Thursday, December 22, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 22, Ander Monson on the Pleasures of a Book all about Road House

Pain Might Actually Hurt?:
on Sean T. Collins's Pain Don't Hurt

Ander Monson


1. On the spectrum of bad ideas for books, watching the Patrick Swayze movie Road House repeatedly and writing an essay a day about it for a whole year, 365 days straight, has to rank pretty high. My friend Sean (not T. Collins) once went to his parents’ cabin when they weren’t there, he told me, and took one of every pill he found just to see what would happen. That was not a good idea, but it's one with a relatively limited half-life, unless they were into some really weird shit. I remember he said he just got bad diarrhea, which is about as positive as an outcome as one could imagine. But an essay a day—for a year—about Road House is a lot.

2. To be fair I recently watched another movie 146 times and wrote a book about it, so I know what I’m talking about when I tell you this isn’t a great idea. I did write about Predator every day for a year, but I didn’t write an essay a day. I suppose, in retrospect, I could have.

3. I also haven’t, to tell the truth, yet finished the Road House book, which is Pain Don’t Hurt by Sean T. Collins: As of this writing I’m only on essay 121. It’s not a book you can just blow through, unlike Road House the movie which is very easy to blow through, though I have watched it, as of right now, in the middle of this sentence where I am meeting you, exactly once. I’m not quite sure how I missed it, having watched pretty much every other action movie of the 80s a lot, often on repeat. But I realized while writing Predator that of all the 80s action movies I’d never actually seen Road House, and neither had my wife. So we watched it last year.

4. It's a lot! It makes so many kinds of sense that it makes none. Road House is not a consistent piece of art except in its inconsistency. It’s a light, weird action movie that coasts along on a truly bizarre premise and the irresistible hotness of Patrick Swayze but by the end turns for no real reason into a brutal murderfest. The tone of the movie veers wildly and unexpectedly from wacky sexy zen to dark af for no reason I could discern. Little of the plot makes any sense, starting with its initial premise in which there is a world where you might hope to attract and pay nationally-known celebrity bouncers six figures (in 1980s money!) to clean up your shitty local bar. Things devolve from there. Few of the movie’s lines of dialogue hold together when you look at them for more than a few seconds (which Collins directs our attention to many times, for instance the classic line "Does a hobbyhorse have a wooden dick?," uttered in the mode of a question like "Is the Pope Catholic," yet the answer, very obviously, is no; stuff like this happens a lot in the movie). If you would like a smart writer riffing on—not just bagging on—a kind of dumb movie, then you'll like this book a lot.

5. What drives any of us to our subjects? I watched it, thought it fun and forgettable, and filed it away. For Sean T. Collins, however, it became an animating force. A whetstone for the mind. An idea that was so crazy it just might work.

6. It does work. It works great. 

7. So you actually don’t have to buy Pain Don’t Hurt to read the essays, but you should if you can find a copy. It goes in and out of print, I guess, maybe because all 365 essays are available on his website under the tag ROADHOUSE. The blog versions have one major advantage, which is that they include screenshots from the movie to illustrate his points. This is useful if you haven’t seen the movie at all, or, like me only once, or can’t call to mind all the minor and often throwaway characters in the film, nearly every one of whom gets a deep treatment, or just don’t want to rewatch the movie to refresh yourself of all of its nuances.

8. The primary disadvantage of reading them onscreen is that the project really is a book; it reads better that way, as something you can hold in your lap and that has all the authority of bookness to it and all of the weird uneven sexiness of Road House. This is a source of great friction between the authority of the artifact and the dumb idea and subject matter of the book.

9.There are a lot of good introductions to Road House and why anyone might care about Road House in this book, but my favorite so far is in 107, “Dalton’s Back,” a tight little essay about just that, the spectacle of Dalton’s sexy back:

Road House, when appreciated properly, is less a film than an ecosystem: hyper-efficient, factory made late-‘80s star vehicle; barely competent, incoherent MST3K fodder; rock-solid action flick; obvious, excessive homoerotica; smarter than it looks; dumber than it realizes; a Ben Gazzara film; a Terry Funk film. When you watch Dalton’s flawless, godlike arms, traps and shoulder blades flex and contract in harmony, you’re watching the character and the movie in metonymy. You’re watching a real physical thing—Patrick Swayze’s beautiful, beautiful body—do what Patrick Swayze’s character and Patrick Swayze’s movie are also doing. As below, so above.

10. The movement here is obviously the real show. And like many iterative projects over a sustained period of time, the life of the writer often sweeps into the project in big and obvious ways, as it does in 53, “Why We Fight,” which is also another great introduction to ways of experiencing Road House:

'This has been, without question, one of the worst weeks of my life, but one man offers succor.’” / I tweeted this as I sat down to write today’s Road House essay. I knew exactly what I was going to write about: I knew the scene, knew the moment, knew the angle, knew how to flesh it out. It’s one of the ideas that made me want to start this whole project in the first place. It wasn’t until I began writing that I realized the thing I posted on Twitter before writing today’s Road House essay is today’s Road House essay. / I’m not going to talk about the week I’ve had, or why it’s been so bad, bad enough that as I type this I am home along with my stepson instead of out with my partner and our friends because we were supposed to go to an all-sad-songs karaoke party together and I am too sad for Sad Song Karaoke. It’s not really my story to tell anyway. I’ll tell you what is, though: Road House.

11. This is the value of writing about Road House in this way. It becomes your subject. It becomes your only subject, and the subject you will always have, whatever else happens. You will always have your bad idea, your self, and your Road House.

12. Have I ever been to an actual road house? I’m not sure. None come to mind. I’ve been to plenty of dive bars, and a lot of non-dive-bars and some not-quite-dive bars, many of which are in houses that have been located on roads, and I’ve been to some chain restaurants with music where you’re supposed to throw the peanut shells on the floor in a performance of, maybe, road housery, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to anything you could actually call an outright road house. I mean, I understand a road house is a tavern, inn, or club on a country road in its initial incarnation, like the Inn of the Last Home (shout out to Otik’s Spiced Potatoes), and I feel certain that at least one of Collins’ essays needs to address what makes a road house a road house, but I haven’t read it yet. I would be surprised if I have thought of a question about the movie that he has not (yet).

a. Is it the possibility of witnessing a bar brawl that makes a road house a road house?

b. Does a road house require live music, ideally the Jeff Healey Band?

c. I feel like a road house must at least have beer and a pool table and definitely not call it a billiards table.

d. I’m not even sure if it has to be on a road. A snowmobile trail seems like it’d be fine. Preferable, even.

e. Is the primary feature of a road house that it’s for travelers, not regulars? In this sense is Applebee’s a road house? Can Applebee’s be a road house? I’ve definitely been closer to witnessing or possibly instigating an actual bar brawl at Applebee’s than anywhere else.

f. the only actual Road House in Tucson is a brew-and-view movie theater. I wonder if they ever show Road House? Perhaps they will when the remake (!!) comes out in 2023, and if they do I will endeavor to see it there.

13. The reason I love bad idea essays is not because they seem dumb or bad but that they’re hard. Anyone can write a good idea essay. But only a real pro—or a real fool, and it’s hard to tell which you are when you start one, which is the entirety of the stakes of the bad idea essay—can write a bad idea to its exhaustion/completion. Only after exhausting yourself will you see if it was worth it.

14. Let me say it is always worth it, even if the results don't please you or aren't easy to publish. It's the process that matters.

15. 365 essays about Road House is an idiotic thing, and its idiocy is part of its appeal. I am often moved by iterative projects (like the kind Lawrence Lenhart made a promise to embark on in his Dec 20th advent essay), because in repeating an action every day or every week or every year you make time a subject.

16. Time is always a subject, as well as a tool, but in an iterative essay, time becomes unavoidably a primary subject. How long can Christa Wolf sustain her One Day a Year project (until she died!)? How many comment cards can Joe Wenderoth write and send to Wendy’s? How many nachos of Indiana can Sean Lovelace eat and write about? How many phone calls can Lenhart make and document by the end of the year, and will he survive it? How many letters can Nicole Walker write to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey? (The linked one, Dec 2, 2022, was the last one, if just because Ducey is finally leaving office. Respect to her!) 

17. An aside: Have you thought about just how good a deal books of essays and short stories are? I just bought the new Jack Driscoll collection 20 Stories for less than twenty bucks. That’s me getting 20 stories for a dollar each! I get to keep them forever, too.

18. Twenty dollars seems to me like a lot for a novel, however. You only get one novel for that money. You could have got 20 essays. Or, shit, 50 poems!

19. I mean that a good poem or story or essay stays with me more than a good novel does. I know I'm in the minority but that's how I'm built. Maybe I’m just a shitty reader. I’ve been told that before.

20. I am reminded of the time when we were kids that my brother and I each got $50 for Christmas to spend as we liked. Ben took his $50 as one bill. I wanted 50 ones, which I got. 50 felt more substantial than one, even if it was worth the same amount of money. Then we went to Marquette to spend them at American, seemingly the only good store in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I still think 50 one dollar bills feels better than one 50 dollar bill, especially if you're a kid. But then my brother's an investment banker who lives in a giant house and I write advent essays for free on this website. Maybe there's a lesson in that.

21. The reason I love iterative projects is that the plot is inevitably the movement of the mind (or the life or the body) through time. Every piece is a technical problem: oh shit, what am I going to do today?  And the technical problem just gets harder as it goes deeper: How can I not bore myself on essay 241? (I'll have to let you know when I get there, but I feel like Collins is going to be able to solve this problem just fine.)

22. So when I read, say, essay 46, “The Agreement, Part Five: Tableau II” (he returns to many of the core ideas and scenes multiple times from multiple angles), I’m entertained and not a little amazed that we’re talking about the weird, short scene where a bar patron (Sharing Husband) offers to let another bar patron (Gawker/Groper) fondle his wife’s (Well-Endowed Wife's) breasts for $20. And then the guy doesn't even have the money! Even more entertainingly, this is the fifth (of seven I’ve so far encountered) essay on this weird throwaway moment in this weird, possibly throwaway film, and each manages to improbably get at some new aspect of the scene.

23. Possibly if this scene made any real narrative sense in the context of the film or sense at all really it might be less permeable to the mind of the essayist, and because Road House has so many inexplicable scenes like this Road House becomes an ideal cipher.

24. What I really like about essay 46 in particular is how it dead-ends into a set of references that I’ve never really seen anyone make before, and certainly not in this configuration and all at once. I’ll quote the end of the piece to show you:

But for now let’s look at this miserable bastard, transformed by the spectacle of the tripartite Agreement between Sharing Husband, Well-Endowed Wife, and Gawker/Groper from a belligerent cut-up to fucking Saul on the road to Damascus, transfixed by the sight, blinded by the light, revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night, just completely poleaxed by watching one idiot feel up another idiot’s wife. / You don’t see that. You might still see it [I did initially mistype it as tit, amusingly, and felt that was meaningful enough to note —Ander] in the desert—shout out to the Orb—but you don’t see it at Duggan’s, and you don’t see it where Dalton works. Beautiful in its idiocy, the world Tilghman is building has no room for it. The Elves sail West and the Gawker and Heckler and Sharing Husband and Well-Endowed Wife disappear and so help me God the bar as I sit here writing this the bar is playing “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by Dropkick Murphys and where is Dalton and Thomas Nast when you need them.”

See what I mean? I laughed hard at the Orb reference, cued as I was already by the Blinded by the Light ref, and that they’re exactly 25 years apart adds to the trick, and then when the (Tolkien) Elves show up I’m really here for it, and I just heard that Dropkick Murphys song for the first time only last year, and it’s a hell of a song with its own full commitment to its own bit. I mean that I see the stars in the sky and I can see him connecting them as he goes, and I’m here for the resulting constellation. 

25. Any iterative project—any restrictive form like this one is—breaks down at some point in its exercise over time. The pressure of the external form on the huge ever growing pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the ultraworld and the pressure of that brain’s growing internal energy out against the artificial walls of the form: this is a thrilling plot and one I am always here for. I'm really really looking forward to the next couple hundred essays on Road House and to its inevitable breakdown: I hope it's a good one. And I hope I've also got you interested enough by the end of this essay to give these weirdo Road House essays some time. (I'm still not 100% sure if the movie is worth your time or not, but Collins is starting to sway me to yes.)


Ander Monson is one of the editors of Essay Daily and the author of Predator: a Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession (Graywolf, 2022), a book not (so far) on any of the year's Best Of lists which he is pretty sure is either an oversight or a category error.

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