Viking Night: They Live
By Bruce Hall
August 4, 2015
In honor of the recently departed Roddy Piper, I felt it fitting to devote this week’s column to his smack talking, be-kilted memory. I think it’s warranted; professional wrestling is as much a part of mainstream American culture as it’s probably ever going to be. Guys like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dave Bautista have been firmly embedded in our collective pop culture zeitgeist for at least a generation. But all of this has happened before. I grew up in the part of the country (let’s call it “The South”) where professional wrestling as we know it today was more or less invented. So I was down with Hulk Hogan (at least until last week), Andre the Giant, and definitely their arch nemesis, Roddy Piper.
And I’m not just saying that because he’s dead now. I really liked “Rowdy” Roddy, because he talked the same amount of smack whether he won or lost - and he never, ever stopped talking smack. He’s the one who gets dramatically whacked at the top of Act III in every Scorsese movie, when the Feds are closing in and the guy with the big mouth has become a liability. But it was the very fact that he seemed only dimly aware of the difference between courage and suicide is precisely what made him so entertaining. That he also successfully rocked a kilt in public only doubled the awesomeness.
In a business that made its bacon from larger-than-life personalities, the guy stood out.
This is probably why John Carpenter picked him for the lead role in “They Live”, 1998’s tongue-in-cheek satire about the vanishing line between culture and pop consumerism. And in case you’re starting out fuzzy on that, the first ten minutes pretty much hammer it home. A down-on-his-luck construction worker named Nada (Piper), lands in Los Angeles with nothing but the blank expression of a professional wrestler turned actor, and whatever else he can carry on his back. He finds no kindness in the City of Angels, because nobody there appreciates good honest work, or good honest workers. So Nada wanders, and as he does, he rubs elbows with an apocalyptic street preacher who, if you listen, lays down the theme of the story for you.
Then, as if to further prove the point, Nada notices something peculiar about the city. All around, there’s a stark dichotomy between classes, with vagrants camped outside the open windows of comfortable middle class apartments. Inside, fat/happy consumers drool away in front of the television, soaking up cathode rays like sunlight. Nada watches this with the semi-amused detachment of a guy who’s already up above it. Carpenter lays it on a little thick here, doing backflips to remind us that we’re a society living under the thumb of greedy, conniving Overlords. Obviously, what humanity needs is a savior; someone to open our eyes. Lucky for us, as the hero of this story, Nada is not down with being a media hero.