any special consideration. Really, it’s more like two characters in a movie quitting the script in order to beat the shit out of each other, more or less persistently, but with quasi-realist breaks to catch their breath, for six minutes.
The fight consists of two jokes, each without a punch line: its own bewilderingly formless duration as a movie scene — a joke that can’t be punctuated, by definition, or it goes away — and the fact that Keith David would rather pummel and be pummeled than peek through the Hoffman lenses. If either of them stepped outside their entrenched positions to frame this absurdity (“You’d really rather keep at this than wear these glasses?” “You really want me to wear those glasses so badly you’re going to take this endless beating?”) the air of abjection and embarrassment would be hugely relieved, but the deadly serious joke lessened: here’s another instance of Carpenter’s willingness to lose your respect in order to consolidate your amazement and discomfort. If you hate the fight scene, you blame the director. If you love it, you credit yourself.
What’s definite, anyway, is the extent to which Carpenter has now placed his bet on cult or folk transmission of what’s he’s got on offer, while excusing himself from the jurisdiction of middlebrow notions of “art” or “cinema” (You can’t fire me, I quit). Sure, he once claimed to have cast Roddy Piper as an emblem of working-class authenticity, but that stalking horse has now bolted the ranch, in favor of what some members of a working-class audience (who’d say they’ve got more than enough “authenticity” in their daily lives, thank you) might be more likely to value: a WWF-style ass kicking.
John Carpenter closes 1994′s “In the Mouth of Madness” (another tale of a skeptic who discovers that his world has been corrupted by an evil fiction) with the protagonist settling into a front-row seat at a movie theater, for a screening of “In the Mouth of Madness,” the movie we’ve been watching all along (cf. “The Muppet Movie”). “They Live,” which begins in prosaic documentary style, in some ways begs to be a film that ends lost in artifice. We might, for instance, cut away to another vacant lot, another version of Justiceville, where another batch of tatterdemalion couch potatoes sit vacantly gazing at a television’s screen. On their screen, we’d see the final instants of Nada’s “triumph” — his killing of Holly; his destruction of the broadcast tower; his epochal, dying flip of the bird. The homeless viewers would hoot and cheer, then change the channel. Life goes on. Cue hollow laughter.
“They Live” flirts with this impulse. The post-Nada montage, Ghouls Unmasked Worldwide, nearly comes to a close not in the arena of the real, but instead lost within the kaleidoscopic maze of commercial simulations, that hall of mirrors that might truly reveal monstrosity, if we ever locate our glasses. Instead, Carpenter plunges us back into something both more and less real, this smutty kick at the finish. He’s found one last destabilizing swerve, one last fuck-you gesture. The director might be toying with the ratings system (or the Gene Siskels of the world): Looking for a new definition of the word gratuitous? I’ll take an “R” for the last shot in my film, thank you.
Or he might be toying with us. The girl and ghoul don’t really feel like they derive from the same version of reality that earlier defined this film, a quasi-documentary on disenfranchisement. These two are lost somewhere in the breach between the TV satires and their own longing for authentic contact, fucking with the TV on, or watching TV with the fucking on, their behavior mediated through porn stylistics that have invaded their sexual imaginations (the human woman’s “cowgirl position,” her regimented moaning, his “baby”) to an extent “They Live” simply can’t help them unmask. And we, complicit (male) viewers, noticing ourselves twitch to hardwired attention at one flash of tube-boob, thinking Was it that sort of movie all along? Do I owe someone an apology? (A brief, ridiculous cut-in shows a human woman gasping in censure as she slaps the face of a male ghoul, who then turns to the camera as though shocked by the site of bare breasts, making him the first unmasked ghoul to begin to grasp that the jig is up — and is he somehow looking through the screen?) Can we freeze that frame a second longer? No? Oh well, roll credits. Cue mocking laughter (and an obnoxiously taunting, discofied version of the score’s blues motif). We’re stranded here, at the end, women handcuffed to men, in bed with the pun/chline’s verdict: We’re all fucking ghouls.