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review 2014-02-06 11:40
I've nobody to blame but myself...
Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind - Gavin Edwards

Have you ever got a book knowing fully that not only will you probably dislike it but it'll probably infuriate and upset you a bit, but you had to get it anyway because you're curious and weirdly interested in the subject matter? And then when that book made you madder than even you thought it would, you just want to scream but you know that you did it all to yourself?


Yeah, this was me with this book.


Some background.


When I was about 10, my mum made me watch Stand By Me. It's one of her favourite films and it became one of mine. To this day, it's in my top 20 favourite films of all time. It's a perfect film. Like most people who saw it, I became rather interested in River Phoenix, although as I got older the focus changed more to his brother, who remains probably my favourite actor (and teen crush - shut up). They're an interesting family & of course, one with very tragic elements. So of course River Phoenix's very short life was ripe for a biography. 


This one, however, is kind of reprehensible.


First, from a stylistic point of view, the author has some issues. His attempt to create a cultural context surrounding Phoenix's brief time in the spotlight falls flat since he seems to have no idea how to organically integrate it into the narrative. A pretty linear biography is interspersed with tidbits on the Viper Room (the club where he died) and general information on other rising stars in the film industry at the time. Basically an actor is named, their projects at the time and then another is mentioned. This is repeated over and over again and feels lazy. If you want to read a non-fiction book where context is organically and substantially given for a time period, read Nixonland. 


Second, and the biggest issue with the book, is the general tone of it all. It's one thing to offer a comment on a stranger's life; it's quite another to delve into unqualified pseudo psychiatric analysis that makes Dr Drew look dignified. E! News would offer less callous material. The author is pretty openly judgemental about the Phoenix family's life (which is pretty odd to say the least but if you're going to judge then at least develop the context further. The author's offerings feel rushed and lacking in anything really substantial that hasn't been written before. Wikipedia feels like the main source here aside from anonymous sources.) 


I understand the urge to seek answers from a tragedy. It's a natural human instinct. We see it every day in our lives and in the media. Right now it's going on with the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman (an actor I basically worshipped and cried over a lot when I heard the news). Honestly, I get that.


I get why non-addicts try to understand the minds of addicts and I even sympathise somewhat when they struggle to understand because it's a tough situation. Addiction is an illness, one that requires us to not judge and to not sneer. We can't laugh or roll our eyes and claim they should have just never taken drugs or should have just stopped. It doesn't work like that. We can't turn it into a blame game.


We certainly don't spend 200+ pages insinuating that someone's family are to blame for their death.


The author clearly doesn't like Phoenix's family, but to lay the blame at their feet (mostly at those of his parents and brother) is low. National Enquirer low. Then, to rub salt in the wound, the author theorises that Joaquin Phoenix's career success and "weirdness" is the result of his brother dying and his guilt over that. I honestly couldn't believe what I read. It's coded but it's there. If you've ever heard the 911 call Joaquin Phoenix made on the night of his brother's death, you'd know it's one of the most upsetting things ever, and the media released that in the aftermath of River's death.


The total lack of basic decency on display here makes me wonder what the author was thinking when he began to write this insensitive & exploitative mess (actually I know exactly what he was thinking. "Hey, I could churn out something in time for the 20th anniversary of his death! I'm a genius!")


Maybe I'm just especially sensitive right now because of Philip Seymour Hoffman or because I'm a big fan of the people at the centre of it, but this was a waste of my time and I only really have myself to blame. Don't waste your time with this. Go watch Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho instead. 

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