Space, Time, and Charlie Sheen

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Here is a story about a magical era-spanning, possibly dimension-hopping individual named Charlie Sheen, and how he reached through the ether to drop truth-bombs of wisdom upon my glossy little head.

But let’s back up to the year 1985. I remember exactly where I was when the National Enquirer broke the story of Rock Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis. I was in the back seat of the family car, waiting outside the hospital with my dad and siblings for my mother to finish some sort of cancer-type treatment I barely understood.

In my grubby 11 year old hands was a copy of the National Enquirer in question.

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from 1985 to 2015

Did my dad buy this tabloid, and I merely hijacked it? Or did I specifically request it at the neighborhood bodega? Could have went either way. I had recently discovered Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon II at my local library, which included a double-page spread of the Black Dahlia’s dead, dismembered, bloodless, and nude corpse. I didn’t understand much in the book, as much of it was quite adult; but I was piecing things together.

Everything I knew about Rock Hudson was filtered through my dad and reruns of McMillan and Wife. Everything I knew about the concept of homosexuality I learned from Eddie Murphy and the TV sitcom Three’s Company. And everything I knew about HIV and AIDS I learned from The National Enquirer.

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Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James in “McMillan and Wife”

We sat in that car for two hours waiting for my mother to come out of treatment. Every once in a while, my dad would drive the car around the block (because we were double-parked), but we stayed in that car on that hot Summer day. And I must have read that article about Rock Hudson about 50 times.

I have a theory, called “re-cycles.” I believe it is far from a new or original theory. I believe the Mayans had a re-cycle theory. So did Philip K. Dick and Terence McKenna.

So when I heard the news regarding actor Charlie Sheen’s HIV status, paraded as an “exclusive” on the very same tabloid as the Hudson story, nearly 30 years later—1985 vs. 2015—my mind filled with re-cycles.

This all went on as I watched Sheen recently reprise his role from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on the TV sitcom The Goldbergs. In both he plays “bad boy” Garth Volbeck, sitting in the police station waiting room and dropping wisdom on the uptight teenage girl sharing the couch with him.

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The Two Garth Volbecks

There was no question as to the potential redemption of the Volbeck character in the original movie—he seemed fairly content regarding his place in life. He was merely passing by—”junkie zen.”

But the inherent “joke” in the Goldbergs cameo is that Sheen had, since the original film, literally become that junkie. So when he says that one-word line “drugs” for the second time, we laugh because it is loaded with subtext.

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Because, by 2015, Sheen had become his own character—he and the dramatic persona inseparable, his career and life one big re-cycle of an Oliver Stone plot about an “innocent” tempted to the Dark Side.

The year after I read the Hudson Enquirer story, Sheen had just started to make it big, with roles in movies like Ferris Bueller and Platoon. Sheen’s more well-known brother Emilio Estevez was originally considered for the Platoon role, but director Stone decided to go with the more “realistic,” natural acting style of Sheen.

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My father, meanwhile, seemed to live out a partial re-cycle of the Hudson story as well as my mother’s (by now resolved) health problems. He was diagnosed with a bunch of heart and related illnesses, lost a lot of weight within a very short time, and died. All within less than six months.

By 1987, I used my allowance to proudly purchase my own copy of Hollywood Babylon from the mall’s Waldenbooks. I also purchased 1-3 rumor tabloids each week if I could, as well as an assortment of teen idol magazines. On my wall I had several pinups of Sheen; Googling images today, it is amazing how quickly I recognize those particular glamour shots, how they evoke this crazy sort of primal memory in me.

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Sheen’s movie Wall Street was released in 1987. Along with the baseball drama Eight Men Out in 1988, these were some of the last big meaty “drama” roles the still-young Sheen would star in; the actor quickly falling into a sequence of ensemble action films, raucous comedies, movie parodies, and, finally, just playing himself. Just continually playing himself—”the natural” that Stone found so much potential in.

So it was appropriate that Charlie Sheen played Charlie Sheen in the 1999 movie Being John Malkovich—complete with a guess at how an older Charlie might look like (bald with an unusually egg-shaped head). And now Sheen continually re-cycles his Malkovich appearance for the masses, living out his older years for us all to see “for real.”

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As opposed to the very private personal life of Rock Hudson, Sheen puts it all out on display. And so while his HIV diagnosis was much talked-about, it was hardly the seismic shocker and career-destroyer it was for Hudson. If anything, Sheen had become quite skilled at publicly destroying his life outside of HIV doing it for him.

And yet, as opposed to 1985, the National Enquirers of today have to work pretty hard to retain an audience and their pea-shaped attention spans. It better be good. It better have many twists and turns to keep the audience tuned in on their tablets and phones.

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There was a quote from Charles Manson some time back, to the effect that back in his time, “crazy” meant something; that now, everyone is crazy. Anger’s classic book on Hollywood scandals, and even its gory sequel, seem rather quaint by this point. Even the candy store tabloids have lost their bite, a combination of reality show recaps and weight loss tips.

And everywhere: re-cycles. It’s just what we do. Even Memento—a movie about re-cycles—is getting re-cycled.

I sought the tabloids as an adolescent to make some sense out of a world that—at home, at any rate—seemed to be filled with mysterious and only partially explained developments. I sought to be the master of what is known, and, more importantly, of what is Unknown.

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But after watching clips from Sheen’s “breaking news” interview on the Today Show with Matt Lauer—complete with a hastily cobbled-together logo in the background—I felt not only that I did not have any complete comprehension of the matter, but that I wasn’t even sure if I really knew what I thought I knew years ago.

All I have is a bunch of re-cycles. They are re-cycles, this is obvious to me…but that doesn’t guarantee any true meaning attached to them with which to unpack and enlighten.

Things may simply happen and re-happen with the blind, consistent rhythm of sun-up and sun-down. The existence of the two Garth Volbecks, separated by 30 years, may have been guaranteed by methods of quantum physics we just haven’t quite nailed down yet.

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And if time is ultimately an illusion, then maybe the two Garths are one-in-the-same. Maybe it was the same copy of the National Enquirer across those seeming decades. Maybe I am still sitting in the car in front of the hospital, not getting a straight answer as to whether my mother has cancer or not. Maybe I’m still 12, trying to figure out what the hell happened to my dad. Maybe I’m still carefully removing those Sheen pinups out of my issue of Tiger Beat and placing them on my wall.

Maybe.

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