Sunday Nibble #25: A Tale of Two Biopics

Lockdown and Amazon Prime have actually gotten me back to watching films, and to recent flicks resonate so strongly with each other that it’s amazing. One is Elton John’s biopic Rocketman. The other is Shia LaBeouf’s biopic Honey Boy, and both of them are just amazing deep dives into self-revelation from two men who lost a lot to addiction but then dug out of it.

The big difference between them, though, is that Elton is a generally beloved person and always has been, while Shia has somehow been heaped with hate, and I don’t get the latter bit.

When he did his #iamsorry performance art piece in L.A., I really tried to make it through the crowds to get in there, but didn’t. The idea was that each guest would be led individually into a room where Shia sat at a wooden table with a paper bag that read, “I am not famous anymore” over his head. There were a bunch of things on the table relating to various of his movies.

The idea that anyone who came in could do whatever they wanted to him with what was before him and, apparently, at least one shitty patron raped him.

Anyway, had I made it in, I would have pulled that bag off his head and told him, “Dude, you’re not a shit person. You’re an artist. Sometimes it’s tough. And I know that you intend to not speak during this, but that’s okay. You’re an actor. You have value.”

But here’s the really big difference between both men: Elton chose to become a performer. He wanted to take music lessons, and become a rock star, and he dragged his family into it. Meanwhile, Shia just wanted to be a kid, but his alcoholic trainwreck of a father instead used his kid to try to live out his Hollywood dreams, and it took a major toll.

And, extreme bonus points here: Elton doesn’t show up in his own biopic until the very end, and only as himself. Meanwhile, Shia takes the much riskier route of diving headfirst into playing the absolute source of his own addictions and troubles. That is, in Honey Boy, Shia plays his own father, and he does not pull a single punch or knock off a blemish.

Sure, he humanizes him and gives a sincere and compelling performance. At the same time, every single second he’s on screen as his own father, we just want to punch his fucking face and save his son, Otis, aka Honey Boy, from his own insincerity and arrogance, and OMG does Shia get this in spades.

This is the kind of hard-edged, honest bio that only someone who has been through rehab can create, and it’s basically stated half-way through the movie. Paraphrasing, it’s only when you hit your lowest that you can share what will save others from the same.

In the film, Otis got it. Dad? I’m  not so sure. And neither is Shia. But, by the end of Honey Boy… adult Shia offers both absolution and condemnation — not just for his dad, but for himself, and you can’t get anymore more goddamn honest than that in a biopic. Ever.

Sunday Nibble #24: Queer as Folk

Recently, the British series Queer as Folk from 1999 popped up on Amazon Prime, and I had to give it a watch again. This is not to be confused with the American series, which ran from 2000 to 2005 and was inferior in every way, just like the American The Office was a pale and bloodless imitation of the amazing British version.

What? While the US has adapted more than a few British shows into American versions, they’ve only hit gold twice: All in the Family and Sanford and Son.

So, yeah… The American QAF sucked ass. The American The Office sucked ass. Fight me. Oh, crap, that’s right. The U.S. even tried to adapt Red Dwarf. And… no, thank you. And the U.S. version of The Prisoner equally sucked ass.

They can’t even do Australia right — the original Kath & Kim is brilliant. The American version, despite the presence of the amazingly talented and funny Molly Shannon, just fell flat. If you get a chance to see the original, do so. It is just as bust-your-side laughing hilarious as the best of Ab Fab. Oh, right — American tried to ruin that one, too, but it never got off the ground.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to the British version of Queer as Folk. Helmed by Russell T Davies, it is both deeply personal and universal and, hindsight is 2020, he made one of his characters a total Doctor Who nerd, six years before he himself went on to be the showrunner who brought New Who back in 2005.

Who is a running theme in the series, including a moment when the two leads list off all of the actors who had played the Doctor to date, ending with: “Paul McGann (pause) — he doesn’t count!” The sentiment at the time, but since changed as the 8th Doctor was brought into canon.

But I do digress…

I watched both series of the show when it first aired, and then hadn’t been back since. Watching it again now brings back those memories, but also reminds me how time and perspective change feelings about art.

At its core, QAF is about a trio of gay men in Manchester in the late 90s, when there’s a thriving gay life on Canal Street (although the sign has been graffitoed to omit the “C”) while the world outside of this Boys’ Town is still quite homophobic. We also meet their many friends, family, and lovers who are rather put-upon by two of the trio, to put it charitably.

Our trio are Stuart (Aidan Gillen), Vincent (Craig Kelly), and Nathan (Charlie Hunnam). In order, they are the insensitive, mindless whorebot, who only cares about his next conquest; the caring friend who tries to meet someone, tries to take care of everyone, and fails at both; and the underage twink who throws himself into a world he doesn’t understand, only to wind up too emotionally deep and over his head on his first real night out.

In other words, it’s a show that is complicated, deep, and truly edgy — as opposed to fake edgy.

So… when I first watched the show, I also happened to be in my slut-boy days, regularly cruising my local equivalent of (C)anal street and, somehow, managing to pull tail without even trying. No, seriously. The big irony was that I was too shy and insecure to approach anyone, but once I learned to give a long enough stare and smile, it was like I had a magnet in my pants. They came to me, I said yes, deal done.

Although, unlike Stuart, who railed a fifteen-year-old (of age in Britain) the youngest I ever went after I was twenty-five was nineteen, and, again, he asked first.

When I first watched the show, I thought, “Ah, okay. I relate to Stuart.” He’s the one who hooks up with everybody, has no attachments and, anyway, isn’t this show about him? Not that I found him attractive because, to me at that time, he just looked old.

Funny how Stuart later grew up to be Littlefinger and, meanwhile, Nathan grew up to be… a lot of people.

Watching again with the advantage of perspective and maturity, one thing is abundantly clear: Stuart is an absolute shit. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. His picking up Nathan in the first episode is the inciting incident for the whole series, but to Stuart it’s just a hump and dump. As he explains it when Nathan shows an interest in more, Stuart’s reply is, “Why? I’ve had you.”

The thing that really jumps out on a repeat viewing is that although Stuart is 29 and Nathan is 15, the teen is far more mature than the adult — not by much, but at least he manages to sometimes step out of his own self-centered bubble to think about someone else, and he is the direct catalyst for the denouement between the other two.

Vince is the heart of the piece, the one guy who does deserve love and happiness but can’t get out of his own way to achieve it. Partly, he’s stuck on Stuart, although their relationship will clearly never be anything but platonic. Also, he doesn’t believe that he’s worthy of anyone’s love. The punchline is that he’s more worthy of it than either Stuart or Nathan.

I’ll catch up on Series 2 shortly, although that one was a lot different than Series 1, at least in format. The first series consisted of eight half-hour episodes. The second and final series comprised two fifty minute episodes, so felt like a two-part movie, which is a shame. This world and these characters could have easily supported so much more.

Sunday nibble #23: Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?

Since I don’t subscribe to HBO, I wasn’t able to watch the TV series Watchmen when it first ran, despite everyone telling me it was the best thing ever. However, to honor the Juneteenth holiday, last weekend HBO allowed everyone to watch it for free, so binged the nine episodes, viewing three per day from Friday through Sunday.

I’ll get to my impressions of the show in a moment, but first, my history with Watchmen in general. I had heard of the graphic novel but had never read it until just before the film came out in 2009. In fact, I think I’d only ever read one graphic novel, which was a short one consisting of maybe two or three issues of a comic. A friend had sent it to me as a present, either birthday or Christmas, to encourage me to get into the genre, but it didn’t work.

Sure, I read comic books as a kid, but always leaned toward the so-called Bronze Age holdovers and wasn’t really into the New Age stuff, because they were just too gritty and dark for me.

Oh… there is a concept in comics of the format being divided up into at least four ages: Golden (1938-1950), Silver (1956-1970), Bronze (1970-1985), and New (1985-Present).

In a nutshell, the Golden Age is when all the classic super heroes were introduced, including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America. They were a cheap source of entertainment, especially during WW II, and it wasn’t uncommon for a single issue to sell a million copies.

Near the end of the war, though, tales of super heroes fade in popularity, replaced by genre comics — sci-fi, westerns, romance, etc. — but then Cold Age paranoia and prudishness intruded, linking comics to juvenile delinquency. To avoid government censorship, the industry created the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a self-regulating body similar to the movie industry’s MPAA.

The Golden age heroes started to return and the next generation began to appear — Spider-Man, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, and the X-Men. There’s also an emphasis on superhero teams, and this is when the Justice League is fully formed from its origins during the Golden Age. This is also when The Avengers appear.

Side-note: It’s why Captain America is the First Avenger even though Supes and Batman came first — they played for a different team.

While all of this is going on, underground comics, not subject to the CCA, are thriving, and their subject matter is strictly adult.

The Bronze Age comes about when the comics start tackling social issues of the day, underground comics have an influence, and supernatural and horror stories also become popular. The power of the CCA also fades and the rise of Star Wars leads to the comic industry following suit in merchandising tie-ins, toys, T-shirts, and more.

Frank Miller “reboots” the Golden and Silver Age heroes in dark and gritty versions, and then Alan Moore publishes Watchmen. Its first appearance was in 1985, in the 50th anniversary special of DC Spotlight, although the series itself ran twelve issues from September 1986 to October 1987, with the omnibus edition being published later that year.

This ushered in the New Age of comics, a big part of the reason being that Watchmen took all of comic history to date, turned the characters on their heads, imagined an alternate historical timeline, and then threw it together into something amazing.

In the original graphic novel, we meet several generations of “masked heroes,” beginning with The Minutemen in the 1930s. While they aren’t exactly the comic heroes we know, there are some analogies, but the first and most mysterious of them is Hooded Justice, who pops up in New York and takes down criminals until the 1950s.

After he refuses to reveal his true identity to the House Un-American Activities Committee, he disappears, later to be found floating face down in the Hudson River, claimed a suicide but assumed a homicide, depending upon whom you ask.

(This is all established in the graphic novel, by the way, so it’s not a spoiler to the series.)

There are other first generation heroes, like Captain Metropolis, Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Mothman, Silk Spectre I, and Nite Owl I, although only Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre and Nite Owl make it out alive to the next generation.

Round two, the Silver Age heroes, are Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and the Comedian although eventually masked heroes are outlawed, with only Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian staying semi-legal, but only because they go to work for the government.

By the way, Dr. Manhattan is the only one who actually has superpowers, acquired during an accident with a quantum physics experiment back in the 1950s.

Now I knew none of this because I’d never read the book, but then in 2008 I saw a trailer for the film Watchmen, and it blew me away. I think this is the final 2009 trailer, but they didn’t change much from one to the other. It’s worth the watch. Pun intended.

So I watched the trailer over and over online, intrigued by everything in it, and then ran out and bought a copy of the graphic novel, which I proceeded to binge-read over the next few days, using most of my lunch hour at work to down the next chapter.

Wow.

For one thing, it proved me wrong in thinking that “comic books” were not a literary form. Watchmen certainly was worthy of being a novel — in fact, the only graphic novel to be included in the Time Magazine top 100 novels list.

For another, it went beyond comics, and each chapter would include some sort of literary insert, like an excerpt from a made-up book, a fake newspaper clipping, a brochure, subversive literature, and so on.

Each insert would either shed new light on what had come before or set up breadcrumbs for what would follow, and it added a nice level of multiple narrative voices telling a story that may or may not be true.

I was not disappointed by the film version — unlike lots of fans of the book — although I did enough research to realize that skipping the two print spin-offs: Before Watchmen and The Doomsday Clock were probably a good idea, since they seemed to be nothing more than cash-grabs by DC Comics, with no involvement from Alan Moore. (Not that he’s involved in anything but the original book.)

So when I heard that HBO was making a mini-series, I was at first skeptical. I wondered whether they weren’t going to try to adapt the original again, in which case, why bother? And then, this trailer dropped.

Clearly, not an adaptation of the series, but a sequel, although it looked both amazing and confusing — none of the familiar heroes in sight, only one shot that might have been Nite Owl II’s vehicle Archie, but still plenty of masked heroes. And I couldn’t watch it without subscribing to HBO, but even this was not incentive enough.

Luckily, I managed to remain mostly spoiler-free (other than who Jeremy Irons was playing) for eight months, watched three episodes per day for three days and, just like with the graphic novel, all I can say is… wow.

The series managed to feel like the narrative structure of the book, tie in the first and second generation masked heroes and then bring in a third in the modern day, and then be about something even bigger than the original.

After all, the big fear when the graphic novel came out was the Cold War and the end of the world via nuclear holocaust. In fact, the whole point of that story is that one of the masked heroes takes it upon himself to avoid humanity’s annihilation by creating the perception of a new threat that exists outside the control of the USA or USSR.

Let’s just say that the new series has equally megalomaniacal characters, but also managed to hit upon humanity’s true, current existential threat a year before it popped into the forefront.

If you’re a fan of the graphic novel or movie, you won’t be disappointed by this one. If you have no prior experience of Watchmen, you won’t need it to enjoy the show but do yourself a favor if you feel like binging: read the graphic novel first, then watch the movie, then settle down and binge.

Oh yeah… after the freebie from HBO, the series is also now on Amazon Prime, and was recently released on DVD, so there’s that.