The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Catch Some 80s Sub-Version At The Siskel

By Staff in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 26, 2013 6:15PM

Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live
The 80s retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center is winding down—Dirty Dancing and Footloose are next week, followed by a couple 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 last Saturday with back to back 35mm showings of John Carpenter's They Live and Alex Cox's seminal punk film, Repo Man.

The 80s are 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 necessarily 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 Cubs 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 an enduring snapshot of Reagan's trickle(d) down America.

They Live 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 his 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. It's a genre movie, sure—but the goofiest kind of genre movie. One that refuses to be be put in a corner…………kind of like Baby.

While it's not paired with Repo Man again, They Live screens tonight at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N State, at 6 p.m.

They Live is also available on video—as is Repo Man, which was recently issued in an excellent edition by Criterion—but John Carpenter's masterful widescreen compositions deserve to be seen on the big screen in the quickly vanishing 35mm format.

By: Scott Lucas