It's Friday morning in August a few days after massive flooding crippled the subways, and the shame of New York's transportation system is on display at the NY Times for all to see (compared to other cities' in-car screens and email downloads, the MTA provides its station masters with boards and lots of dry erase markers. I'm not kidding). But that's not what I'm thinking about this morning.
I'm thinking about Road House.
We all have to turn away from the deeply depressing world for a little while. Sometimes it's an hour with the befuddled but fierce contestants of America's Next Top Model, on whom the demands of dignity and grammar sit so lightly. But after a few rounds of bad TV, there comes a time when you have to jump head first into the breech. Which I'm pretty sure is how I came to watching a double-billing of Zardoz and Patrick Swayze's 1989 honky-tonk splatterfest last week.
First, a note on Zardoz. I hadn't heard of this 1974 sci-fi epic until my friends in the band the iOs played the trailer for me: Maybe it's unsporting to mock the special effects of thirty years ago, but I figure all the principals in this film can console themselves with endless evenings of fugu and money fights. Impressively incomprehensible, Zardoz features Sean Connery in dyed ponytail and red linen loincloth, as well as a stone head that flies and vomits machine guns, and a race of future people who kill by waving their fingers and murmuring... something. Connery plays a sort of Heston-in-Planet-of-the-Apes-type role, sometimes mute and sometimes perfectly verbal, sometimes doing his own stunts very ineptly. If ever a man deserved to be immortalized on my screensaver trotting obediently before a rickshaw in a red diaper, it is Sean "sometimes a woman wants a smack" Connery. I promise a shiny new donkey for whoever can make that happen.
One's first stupid movie night comes upon one in various ways, but at some point almost all of us who first saw MST3K in college have realized it's more fun to participate in a bad film than to turn it off. For me this moment first arrived alongside the gradual realization that Pushing Tin was not a satire. When Billy Bob Thornton showed up to work bearing an eagle feather behind one ear in this Top Gun for air traffic controllers, or caught a salmon in his bare hands and chucked it right back into the river, grunting, "I know I caught him, and he knows I caught him," I was aghast but he was dead serious.
Or maybe it was a chance TV repeat of Cocktail, featuring Tom Cruise mixing his way to immortality, a clear precursor to his current incarnation as a desperate, grinning man just barely restraining himself from hoarding Katie Holmes' ovaries all for himself and L. Ron Hubbard.
But then Hollywood provides so many opportunities for levity, so few of them intentional. Very few of them as unintentionally hilarious as Road House. I know you recall this career-ender for Patrick Swayze, but just remind yourself for a moment: Swayze is Dalton, a famous bouncer who drives a Mercedes and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from NYU, presumably where he learned truisms like "Pain don't hurt." An over-tanned Kelly Lynch, sporting gleaming blonde wings on either side of her face like a kestrel, is a doctor with a taste for rough trade. Sam Elliott (he'll always be Gar to me) makes a jerkied appearance as Dalton's mentor and Kelly Lynch's creepiest dance partner ever. Jeff Healey plays a guitar player caged in chicken wire. Ben Gazzara, who must have had one hell of a mortgage payment due, plays the horse in a one-horse town. Along the way they all deal with their own existential dilemmas: Dalton must learn to let his rage roam free. Kelly Lynch must weigh her lover's pros and cons — sure, he tears out men's throats now and again, and I guess they don't teach foreplay in grad school, but his winged hair is as mighty as hers. Sam Elliott dances, fights, and dies. Ben Gazzara comes to wish he had more friends and fewer lackeys. It's a tough road for all involved.
I can't tell you that your life or intellect will be better served by watching Road House than Citizen Kane. Road House will almost certainly rob you of more than a few IQ points. But the world sometimes seems to be grinding slowly to a halt, my friends, and it can't hurt to give yourselves a few hours of fun.
OK, so this was not the most intellectual of notes on which to end the week, but it has been enjoyable. Thanks to Powell's for letting me post, and to Patrick Swayze for all the memories.
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Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels But Not for Long and You're Not You and editor of the anthology Food and Booze. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Best New American Voices, Best Food Writing, and various anthologies and journals. A senior editor at Tin House Magazine, she lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Books mentioned in this post
Michelle Wildgen is the author of But Not for Long