The Swayze Question
Patrick Swayze died on September 14, 2009 of pancreatic cancer. He was 57 years old and left behind a body of film work almost as impressive as it was confounding. Impressive because he starred in solid dramas like the Outsiders and Donnie Darko. He played bouncers and truckers and cross dressers and ghosts and in an industry famous for career flame-outs and come-backs, he never seemed to be out of work. Confounding because for every decent film there seemed to be ten low budget action movies with premises as thin and flouncy as Swayze’s trademark 80s mullet — stupid shoot-em-ups and tearjerkers and movies that would sound like jokes if we didn’t all know that they really happened: zen surfer bank robber thrillers, famous bouncer bare-knuckled dramas, high school anti-communist guerrilla flicks.
Since it’s founding in 2004, Barrelhouse has ended every interview with the same question: what is your favorite Patrick Swayze movie? We’ve asked The Swayze Question, quite literally, to anybody who would talk to us, everyone from Emmylou Harris to Ian MacKaye to Malcolm Gladwell to the Hold Steady.
Why The Swayze Question? Part of this whole Barrelhouse enterprise, as evidenced in our tagline, is the celebration of low culture along with more traditional “art.” And there are no movies that embody the greatest aspects of “low” culture better than Swayze movies. Road House and Point Break may be preposterous, but they are so unabashed and inventive in their preposterousness, so goddam comfortable in their own preening, goofy-ass, impossible skin, that some of us quite literally had no choice but to fall in love with them.
And alongside those ridiculous, accidentally hilarious movies, there was Dirty Dancing and Donnie Darko, Ghost and the Outsiders. People love these movies.
Confounding. Fascinating. Kind of awesome.
What’s your favorite Patrick Swayze movie? Is it a low-budget trucking action thriller? A big budget romantic escape with class warfare undertones? An indie drama about a disturbed kid who sees visions of a giant bunny rabbit? The one where he’s a doctor in India, who is kind of bathed in white light the entire time? The one where he’s a high school jock fighting the communists? See, that’s the thing about the Swayze Question: whatever your answer, it reveals a lot more about you than it does about Patrick Swayze.
Thanks, Patrick Swayze. Thanks for all the hungover Sundays with Road House and Point Break. Thanks for Red Dawn and Youngblood and for brilliantly sending up your macho straight arrow image in Donnie Darko. Thanks for that look you’d get all the time in the worst of your movies, where you’d kind of cock your head like a dog hearing a strange noise, and you’d stare up at the sky as if awaiting either instructions from God or a whispered line from an assistant producer. What were you looking at up there, Patrick Swazyze? Could you see something we couldn’t? Now we’ll never know. You passed before Barrelhouse had a chance to ask about your own favorite Patrick Swayze movie.
So we’ll say goodbye in the only way we can – we’ll let other people who are smarter and funnier and hold stronger opinions than us do all the talking. We are, after all, editors, right? So here goes: below are all the collected answers to The Swayze Question. This includes the results of Barrelhouse interviews with honest to goodness celebrities, and responses from some of our favorite contributors and literary buddies. We hope you’ll celebrate the brilliant and bizarre career of Patrick Swayze by posting your own thoughts in the comments section.
Rest in peace, Patrick Swayze. Wolverines!
What’s your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?
Well, my favorite Patrick Swayze movie is Road House. Everyone may already know this because I've written about it once, but Road House is sort of an amazing film because, if you discount the science fiction genre, it is the least plausible movie ever made. Because you go through every scene, and every twist to the plot, every single one of them is completely impossible. It just starts with this impossible premise that there’s a nationally famous bouncer that people seek out, that somebody could have a reputation for being a great bar bouncer. And that he would go to NYU and major in philosophy. I remember there's a monster truck involved at one point. It’s crazy that one guy would run a town in this despotic way. And the bar that it’s set in, it’s the bar that's got a live band, all these great looking women, but sporadically throughout the night people are having chairs broken over their heads and getting hit by bottles. There's no way this place would stay in existence, and even if it did, hot people wouldn't go there. To a bar where people consistently got thrown through plate glass windows? I find that I like to watch Road House just because it’s set in an alternative reality. A place in which I would like to live.
BH: In which Kelly Lynch is a doctor.
CK: And also, why would a town that size – it's a town of like 1,200 people, right-- I mean, there's not even an apartment complex, he's got to live in a barn, but they have a huge hospital? Where ER doctors are working at two in the morning? It's an interesting idea.
BH: So what's your second favorite Patrick Swayze movie?
CK: It depends. Donnie Darko. But there are some Patrick Swayze movies I don’t count. Donnie Darko is a better movie than Road House, but I don’t consider Donnie Darko to be a Patrick Swayze movie. So I would say Point Break. Patrick Swayze is a key element of that film, and his iconography is partially built by roles like that. I mean, you can't just pick a movie he happens to be in, so I would say Point Break is number two.
Without question Dirty Dancing. That movie was soft porn for awkward teenage girls lacking adorable little noses, and Swayze was the hunky man-meat at the center of the story, hung there for us to drool over. Meaty but non-threatening, charming but dumb, plus cool, loyal, and extremely coordinated, Swayze was the ultimate no-strings Summer fling, the ideal way to lose your virginity without either getting married or becoming a filthy slut. I mean, they were dancing together to help that poor working-class girl get a bad abortion, remember? It was a socially conscious sort of a film. Plus, they got caught in the rain, and Swayze had killer abs. We awkward teen girls understood that Jennifer Gray really had no choice: she had to do him. And, charmingly enough, Swayze was the shy one! He was the one who wanted to stay together in the end! But alas, she's like the wind through his tree!
Sadly, now Jennifer Gray has a surgically-altered adorable little nose, Patrick Swayze has since starred in "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," and most of us have been the wind through countless trees. Ah, but times do change.
Steve Kistulentz, Author of The Luckless Age, Barrelhouse Contributor (“Home from the War: An Appreciation of Magnum, PI,” Barrelhouse Issue 1):
Simply, Red Dawn. In the early days of World War III, I was a high school student and fervent Reagan youth. My car was adorned with bumper stickers that said neoconservative things like "Nicaragua is Spanish for Afghanistan." I'm sure you'll all remember the heady days after the Soviet Union had been outlawed, but none of us ever expected the Soviet shock troops to parachute in. When they did, we took to the woods surrounding NSF Thurmont (the official name for Camp David) and defended the president as best we could, with potato guns, pipe bombs, and napalm made from moonshine and Palmolive dishwashing detergent (somebody's old man had a copy of the Anarchist's Cookbook). Later a biopic of our group was made, but for legal reasons it was relocated to the Rockies, and the character based on me was re-imagined as a mountain man named Jed. To be played by Swayze, though, remains the highest honor.
I guess I’d have to say Ghost, since it’s the only one I’ve seen all the way through. Plus, it’s on TV a lot.
Craig Finn and Tad Kubler, the Hold Steady
Tad Kubler: Seriously?
Matt Bell (interviewing for Barrelhouse): Yeah. Ian McKaye almost punched someone in the face over it, as I understand it.
Craig Finn: Road House. How could it not be?
TK: [Long pause] I’m going to say The Outsiders.
MB: Great choice. Thank you very—
TK: Actually, you know what? I’ll give you my top three: Outsiders, Red Dawn, and, for the quote alone—“Nobody puts Baby in the corner”—Dirty Dancing.
John Richards, morning DJ, KEXP.com:
Red Dawn. Why the Russians AND Cubans were attacking Kansas is beyond me.
Tod Goldberg, author of Gangsterland, Simplify, and Living Dead Girl, Barrelhouse Contributor (“Walls,” issue 4):
Point Break, because Swayze taught me three important things in that movie:
1. If you project weakness, you draw aggression.
2. You want the ultimate thrill, you gotta be willing to pay the ultimate price.
3. Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true.
Now, granted, all three of those points essentially reinforce the same core truth: If you're not Patrick Swazye, brah, then you're just C. Thomas Howell with a mullet.
Blake Butler, Author of Three Hundred Million, There is No Year, and Scorch Atlas, Barrelhouse Contributor (“Fake Fire and Rescue,” online):
My favorite Pat Swayze film by far is that one, I can't remember the name, where he plays an ex-con with a gimp leg? And he's really talented at lassoing but he keeps losing all his winnings from the lasso competitions (what's the formal word for a lasso competition?) to his blackjack addiction, which the film weirdly plays up as an actual physical ailment, and there are those weird scenes where you see him trying, just trying to stand up from the table and every time his ass leaves the seat he starts sweating and shaking and falls on the floor and rolls around in agony until someone helps him back up into his seat and then he fixes his collar and smiles and says his catch phrase, "Hit me, Dick"? Know which one I'm talking about? Shit. I think it also has Tony Dow.
Travis Morrison, formerly of Dismemberment Plan:
Big Trouble in Little China.
Editor's Note: We at Barrelhouse are aware that Patrick Swayze did not appear in the 1986 film Big Trouble in Little China. However, the mistake is understandable. Big Trouble's star, Kurt Russell, was sporting a very Swayze-esque mullet throughout the mid-80's, causing all kinds of comparisons between the two stars -- some warranted, others not. Hair of this kind could have crossed anyone's wires. In fact, in discussion of this topic, the Barrelhouse staff often referred to Big Trouble and Escape from New York, Mr. Russell's 1981 vehicle, interchangeably. Fear the mullet, indeed.
John Davis, Q and Not U:
Road House, natch. Though I enjoyed Red Dawn, Point Break and Next of Kin.
Ian MacKaye, Fugazi:
I have no idea. What movies was he in?
BH: The Outsiders.
IM: I saw it. I thought the book was much better.
BH: It was.
IM: I was a huge S.E. Hinton fan. I really don’t give a fuck about Patrick Swayze.
Really, really tough question. Some part of me wants to say Road House. But not Dirty Dancing, if only because that movie is all about Jennifer Grey, who was an absolute goddess until she had a nose job. Why did she have a nose job? Does that make any sense at all?
Jim Ruland, Author of Forest of Fortune, and Big Lonesome, Barrelhouse Contributor (“Parting Gifts,” issue 5):
Without question, it's got to be Point Break. In another lifetime, I was a junior copywriter at an L.A. advertising agency with dreams of breaking into Hollywood as a screenwriter, i.e. I was a ubiquitous cliche. I ordered the great Lee Marvin film Point Blank from a screenwriting service and they sent me Point Break instead.
What's interesting about the error is that the two movies actually have a lot in common. Point Blank is adapted from the Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) novel that kicked off the Parker series. Each novel centers around a heist and Parker is presented as a kind of anti-hero with a code of honor.
Of course, the killer-with-a-code is a familiar trope, but Swayze's amazing success with it as Bodhi, leader of the Ex-Presidents, hinges on the fact that's pursued by Johnny Utah, an FBI agent played by Keanu Reeves, who has all the personality of a stack of firewood. The relationship between Bodhi and Utah is complex, but Swayze does all the heavy lifting. Of course we're going to root for Swayze!
Gary Busey puts in a memorable performance as a Utah's coked out partner (I'm talking about the actor, not the character) (Tom Sizemore is also in the film; imagine what those trailer parties must have been like) but the best line goes to Keanu Reeves when he screams "I am an F. B. I. agent!" for no discernable purpose other than to remind the audience that he ought to be taken seriously.
Josh Maday, Barrelhouse Contributor (“Reinvention: Tom Cruise,” online):
I learned everything I know about mullets and the ancient art of bouncing from Road House. My VHS copy has been around the spool and back a thousand times. The drywall in my house is destroyed. All the tables: smashed. Road House, definitely.
Dave Housley, Co-Founder, Co-Editor, Barrelhouse
With Road House out of the mix for Barrelhouse editors, I have to go with an underrated Swayze movie: Youngblood. This is the movie where Swayze became Swayze, where he perfected the Swayze Character. All the Swayze touchstones are there: the mullet, the bullshit wisdom, the dull gleam in his eye, the fighting and the women. And for all you Point Break fans, something extra special: Keanu Reeves as a minor league hockey goalie. You could make the argument that without Youngblood, there would be no Road House or Point Break, which we all know are the templates for The Swayze Movie.
Lance Weiler, Director, The Last Broadcast, Head Trauma
LW: Maybe I would have to say Red Dawn. Or maybe it’s a toss up with Point Break, that’s a great Catherine Bigelow film. Have you ever seen Near Dark?
BH: Parts of it.
LW: Yeah, that’s a pretty cool movie. She’s got a movie, Willam Defoe is in it, it’s her first film … man, what is it called? I’d probably would say Point Break, just because I like Catherine Bigelow’s stuff. I think it is great she’s a woman and she makes action pictures.
BH: If you got a phone call saying Patrick Swayze wanted to work with you, would you put him in?
LW: Yeah, you know, if the role was right. He was kind of interesting in, uh, he was in Donnie Darko, wasn’t he?
BH: Yeah, in fact I think that would be golden that he did that. Yeah, I loved it.
LW: Yeah, yeah. I think if you give him the right role, I think he could be great.
Aaron Burch, Author of Backswing, Editor, Hobart:
I think I have to say Point Break. If only for the sheer number of times it was on USA and I'd watch a few minutes of it here or there to avoid doing whatever else I probably should have been doing. Also, almost any movie with a Red Hot Chili Pepper is generally entertaining. Which Point Break is; it is just a really stupid, enjoyable movie. Though that could probably be said for just about any Swayze movie...
Paul Soter of the Broken Lizard Comedy Troupe:
Wow. Reminds me of a good story. (My fave is Red Dawn, by the way.) So, Lemme is a huge Swayze fan. Years ago, when we were trying to get Super Troopers made, we were all crashing with a friend here in LA. We got invited to a party, and Lemme spots Swayze across the room. This is his big moment. He orchestrates an introduction. He’s so ready to dazzle him. And then he totally flubs the whole thing. I think he got nervous and asked him something like, “So how was it making Youngblood? Was it cool?” So naturally, Swayze shook him pretty fast, but we were all psyched. So now it’s like 5 a.m., and we’ve all gone to sleep. Heffernan wakes up to the sound of Lemme laughing across the room. He asks him what the hell he’s laughing about, and Lemme says, “I just caught myself thinking of all the things I should have said to Swayze.”
So you see, at the end of the day, all five of us are a bunch of dumb starfuckers.
Tom Williams, Author of Among the Wild Mulattos, and Don't Start Me Talkin,' Barrelhouse Contributor (“Three Piece Combo with Drink,” Issue Three):
I'd have to say Road House, though I wonder if it's my favorite Ben Gazzara movie or my favorite Kelly Lynch movie or favorite John Doe movie or my favorite Jeff Healey movie or my favorite Red West movie. But what must have been the pitch for Road House like? "There's this bad guy. He runs the town, see. A mean old dude with a squad of tough guys capable of jujitsu, boxing, rassling, anything. And into the fray steps our hero, a philosophy major/major ass kicker who sets things aright. And he'll rip the heart out of somebody, literally, in the third act. And a blind guitar player to boot. Did I mention that Sam Elliot's in it, too? And lots of karate chops? And Terry Funk?"
Reb Livingston, Author of Bombyonder, and Your Ten Favorite Words, Founder, No Tell Books, Editor, No Tell Motel
Donnie Darko, because it’s the best movie ever, and Dirty Dancing, because I’m a girl.
Patterson Hood, the Drive by Truckers
You know, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one. I’ve read the Chunklet Magazine piece on Road House as fine cinema and laughed, but I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen it. Was he in Red Dawn? I saw that as a teenager. It wasn’t very good [Editor’s note: Blasphemy!]. In a few years Tarantino will resurrect him like he has Kurt Russell [Editor’s note: finger’s crossed!].
I thought he was great as the creepy motivational speaker in Donnie Darko. (Is that right? Or he was the school principal or something. Nice work, whatever it was...)
Sheila Squillante, Author of Beautiful Nerve, Barrelhouse Blog Editor
The Outsiders. The last time I saw it, maybe ten years ago, a single shot of his bicep rolling below a cuffed sleeve totally made me want to lick the screen. And I am not normally a screen, licker.
Amy Butcher, author of Visiting Hours:
This admission pains me, but I’ve only seen one, and its viewing came in life: in 2012, in fact, when writer Rachel Yoder invited me over for brownie sundaes and Swayze. You don’t say no to a proposition like this, but it was more the camaraderie and sweets I was interested in. I left a changed woman. I think I may well have live-tweeted my viewing experience, if that says anything, though I hesitate to revisit that sense of profound wonder and enchantment, which now would likely be embarrassing.
Leslie Pietrzyk, Author of This Angel on My Chest:
"Dirty Dancing"! I, too, would carry a watermelon to get myself into that sweaty party. As a fun sidebar, I know someone who was in the movie as an extra, so I'll count that as pretty much knowing Patrick personally and being able to say with authority that he was a great guy and a devoted reader of short story collections.
Aubrey Hirsch, author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar
OMG Road House! Do you people seriously give other answers to that question??
Amanda Miller, Writer
I'm so glad you asked this. Just last weekend, I was sitting with some intellectuals, and (as intellectuals tend to do) they started talking about their favorite, most formative movie sex scenes. I kept thinking "Dirty Dancing"... that rainy night in the bungalow for the hired help. But then I chickened out and said I couldn't think of a favorite sex scene. Yeah, I didn't say a thing... I put Patrick in the corner. So thanks, Dave, for giving me this second chance to fess up about how much that night meant to me.