Spending Saturday at the Overlook

My family turns to a unexpected source for comfort as we look to River Phoenix for today's QPOD

It’s been almost two weeks since I went to a daily format because the world has gone so genuinely crazy.

I would love to pretend like things were still normal, the way many people are, but it’s not. At this point, it looks like the low-simmering class struggle in this country is on the verge of erupting into a shooting war as we get a very stark look at the distance between real leadership and the grotesque grift that defines our current Presidency.

I don’t know how anyone else is dealing with this with their kids, but my boys are 12 and 15 this year, and they’re old enough that there’s no sheltering them from the truth of this thing. The tricky part is not letting all of this overwhelm me or them because I think it’s very easy to look at the way we’re mishandling things and get scared or discouraged. I think on a national level, we are botching things. Magnificently. But on an individual level, and on a local level, there are plenty of people and places that are taking this seriously enough and that seem to be trying to stop the spread before it gets truly out of control.

It’s the uncertainty that is really eating at me personally right now. There are only a few things I can control during this time. One is what I’m eating, which is important to me since I’m down 70+ pounds since last July, and those have been hard-won pounds. I’m determined not to just jump back into old habits because of the stress of all of this, and somehow, I’m down three pounds since all of this began two weeks ago. The other is what I write, and I’m glad that I’ve managed to get something out to you guys every single day during this so far.

And not small things, either. I’m actually being productive, which is a nice shift. Over the last few years, I’ve let anxiety and depression rule my writing output, and it hasn’t done me any favors. For some reason, making the decision to move everything here to Substack and launch Formerly Dangerous helped me kickstart a new attitude in the writing, and while this certainly seems like a great time to be anxious and/or depressed, I find myself still energized and looking forward to checking in with you guys.

It’s all about finding ways to stay healthy and sane right now. Which isn’t exactly how we approached things here at the house over the weekend…

Spending Saturday At The Overlook

Allen just had his 12th birthday, and while he celebrated it the last time he was at my house, his actual birthday present hadn’t arrived yet. It finally showed up just before he and Toshi arrived for the weekend, so on Saturday, we sat down to play The Shining: The Board Game.

Holy cow. So much fun. We started down this road a few years ago when I got Mondo’s The Thing for Toshi a few years ago. That’s a great board game. Since then, we’ve picked up a number of other “based on a movie” games, which led to a broader interest in board games overall, and now they’re definitely a part of our family time. And, yeah, I’m well aware of how crazy it is that we sit down as a family to play The Shining, which is a game based on a film based on a book written as a very personal story about alcoholism and abuse and trauma. That’s crazy. But that’s what our pop culture is. There’s a whole lot of stuff that we “enjoy” that is, at heart, very serious and about very serious things.

I showed the boys The Shining just before Ready Player One came out. I knew that we were going to see the Spielberg film together because Toshi was a rabid fan of that book, and I had seen an early screening, so I knew what a key role Kubrick’s Shining played in the Spielberg film. I decided I didn’t want them to be introduced to those images and that iconography in the wrong order, so we watched The Shining, and I didn’t tell them why. I just said I felt like they would enjoy it, and they did. Allen, in particular, really loved the movie and the experience and kept talking about it. For his last birthday, I got him an Overlook Hotel sweatshirt from the fine folks over at Last Exit To Nowhere…

… which he wears everywhere, and I figured when I saw that this game was being released in March that he would be excited by it. We played a few rounds of it, and it was terrific fun. Since it was just the three of us, we played the version where it’s us against the Overlook, but with more people, I think we’d play it where one of the people is possessed. It’s a little bit Mafia, a little bit The Thing, but it makes smart use of the iconography from the film, and it doesn’t take all day to play. Two full rounds took us just under an hour, perfect for something to play as we were getting ready for dinner.

After dinner, we ended up watching Doctor Sleep, the longer extended cut that’s available digitally or on Blu-ray, and I thought it was a really smart and well-considered expansion of the film. Mike Flanagan was in a tough spot, and I think he more than rose to the occasion with his adaptation of an entirely okay King book. It’s rare that I hate a King novel, but there are plenty of them that I think of as inconsequential. They’re all well-written because he’s gifted with one of the most natural storytelling voices in the history of prose, but he often tells stories that go nowhere or that feel like echoes of stories he told already. It’s bound to happen… he’s published an insane number of pages at this point. No one’s going to write that much and have all of it be great. I always like the idea of a sequel to The Shining more than I liked the actual sequel to The Shining, and I really didn’t get the idea of adapting it as a film. I figured any filmmaker who did it would have to avoid Kubrick’s film completely in order to make sense of it since King clearly didn’t write a sequel to the film, which he famously didn’t like.

What Flanagan did in threading that needle and actually making a sequel to Kubrick’s film that is also an adaptation of King’s novel and, in some ways, a re-litigation of the adaptation that Kubrick did in the first place is nothing short of miraculous. I am amazed it’s watchable, much less good. I think it benefits enormously from the work that Ewan McGregor does, and Rebecca Ferguson is a creepy and iconic new movie monster as Rose The Hat. I am surprised by how much I liked the film, and by how much better the extended version is. It’s even richer, and every character seems to benefit from the expansion.

It may not sound like a great way to relieve anxiety, but it worked. Losing ourselves in these fictional horrors for a few hours, especially ones that have become so familiar to us (“I’ve seen that lady in Room 237 naked more times than I’ve seen myself naked!” said Allen as Doctor Sleep was finally wrapping up), actually seemed to give us a way to release some of that steam. I’m mainlining the most benign things right now, but this was definitely a counterpoint that paid off.

Missing River

For today’s QTOD (Quarantine Pick O’the Day), I’m going to send you guys looking for Dogfight. I think it’s streaming free on Vudu, but you can rent it almost everywhere. This is one of those great little movies that never got its full due, but every single time I’ve gone back to it, I’ve been struck anew by how wise and how beautiful it is.

Nancy Savoca cut her teeth as a filmmaker working with John Sayles and Jonathan Demme. Those are some pretty great people to work with while you’re honing your craft, and she had such a great, strong, clear voice in her first film, True Love, that I thought she’d be a huge name after that.

I’m very naive sometimes. Savoca’s follow-up to True Love was this 1991 release from Warner Bros starring Lili Taylor and River Phoenix. Eddie Birdlace is on his way to Vietnam and stops in San Francisco for 24 hours before he and his buddies ship out. They decide to hold a “dogfight,” aka a party where they each bring the ugliest girl they can find. The winner takes all of the money they put in a pot. It’s a cruel and ugly idea for an evening, and when Birdlace meets Rose, a waitress, he sees her as an easy opportunity. He starts to feel badly almost immediately, but he goes through with it anyway, and what happens from there is a truly heartfelt and gentle love story. I love that the film takes place on November 21, 1963. It may be a big broad obvious metaphor, but it works.

I’m really recommending this because I’ve been missing River Phoenix again since Joaquin Phoenix made such poignant reference to him in the closing moments of his Oscar speech. I often wonder about what we would have gotten from River if he had lived, and who he might have become. Obviously, there’s no way to know the answer to that, but looking at the work he was doing in 1991, I know we are poorer for not having the last twenty years of performances from him. He and Lili Taylor are so great in this film. Birdlace isn’t a bad guy, and he doesn’t really mean to pulverize poor Rose. Watching the way she breaks and then the way he works to make amends, they are both absolutely perfect. Taylor’s often played tough, but this degree of vulnerability is something that is rarely written for anyone to play, much less someone who is outside of Hollywood’s fairly narrow beauty norms. What makes this love story stick is that it feels earned when so many Hollywood love stories are just about easy coincidence and surface-level attraction.

And Finally…

If you are looking for a very strange diversion during quarantine, I recommend Year of the Rabbit, a police procedural comedy set in 1887 London. Matt Berry is the truly deranged lead, a thick brute who everyone seems to think is good at his job, although I’m not sure that’s what we actually observe.

The craziest detail on this very crazy show is the repeated appearance of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, as played by David Dawson. I want much more of this particular version of John Merrick. Hours and hours and hours, please.

As a whole, the show is great, but this is one of those cases where I can’t get over this one thing about the show. Have you ever seen a series like that, where you just plain flipped over some weird supporting character or some odd detail?

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Image courtesy Mixlore
Image courtesy Last Exit To Nowhere
Image courtesy Warner Bros Home Entertainment