Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Odd and Glorious Career of Patrick Swayze

When Patrick Swayze died a few months ago, the tributes were heartfelt but brief, unlike the endless attention that had been given earlier to Michael Jackson. That's wholly appropriate; Jackson's death was unexpected and shocking, and his career cast a longer shadow worldwide.

Still, I feel it would be rewarding for a closer look at Swayze, who had a truly interesting and unique career, a cobbled-together filmography of odd delights, cult hits and familiar favorites.

For someone who was a star at one point in his career, Swayze made very few films. What's amazing is how many of those films occupy unique corners in the history of film from the 1980s on. Who else would be able to claim that he starred in two huge romantic hits (Dirty Dancing, Ghost), two genuinely awesome cult action movies (Road House, Point Break), one of the most influential indies in recent years (Donnie Darko), one of the oddest curios of the 1980s (Red Dawn) and one of the strongest collections of future talent in modern film history (The Outsiders)?

I'd like to take a closer look at a few of those.

Red Dawn. There are movies that examine the Cold War with more insight and nuance, but no other film reveals the violent, half-crazy way that this country sometimes views itself than Red Dawn. It opens with the Russians invading a small town in Colorado for some reason. (It lacks a scene where a Russian commander, preferably wearing an enormous hat with a red star on the front, says "We must secure the gas-n-sip!") All the citizens are forced into internment camps except for the local high schoolers, who take off for the woods, acquire some guns and eventually fight to take the town back. As an action movie, Red Dawn is two hours of pure cheese, but as a guide to the paranoid leanings of American thought, it's priceless. Many arguments in American politics today can be traced back to the idea made explicit in the film: that we may have to move to the woods and re-fight the American revolution. To many Americans, that's not a fear; it's a fantasy.

Donnie Darko. Swayze has a small role in this puzzling, atmospheric flick by director Richard Kelly. I won't say too much about the part, but it was a smart and unexpected choice by Swayze, and an unnerving performance as well.

Point Break and Road House. Generally speaking, I enjoy action movies that are fun, rather than those that are grim, violent slogs from the opening titles to the end credits. I suspect Swayze did too, since he starred in these two films, both of which are a blast. In the former he's a shaggy-maned surfer-turned-bank robber; in the latter he is a bouncer with a degree in philosophy. The important thing to note is that while both films tried to thrill audiences, neither took itself too seriously. Point Break offers lots of oddball moments, such as the split-second moment during a foot chase when the man being chased picks up a dog and throws it at his pursuer. And I've watched Road House probably six or seven times, and I still can't figure out if it's a straight action movie or a subversive comedy in disguise. (The moment when Ben Gazzara's crime boss boasts, "JC Penney is coming here because of me!" may be a giveaway, though.)

Dirty Dancing. You may not believe this, but there was a time when two movie characters could fall in love without one of them being a vampire. One of the most memorable examples of this trend was Dirty Dancing. Virtually every woman who has seen Dirty Dancing loves it, and will giggle and blush if you inject the phrase "Nobody puts baby in the corner!" into your everyday conversation. In terms of its stature as a romance, it may be the Titanic of its day, the romantic template that women always have in their minds. As a guy, I'm tempted to make fun of Dirty Dancing, but I can't. Unlike many films today, it is uncluttered with contrivances and utterly free of irony. It's completely sincere.

Judging from his roles, that's what I suspect Patrick Swayze was like, too.