WEEKEND CLASSICS: THEY LIVE (John Carpenter, 1988)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
March 17-19, 11:00 am
Series continues weekends through April 2
How can you possibly not love a movie in which wrestling legend Rowdy Roddy Piper, brandishing a shotgun and standing next to an American flag, declares, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass . . . and I’m all out of bubblegum.” IFC Center’s Trump-inspired “Autocratic for the People: An Unpresidented Series of Star-Spangled Satires” continues March 17-19 with John Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek Reagan-era cult favorite, They Live. In the goofy 1988 political sci-fi thriller, Piper, who passed away in 2015 at the age of sixty-one, stars as John Nada, a drifter who arrives in L.A. and gets a job working construction, where he is befriended by Frank Armitage (Keith David), who is otherwise trying to keep to himself and away from trouble as he makes money to send back to his family. Frank invites John to stay at a tent city for homeless people, across the street from a church where John soon finds some disturbing things happening involving a blind preacher (Raymond St. Jacques), a well-groomed man named Gilbert (Peter Jason), and a bearded weirdo (John Lawrence) taking over television broadcasts and making dire predictions about the future. John then discovers that by using a pair of special sunglasses, he can see, in black-and-white, what is really going on beneath the surface: Alien life-forms disguised as humans have infiltrated Los Angeles, gaining positions of power and placing subliminal messages in signs and billboards, spreading such words and phrases as Obey, Consume, Submit, Conform, Buy, Stay Asleep, and No Independent Thought. John seeks help from Frank and cable channel employee Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), determined to reveal the hidden conspiracy and save the planet.
Loosely based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story and 1986 comic-book adaptation “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” They Live is a fun, if seriously flawed, film that takes on Reaganomics, consumerism, the media, and capitalism and doesn’t much care about its huge, gaping plot holes. Carpenter, an iconoclastic independent auteur who had previously made such other paranoid thrillers as Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape from New York, and a remake of The Thing, wrote They Live under the pseudonym Frank Armitage (the name of David’s character as well as a reference to H. P. Lovecraft’s Henry Armitage from “The Dunwich Horror”) and composed the ultracool synth score with Alan Howarth. The movie is famous not only for Piper’s not exactly brilliant performance but for one of the longest fight scenes ever, as John and Frank go at each other for five and a half nearly interminable minutes, as well as the influence They Live had on activist artist Shepard Fairey, who admitted in 2003 that it “was a major source of inspiration and the basis for my use of the word ‘obey.’” The film is all over the place, a jumble of political commentary and B-movie nonsense, but it’s also eerily prescient, especially with what is going on in America today. Keep a watch out for such recognizable character actors as Sy Richardson, George Buck Flower, Susan Blanchard, Norman Alden, Lucille Meredith, and Robert Grasmere, whose names you don’t know but whose faces are oh-so-familiar. They Live is screening in a DCP projection March 17-19 at 11:00 am at IFC; the Weekend Classics series continues through April 2 with Andrew Fleming’s Dick and Trey Parker’s South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.