A tribute to wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the star of one of Matthew Rozsa’s favorite movies, John Carpenter’s “They Live.”
There is a YouTube video that pretty much any fan of ’80s action or science fiction movies ought to see. Edited together from clips of a TNT MonsterVision presentation of John Carpenter’s “They Live,” it contains footage of show host Joe Bob Briggs interviewing the film’s star, wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, who sadly passed away yesterday.
The video itself is highly enjoyable – Briggs’ cinephile/yokel persona meshes well with Piper, who comes across as a genuinely nice and personable guy – but there is one moment in particular I would like to study. It comes at the 22:22 mark, when Briggs asks Piper a tongue-in-cheek question about what the aliens in the film did that was so evil “besides telling the Earthlings to obey, sleep, and buy frappucinos at Starbucks.” Piper’s reply:
Piper: “Actually the whole movie, the subtext for Carpenter was Reaganomics. And if you notice, all the aliens are wearing Rolexes [Piper self-consciously removes his own watch] and they’re all driving BMWs and they’re all driving foreign cars and so…”
Briggs: “All of the success symbols of the Reagan era.”
Piper: “Exactly. So Carpenter at the end of the movie – you know, I’m here on a green card, I’m not allowed to vote, I’ve been in this country for years – and I didn’t know anything about Reaganomics and didn’t really want to. And he wanted me to go out and tour and talk about Reaganomics and what it’s doing to the country, and I kinda liked Mr. Reagan, you know? He seems like an okay guy, a cowboy… What did he say? He ‘done tore down that wall, Brezhnekov [actually Gorbachev] or whatever.’ And so that’s where we had a little bit of a rub, is that I wasn’t in it for political gain, I was in it to try to advance my career.”
I bring up this exchange for two reasons:
1. It teaches that you shouldn’t make assumptions about why people chose to create the various works of art that become personally important to you.
While I’d been a liberal Democrat for years before I’d seen “They Live,” it was the first mainstream Hollywood film I ever saw (outside of the political thriller or drama genres) that was willing to attack laissez-faire capitalism in a very open, unapologetic way. Although there are plenty of science fiction, horror, and action movies that contain latent left-wing themes if you scratch around for them (I even wrote an article for Mic on the subject), few were as upfront about their message – or as willing to point fingers at specific culprits – as “They Live.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the plot, it’s actually pretty simple: Piper plays a homeless drifter who stumbles upon a pair of sunglasses which reveal that the wealthy elite controlling the world economy are actually sinister aliens. The catch is that, instead of desiring to conquer the world with giant lasers or slimy monsters, they do so by exploiting the earth economically and reducing our planet to the status of a Third World country. Their method is to avoid detection by concealing themselves as humans, bribing as many people as necessary to play along, and sending subliminal messages that encourage us to follow orders and act like mindless consumers.
In short, not a very subtle message, which caused me to react with understandable surprise when Piper made it clear that he not only didn’t agree with it, but didn’t seem to care much for politics one way or the other. This brings me to my second point…
2. You can learn a great deal by understanding an artist’s motivations on their own terms.
First, let me get one thing out of the way: I can already anticipate some of my readers chuckling at the idea that Roddy Piper was an artist. To those individuals, I would simply point out that he was a prolific actor whose work, though never astonishing, was always professional and believable. That takes skill, at the very least, and since acting is in general an art, I think it’s only fair to use that designation for anyone who practices the craft well.
Anyway, despite Piper’s disclaimer that he only starred in “They Live” to advance his career, it’s pretty clear that he actually enjoyed working on the movie and took pride in his performance. His answer to Briggs’ political question may have come across as a tad diffident, but Piper lights up as he discusses working on the movie’s legendary fight scene between himself and Keith David (the longest ever in a Hollywood movie at that time, clocking in at over seven uninterrupted minutes) or the origin of the movie’s famous line, “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum” (Piper apparently improvised it at the last second). Whereas I saw an intriguing satire on ’80s materialism and conservative economic policy, Piper saw a badass action movie being made by a director at the top of his game.
And the thing of it is, Piper wasn’t wrong. “They Live” IS a fantastic action movie, regardless of its sociopolitical content, and can be enjoyed just as thoroughly on those terms alone as it can by those more interested in a deeper interpretation.
What intrigues me the most about the reaction to Piper’s death is just how little attention is being paid to his contribution to “They Live.” Most people are familiar with him as a professional wrestler (not a fan myself) or from his work on various action films that wound up being much more successful (“They Live” was a box office bomb at the time it was released). I suppose this is to be expected, but since I never met Piper, my main personal reaction to news of his death is inevitably drawn from the pop culture contribution he made that actually had an impact on my life. For me, it was “They Live,” and it’s pretty gratifying to know that – even as the entertainment world mourns his untimely passing – researching Piper’s own view on the film could prove to be an educational experience for me, in a way that I didn’t expect.