So excited to be a part of this! Here’s a page from my comic, Quarantine. The kickstarter also has a tier that lets you pick up the first Beyond Anthology too if you missed it the first time around. More than halfway to the goal, guys!
BLOGTOBER TAILGATE PARTY PT 2 - 9/30/17: MY FRIEND DAHMER
Derf Backderf’s high school memoir about growing up alongside a neglected boy who would become one of the world’s most notorious murders is a landmark achievement in artistic acts of atonement. The indie comics creator, who I had previously dismissed as a standard sort of ‘90s free paper stalwart, produced something of such astonishing depth and sincerity with this book that I would never again think of him in that same dreary way. Let this piece of writing stand for my own act of atonement in being so wrong about artist–even if it arrives in the dubious guise of an angry rejection of Marc Meyers’ unworthy adaptation, if you can call it that, of My Friend Dahmer.
It is possibly a delusion symptomatic of my enthusiasm for Derf’s book, that I feel I’ve rarely seen something so richly incorrect as Marc Meyers’ movie. Just like the graphic novel proves about Dahmer himself, the problems begin early, and not at all subtly. The title card is chased quickly by a sort of byline, claiming that the film is “Based on a True Story”. As the rest of the film attests, this is a highly dangerous assertion. First of all, the “My” in the book’s title refers to Derf himself, and the “Friend” is meant to be ironic, according to his confession that he was among the many peers and adults who could have and should have, but did not recognize Jeffrey Dahmer as a young man in dire need of help. The book’s contents present the facts as Derf lived them, in conjunction with bitterly sympathetic suppositions about Dahmer’s personal life, derived from post-prosecution reportage. So, a film based on My Friend Dahmer should be a film about the community that responded so inappropriately, or not at all, to the challenges presented by a traumatized young alcoholic whose downward spiral led to a criminal career the likes of which the world had never seen. Meyers’ adaptation, on the other hand, is scarcely about Derf or his gang of insensitive pranksters, or anyone else in Dahmer’s culpable periphery. It is about Dahmer in a plain and simple made for TV fashion–or it might be, if it weren’t peppered with broad, frankly fake characters and events that help the director shoehorn the skeleton of Derf’s book into an unnecessary Hollywood drama that seems designed to be more digestible to a lowest common denominator audience. Artistic license is all well and good when you’re telling, say, a thinly-veiled account of a true story for your own mythological purposes. However, when you’re talking about a real person, a really famous person, whose crimes occurred within living memory, and whose kin still live alongside those whose lives he destroyed; when you shoot your movie not only in that person’s home town but in his actual childhood home; when none of the names have been changed to protect the innocent…and still you invent straw characters and events just to make a buck on your more shallow version of things, how do you find the nerve to claim that your film is based on a true story? Whose story do you even mean?
The Q&A with Meyers at the end of this Fantastic Fest screening did nothing to ease my mind.
Disney alum Ross Lynch provides one of the film’s only bright lights as Jeffrey, hurtling toward high school graduation while his interior life is deteriorating unstoppably. In a futile bid to escape the brutality of his parents’ imploding marriage, the lonesome teenage Dahmer distracts himself with a little amateur bodybuilding, dissection of roadkill, and furtive spying on a beefy jogger who regularly passes his shady family home in the woods. It seems like the young man has a shot at normality when Derf & co. respond positively to his self-effacing clowning, but this shallow reward is no match for his classmates’ homophobia, the school’s collective failure to respond to his burgeoning alcoholism and substance abuse, and his inability to create any real intimacy within or without his dysfunctional family.
Where Derf’s telling is painfully plausible when he is only speculating on Dahmer’s private existence, Meyers seems unable to trust even the known facts–though he places too much faith in his cast. Dallas Roberts does his damnedest as Jeffrey’s desperate, disconnected father, to not enough effect in his brief, disjointed scenes. (And truly, almost every scene is disjointed and too brief, due to some strange editorial choices) Anne Heche, as his wife Joyce, does little to give the proceedings depth with her typical display of frantic dithering, which evidences no directorial interference whatsoever. (The director’s claim that she is “unpredictable” and “different in every scene” is corroborated nowhere on the screen) No one else stands out in the positive or the negative other than Lynch, who one can only assume is acting under his own power; when asked by an audience member how he cast Dahmer, Meyers simply responded that he focused on kids who resembled Dahmer facially, but who also…drumroll please…can you guess the other most important characteristic?…could be about as tall as Dahmer. Their being “talented” entered the conversation as a sort of footnote, without any further discussion of what sort of presence or attitude the star should carry.
Whatever energy the director could have devoted to coaching his cast seems to have gone instead into padding the raw facts of Derf’s account with insulting inventions designed to beat the main points to death. Maybe that’s just a crutch you need if, like Meyers, you are unable to translate the novel’s devastating evocation of the Dahmer home’s oppressive atmosphere, and you must instead fill in that glaring blank with impressions of your own parents’ comparatively ordinary divorce. Maybe you feel like your depiction of Dahmer lusting after the jogger, and his alienation from women, do not prove out the young murderer’s well-known homosexuality–so you force feed your audience a chipmunk-cheeked little fellow who bafflingly shouts out the details of an upcoming date with Dahmer at the very moment when bullies are about to gay bash him into a pulp. Maybe you feel like Dahmer’s sweaty admiration of the jogger, who he stalks with a baseball bat since this person very nearly became Dahmer’s first rape-murder, isn’t a potent enough detail–so you expand this historical figure into a well-liked small town doctor to whom Dahmer goes for a would-be erotic checkup. You can make Dahmer pointedly ask whether the guy does surgery, and then you can make the medical professional implausibly sneer “I’m not the type of person who wants to cut someone open,” just before he scoffs disgustedly at his patient for (presumably) getting an erection.
Most startling of all of Meyers’ inventions is the person of Figg, a deranged bully-cum-drug dealer. Derf’s brief recollection of this person is as a sort of ridiculous but potentially dangerous hulk who was, unfortunately, not ashamed to be seen with Dahmer. In Meyers’ film, he takes up a strange amount of screen time for reasons that only became clear at the Q&A. Within the film, this disturbed individual provides Dahmer with weed, which is all well and good, but he also scares everyone with freaky nazi jokes, cuts himself and drinks his own blood like the TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE hitchhiker, and scares the shit out of Dahmer by inviting him to play russian roulette in the woods. What this is supposed to help narratively is impossible to determine. However, Meyers stressed that Figg is played by Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins’ son Miles, and makes it abundantly clear that he happily went to great lengths to shoehorn the young man into the film. Evidently he was meant to be driving a car in some important scenes, though it was revealed that the New York-based actor does not drive. When this came up, the filmmakers wracked their brains to figure out how to keep him in the picture, only to come up with this peculiar DEER HUNTER riff. Meyers’ invitation for the audience to imagine a room full of producers puzzling over this problem, and then collectively cheering “THE DEER HUNTER!”, was not one that I could accept.
Another, in some ways more bizarre fib is committed in the context of one of the book’s most interesting recollections–the time that Jeffrey Dahmer, showing an amazing amount of pluck, weaseled himself and his friends into the office of Walter Mondale during a class field trip. The flow of this anecdote is interrupted to introduce a fantasy about Dahmer having to share a hotel room with a black varsity football player. I’d like to say here that Meyers insisted that he did absolutely no research outside of reading Derf’s novel–a dubious decision when your movie is about the real life of a real person, and when it so fails what the comic is about. To be fair, or something, Meyers said a number of troubling things about his process: That he “was just trying to make a movie set in the 70s”, that he just wanted it to be about a sort of average kid and not Dahmer the killer-to-be, that he “is not one to put any psychology on [Dahmer]”. That’s a mouthful of insistence on normality and digression and artistic license for someone whose only qualification for casting his star is that he looked just like Jeffrey Dahmer. In any case, one of the things that Meyers does to underline Dahmer’s factual homosexuality is to place him in this room with a young black athlete. In the film, Dahmer immediately begins making out-loud observations about the skin tone of different parts of the young man’s body, and asking questions about whether his entrails might be the same color as Dahmer’s. Now, anyone who knows a little bit about Dahmer knows that he almost exclusively killed athletic men of color–not so much the kinds of babyfaced white boys who are occasionally foisted upon Dahmer by Meyers. So, it’s unclear to me whether this choice is simply a bizarre accident, or an especially glib, distasteful way for Meyers to engage with his actual subject matter. In any case, it’s interruptive, uncomfortable, and difficult to understand. (For more on the grave subject of Dahmer’s impact on the poor black community in which he lived as an adult, please view the surprisingly excellent documentary THE JEFFREY DAHMER FILES)
While most of this sort of artifice seems aimed at forcing the Dahmer story to be more obvious and traditional, some of it is just unforgivable under any excuse. The film contains a sole scene that approaches something moving and truthful, in which a recently-graduated Derf happens upon Dahmer sauntering along the side of the road at night. In truth, this happened to another member of Derf’s coterie, but no matter. Derf hesitantly picks up the young man who he helped to embarrass and manipulate during their high school career, and drives him home. There they have a tense, earnestly sad exchange in the driveway, to the degree that any teenage boys are capable of having a direct conversation…and then it all goes down hill. In the film, Derf nervously joins Dahmer inside the latter’s empty house, only to back out at the last minute–AND RIGHTLY SO, BECAUSE DAHMER IS COMING AFTER HIM WITH A MURDER WEAPON! This choice is beyond despicable, as if there could be any good reason to accuse a dead man with living family of a murder that was never at risk of taking place. But, it’s also stranger than that: In Derf’s novel, it is revealed that while the friend passed a final innocent moment with Dahmer in the driveway, the fresh corpse of Dahmer’s first victim was certainly sitting either in Dahmer’s own car, or in the drainage ditch close by. Why would anyone sacrifice this powerful real life detail in favor of a cheap slasher movie scare that twists an already disturbing horror story in an unnecessary direction? I wish I had thought of this at the Q&A, but I was too busy fantasizing about asking Meyers why none of the living, suffering Dahmer family appeared in his copious list of acknowledgments at the end of the credits.
Last night I had no shortage of complaints to make, such that I could hardly sleep imagining insults to hurl. Now, I think I’ve finally emptied myself of all of the important ones. Meyer’s film is a mess, but please don’t let it prevent you from reading Derf’s moving and truthful novel, in which there is at least a payoff for all of the pain.
“Ah, at last, the villain sleeps! It is only when he is no longer conscious that I can gather enough power to manifest. We can talk - but only briefly. And be quiet! The Minnesotan is a light sleeper.
My name is Martin Van Buren. I am - I was - the 8th President of the United States. I was a founding member of the Democratic Party, but turned coat in 1848 to run for President on the ticket of the Free Soil Party, for which the ghost of my former master, Andrew Jackson, cursed me to live forever, condemned to wander the Earth for all of eternity, burdened by the weight of my betrayals and failures.
In my eternal travels, I honed and perfected my magical talents, using them to defend the weak and defenseless from dark warlocks such as Lewis Cass. I thought myself unbeatable… until he showed up.
I have never seen such raw power. I never stood a chance - Mondale defeated me, turned me into chutney, and absorbed my powers and my essence. But still I lived - Jackson’s curse perpetuating the existence of my spirit even in the absence of my body.
So, I did as I have always done - found a way to turn my misfortunes to advantage. Mondale knows I survive, but does not know how self-aware I remain, and I have used that fact to my benefit. I have spent the last half-century searching for a weakness, something that can defeat Mondale once and for all. And now, I believe I have found it - a chosen one, one anointed to rid the Earth of the infection that is Mondale. Please, you must listen closely, and seek out this person. Their name is-
No! The wretched Presbyterian wakes! Please, there is no time! Seek him! Seek -