An abridged version of this post originally appeared on Chicagoist (06/26/13)
The ‘80s retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center is winding down — Dirty Dancing and Footloose are next week, followed by a couple of screenings of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff at the beginning of July —but cultists would have to agree that the highlight of the series came this week with back to back 35mm showings of John Carpenter’s They Live and Alex Cox’s seminal punk film, Repo Man.
The ‘80s is often written off as the decade where films of substance that questioned authority were crushed by glossy, high concept entertainments for the multiplex. Most of the selections in the Film Center’s series would seem to reinforce this idea. Two films with that magic Spielberg touch, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Back To The Future, while certainly being among the most entertaining films ever made, aren’t really going to be able to show future generations what life in the ‘80s was really like. Another essential ’80s gem, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, features a rich kid hero who’s idea of rebellion is skipping school and going to a Cub’s game. Presidential material, to be sure.
Which, of course, is fine. Those films are great —and at least one of them is on my list of all time favorites —but leave it to grubby, disreputable sci-fi genre fare to tell us anything even resembling the truth. They Live and Repo Man manage the difficult feat of being both wildly entertaining AND enduring snapshots of Reagan’s trickle(d) down America.
They Live (1988) is often called “prescient” by people who either have short memories or who simply weren’t around during the Reagan era. In fact, it’s hard to think of a movie more of it’s time and place (maybe Medium Cool in the ‘60s?). Carpenter’s classic satire concerns a homeless construction worker who stumbles across a pair of sunglasses that reveal the Republican ruling class to be aliens enslaving the human race with subliminal messages via the media. Sounds about right to me. Carpenter may be the finest no-bullshit genre stylist to come out of a film school, but he was also a ‘60s hippie radical who held onto leftist ideals and had no interest in Reagan’s new dawn of American greed. They Live’s political agenda remains highly influential (where do you think all those “OBEY” t-shirts came from?) and depressingly relevant (one of the characters, lamenting the government bailout of the steel industry, says “We gave the steel companies a break when they needed it. You know what they gave themselves? Raises.”) – but it’s also a dumb-fun ‘80s movie: it’s littered with classic one-liners (“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I am all out of bubblegum!”), a pro-wrestler in the lead role (WWF villain Rowdy Roddy Piper), and a five and a half minute fight scene that has to be seen to be believed.
Alex Cox is another California film school graduate with a rebellious outsider sensibility – but unlike the all-American Carpenter, Cox is a Brit who was able to see ‘80s America through the lens of a true geographic outsider. Repo Man (1984) was his first film and you could hardly hope for a better debut. Taking its cue from Kiss Me Deadly (as well as it’s apocalyptic Maguffin and backwards credits crawl), Repo Man combines a shadowy government conspiracy with L.A. lowlifes and fuses that with Cox’s endless reservoir of energy, wit, and inventiveness. Punks, aliens, secret agents, and, of course, repo men collide in a Los Angeles that feels a million miles away from the one featured in the mega-hit Beverly Hills Cop. Both films came out the same year – but the competing L.A.s might as well be on different fucking planets (most certainly what Cox intended). Sure, there’s mobility in this version of Reagan’s America, but it’s a mobility where there’s “room to move as a fry cook” or to get your head blown off carrying out the duties of a repo man in an urban dystopia. Repo Man’s politics aren’t as on the nose as They Live’s, but that’s only fitting for a genre movie that consistently avoids exacting genre classification. It’d be impossible to put this particular baby in a corner.
Repo Man plays tonight at the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 North State St.) at 6pm.
They Live plays at the same theater on Wedesday, June 26, also at 6pm.
Both are available on video (Repo Man was recently issued in an excellent edition by Criterion), but deserve to be seen on the big screen in the quickly vanishing 35mm format – especially John Carpenter’s masterful widescreen compositions for They Live (or any of his films for that matter).