Yesterday former professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper died. As you may know from reading Expat Claptrap, Roddy was also an actor, appearing in one of my favourite films of all time, the 1988 cult classic “They Live.” I wrote a rather mentally-scattered blog post about the film just a couple of weeks ago- a rant about posters and conformity that didn’t quite come together the way I would have liked.
As a child I have vivid memories of watching Mr Piper wrestle. My brothers and I would sit around the television, re-enacting the brutality of Piper and other wrestlers of the 1980s: Bob Backlund, Big John Studd, Sergeant Slaughter and Andre the Giant. We would observe moves such as sleeper-holds and suplexes and then practice them out on each other. Wrestlers were superstars, known to every child in the country. At school we’d share stories about the weekend’s matches, as if we were recounting ancient mythological battles. We all wanted wrestling-style nicknames. Please, oh please, someone call me “Superfly” or “The Hitman!”
The appeal of wrestling may be hard for someone to understand who wasn’t raised in the states. Over-muscled caricatures with silly nicknames standing around shouting and smashing chairs over each others’ heads. It was mindless spectacle. It was violent.
And worst of all, it was fake
Everyone knew that this wasn’t a “real” sport- that the outcome of every match had been determined in advance, and that the “wrestlers” were in fact really actors who mimed out an imitation of a real contest in front a blood-thirsty crowd.
So why did it matter so much? Why does it continue to matter still, to so many Americans? And what was so special about Mr Piper, especially since he often played the role of a villain throughout his career?
Roddy was notably small for a wrestler. He didn’t have bulging muscles or a truly imposing physique; he had to work harder, and play up other aspects of his personality to get noticed. For a while, he sported a kilt and entered each match to the sound of bagpipes. A Canadian man engaging in an American sport, pretending to be Scottish. Anything to draw your attention.
Roddy did stand out though, once you noticed him. There was an intelligence to him that you wouldn’t sense in most wrestlers. Others would make a lot of noise in their attempts to be more menacing. Piper was certainly loud, but there was something else too- you always had the sense that his anger was real. I’m not suggesting that his various beefs with Hulk Hogan and Captain Lou Albano, etc… were born of real enmity. Just that Roddy didn’t seem to be just playing a role. Without a huge physical presence, he had to project menace in a different way and he did it with his eyes just as much as his muscles. You’d watch him and you’d feel like he was throwing down challenges not just at the other wrestlers, but at you personally.
And that’s why we watched wrestling. Not to see athletes exhibit great feats of strength or agility. Not for the suspense of discovering who would perform better in a match between two equal opponents. But because we enjoy having our buttons pushed.
Outrage is the most American of emotions.
I’m not saying that other people in other countries don’t get outraged. Of course they do. But Americans watch wrestling the way some people watch horror films- to elicit an otherwise unpleasant emotion in a safe environment. We’re used to seeing violence on television and it’s just not enough for us. Wrestling floods our adrenaline in a different way.
It’s not enough for a wrestler to be enormous. It’s not enough for them to be a villain, snarling menacingly at the cameras. In order to get our red, white and blue blood going, we need our wrestlers to really provoke us.
Put a concealed weapon in a wrestler’s hand and have him hide it behind his back and we’ll start to be interested. Give them a personality guaranteed to offend our sensibilities and we’ll be intrigued. Call him “the Iron Shiek” to play up any anti-middle eastern feelings. Make him “a pretty boy,” more concerned with brushing his hair than fighting his opponent, and some of us will start to feel inclined to vicariously dish out a good ‘ole somewhat homophobic walloping.
I don’t think I’m clever enough to know whether wrestling is a release valve for Americans already prone to violence, or if being brought up on a steady diet of Wrestle-mania is part of the cause for our violence plagued society. But I can clearly see when someone is really really good at pushing buttons and provoking outrage. Roddy Piper was the best. And I think John Carpenter saw that aspect to Roddy when he cast him in They Live.
I have come here to chew bubblegum and praise Roddy Piper
Why Roddy? Why would one of America’s most prominent and successful genre directors cast an acting neophyte in a film about an alien invasion. Was it just a gimmick to capitalise on wrestling’s popularity? Maybe… but it was also an act of genius.
They Live, on the surface, has a ridiculous premise. Aliens infiltrate America, keeping their appearances hidden through technology. When Roddy Piper’s character discovers that a pair of enhanced sunglasses can reveal the aliens, he embarks on a shooting spree to reclaim his country. Pretty dumb right?
But taking this film at face value would be missing the point entirely. The aliens use brainwashing and subliminal messages to keep the masses pliable and compliant. Their plot, their methods, and even their appearance must remain hidden for it to work. It’s only when you’re aware of what’s going on around you that you can do anything about it. Everyone in the film is a passive victim, without even realising it- everyone but one man. And brilliantly, John Carpenter cast in that role, the angriest person he could find- Rowdy Roddy Piper.
The film’s whole premise is about how difficult it is to rouse people out of their complacency. In one scene, Roddy punches, bites, kicks and head-butts his only friend for eight agonisingly drawn-out minutes, in an attempt to force him to try out the special sunglasses. Who better than the most authentic provocateur, from the most fake of sports, to batter you unwillingly into seeing the world as it really is?
Wrestling probably comes across sometimes as a spectacle full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But sometimes we need a little sound, and especially a little fury. Thank you Roddy for making us so furious.