Posted by keelsetter on April 10, 2011
In my last post I wrapped up my interview with Alex Cox by talking a bit about John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). Alex said: “They Live holds up for the first 45 minutes, and then there’s this long wrestling match between Roddy Piper and Keith David, and it never recovers. But those first 45 minutes are amazing. Pretty much the only good science fiction film I’ve seen post 2001: A Space Odyssey.” When I heard that, I thought for sure there would be a long tussle of words in the comment section to rival what John Carpenter claimed was “the longest fight scene in movie history.” To my surprise, only two people chimed in, both in support of the film in general. Where were the cries of bloody murder from the fans of THX 1138, Brazil, Videodrome, RoboCop, A Clockwork Orange, Tetsuo, Inception, Alien, and so on? There are plenty of bones to fight over here, but I’ll stick to They Live for the purpose of this post. As to the long fight scene, I’ve gotten into my own fights with people who dismiss it as ridiculous. Agreeing to some extent with Alex Cox is author and music journalist Greil Marcus who says of They Live that it is “a fabulous movie (except for the endless fight behind the building).” Again, I strongly disagree.
I’m not alone in thinking the fight scene in They Live is essential to the film. Its absurdity is not beside the point, but part of the point – and memorable for a variety of reasons. It even resurfaced in popular culture, as South Park fans already know, in the “Cripple Fight!” (Season 5, episode 2) which was very much an homage to They Live:
Although South Park exploits the camp value, the extended fight scene in They Live endures for very cerebral reasons too:
I cribbed both of the quotes above from author Jonathan Lethem’s Deep Focus edition on They Live (released by Soft Skull Press). His own take is one of grudging respect:
The fight scene, which Carpenter says “was an incredibly brutal and funny fight, along the lines of the slugfest between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man” is essential to me for three reasons. The first is that Carpenter’s choice to make a wrestler, Roddy Piper, his leading man was purposefully ideological. Carpenter, himself a wrestling fan who’d met Piper at WrestleMania III earlier in 1987, considers it the working man’s sport and They Live is a film about the war being waged on the working class, the blue collar workers, the under-employed, or the unemployed. For the purpose of this film, they are all in the underclass.
As They Live isn’t just about the underclass but very much for the underclass, the extended fight scene sneaks in some wrestling where you wouldn’t expect it: a science-fiction movie. (Well… an American science-fiction movie. Had it been a Mexican science-fiction movie, or fantasy, or horror film, romance, etc., a big protracted wrestling scene would not be such an anomaly, especially given how huge a folk icon the professional wrestler El Santo is in Mexico. In fact, Carpenter missed a nice opportunity to include Latinos into the underclass he represents in They Live – doubly strange given its Los Angeles setting – an omission that will surely be redressed in any remake.)
The second reason the fight scene is essential to me, also ideological, is much more important: it illustrates how hard it is to make anyone change their perception of the world – even when you have hard proof. (Current topical events to file into this category include climate-change and evolution. Talk about ridiculously extended fight sequences! The latter topic alone has been going on for well over a hundred years.)
The third reason I think the fight sequence is essential is summed up nicely by Phil Hardy in his Science Fiction Overlook Film Encyclopedia. It’s “an effective political point about the underclass being too busy beating each other up to start a revolution.” The revolution here, to be clear, being a revolution against the Reagan revolution of the eighties. But if you look at the disparity in wealth between the haves and have-nots over the last few decades, it really doesn’t matter whether you have a Democrat or Republican in office, the gulf continues to grow. Not only that, but the number of new and unique ways in which we are being bombarded with ads that ask us to “consume” this or that have also skyrocketed.
To see the graph below, and then to read Carpenter’s comments from 20 years ago, is to understand that the central warnings within They Live didn’t disappear with the eighties but rather have become even more relevant today than ever before:
The last point made me laugh. My FB sidebar includes six or seven ads that target me geographically and by personal interests using key-word algorithms. My Gmail account does something similar (albeit more discretely). Product placements are ubiquitous (be they in movies, sporting events, video games, TV, etc.) I don’t even notice them anymore. Yet there they are. Everywhere. And that is one of the reasons why I think They Live is so important: the black-and-white scenes alone are a startling reminder of the world we live in and, like Roddy’s glasses themselves, offer a visual inoculation to the dangers of mindless consumption.
The fact is: the time is ripe for a remake by an astute social critic, one that would drop some of the clumsy buddy-film tropes, mullets, cheesy one-liners, and genre clichés toward the end that hamper the original. And while I’m engaged in such wishful thinking, let me add another suggestion: have the protagonists keep their glasses on most of the time – because those black-and-white scenes kick ass.
Speaking of the glasses that clearly reveal the money-grubbers around us to be soulless alien monsters; I have to share a story that Nile Southern (son of Strangelove scribe Terry Southern) told me was passed along to him by acclaimed title-designer Pablo Ferro:
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
Popular terms3-D Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Fan Edits Film Composers Film Criticism film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs Guest Programmers HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Leadership Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Magazines Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals New Releases Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Russian Film Industry Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Spaghetti Westerns Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller Swashbucklers TCM Classic Film Festival Tearjerkers Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood The Russians in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies