"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
gus Van Sant — filmmaker, music video producer, photographer, musician, clothes designer and, now, novelist — seems a little uncomfortable as he slouches over the podium to read from his first book, “Pink.” The book, with its experimental typefaces and thinly veiled references to real-life characters (the main character is an industrial filmmaker named “Spunky” who’s in love with a handsome young River Phoenix-like actor named “Felix”), is occasionally profound but difficult in places, and Van Sant seems to be having a hard time reading it aloud. Peering over his Elvis Costello-style glasses, he scans the faces in the crowd at this San Francisco bookstore and interrupts himself: “I think I’ll answer some questions now — I can get back to this later.”
It’s a generous gesture that reveals the respect Van Sant holds for his audiences — and proves that in person, as with his films, he’s much more interested in engaging people than he is in indulging them.
One of the first questions he’s asked is about the last scene of the film “My Own Private Idaho,” when Mike, a street hustler (played by Phoenix), is lying passed out on the highway and is picked up by someone who happens to be driving by.
“Who was it that picked up River Phoenix at the end of the film?” a woman wants to know.
Van Sant says that he intentionally left it ambiguous: “I was hoping that the viewer would project themselves into the film and decide for themselves who it was.”
Not satisfied with this response, the woman persists. “OK, then. Who picked him up in your version?”
“In my version?” he says, obviously amused. “In my version, I pick him up.”
After the book signing, Van Sant took a few minutes to talk with Salon about how Phoenix’s death inspired his investigation into other dimensions (i.e., “the pink”), his fear of selling out and why he wants art to be more like food.
Was writing a novel very different from the process of writing a screenplay?
Yes, writing the book was much more fun. Screenwriting is like a road map — you read it as you’re going, you’re looking at the finished thing as you’re working on it. One thing you don’t ever do when working on a film is go to a place unless you’re shooting, and even then you’re not really experiencing the place. When you’re writing a book, you can go to this place — even if it’s Paris, France — while you’re still sitting at your desk. I talked to other writers about this, and they were like, “Yeah, of course.” But I thought it was an amazing thing.
Someone asked if you were going to make a documentary of River Phoenix’s life, and you responded that this, “Pink,” was it. Is that true?
Well, yes, it is. This book is very much influenced by River. It’s a documentary of my life and existence through him. The reason I don’t like to say that is that a lot of the stuff, you could say, is a reaction to his death. The impetus of me writing is him dying. But the book is not about that, so I don’t like to bring that up.
The book seems like it is about much more than that, until the part where the Phoenix-like character, “Felix,” dies in a very similar way. At that point you start taking very specific scenes from Phoenix’s life and inserting them in less than subtle ways — he dies in front of a nightclub, his brother was there, and so on. If you were concerned about the comparison, why didn’t you make an effort to mask it?
I don’t feel like masking that sort of inspiration for the book. The book could be about anyone dying. It’s really about a character that’s grieving. It’s not necessarily even grieving, it’s just that you can’t figure out what happens, you know, where you go when you die. So everything is centered around that investigation. It’s hard to talk about the book in terms of real people, because then it becomes this other thing, like, “Who are the real people?” and “What happened to the real people?” And that’s not really the intention of the book. It’s more about what happens to people as opposed to what happens to those people.
You did a similar thing with “My Own Private Idaho,” inserting certain scenes almost verbatim from “Henry IV.” Was Shakespeare also a big influence on you?
No, not at all. Falstaff is, and I really came to know that
character through the Orson Welles film “Chimes at Midnight,” which had those
characters and the story of Prince Hal. On the whole, though, Shakespeare — as a writer and as a poet — is just amazingly fascinating. But I’m not very far into Shakespeare. I’d like to be. Even with the few plays that I do know, like “Henry IV” Parts I and II, I can keep reading those. There’s a lot there. There’s always new information to reveal itself.
There’s a theme from “Private Idaho” that recurs in “Pink” as well, one of men who “love, but they’re not in love.”
In that scene from “Idaho,” Mike’s telling Scott that he loves him. And Scott says that two men can’t love each other, they can only be friends. That’s actually a quote from
Walt Curtis, which is in his new book, a compilation of stories called “Mala Noche and Other Illegal Adventures.” One of the stories is about Raoul, this Mexican kid, and he and Raoul, they’re on a dirt road, and they’re waiting for a bus or something like that. They’re all by themselves, and he picks up a rock and says, “Do you love me this much?” And he says, “No.” And he says, “OK, do you love me …” and he picks a smaller rock, “Do you love me this much?” And
then he picks a little tiny pebble, and finally Raoul says, “Two men can’t love each
other, they can only be friends.”
I once got a fortune cookie that said, “He loves you as much as he can, but he
cannot love you very much.” That’s just a traditional theme that a gay man might experience if he has a lot of friends that are straight. He loves you as much as he can. Sometimes I think that happens between heterosexual couples, when you find somebody who’s just amazing and they
become your best friend and then the next logical thing is, you know, we
could be totally in love. Except they might say, “Oh, but no — no, I don’t
like you like that.” And it’s just like, why not? That can happen to any two people, but it often happens to two male friends.
In “To Die For,” you mock people’s obsession with image and with being on-screen. Now, in “Pink,” you make fun of filmmakers, presenting them as these pretentious and pathetic characters. In the book’s opening lines, Spunky says, “Once I was good, and now I am shamed. I have turned bad … I am looking for salvation. I am looking for the quick buck. I’ve sold out. I am spoiled by the system.” Is that true for you? How do you manage to work in a medium that you’re so critical of?
Yes, that is true. How do I keep working in it? I feel guilty about it. I was thinking of changing my name today, just to have some way around the kind of name brand situation that I’m in. Some people, they make use of it, it’s a power. Some people make use of it like a politician. A politician really needs to be a hands-on personality: “I’m the guy, this is what I think, and if you vote for me, I’ll do what I’m saying.” But there’s not any reason for a filmmaker to
be promoting what he does, because the film is there. If people say that the film is good, you’ll go. Maybe there’s an ad, but the filmmaker doesn’t have to go around getting free press and articles about his film.
In “Pink,” Spunky is listening to a local Christian radio station, and he says, “I think all art should be in the service of something like Jesus, and not in the service of the glory of the artists themselves.” Would that be your ideal?
Well, it just means that I want art to be like food — when you see a tomato in a
store, it’s a thing, you understand it, you know what it is. It’s part of life. And art should be like that, it should be organic, something that isn’t rarefied. It should be a group thing, it should not be removed — so that only this person understands it and that person has to explain it to you. It shouldn’t be issued as privileged information. It should be understandable by
the group. And that’s a utopian thing that I’m saying, but it’s the way
art used to be. In other times, I imagine — and maybe I’m projecting, maybe I’m
thinking that a Greek vase is understood by the Greeks in a
different way, maybe there were in fact elites who were the only ones who appreciated it –
but I imagine that art was made by people in the same way that furniture was made.
Something whose function is very certain, but that becomes art, too. It would be
nice to deconstruct all of that labeling.
You seem to both suffer from and yet make fun of the confusion that a lot of people of your generation seem to share — for example, one issue that Spunky struggles with in “Pink” is his guilt that he has stopped rebelling and has now “sold out.”
Well I’m sort of a child of the ’60s, and I still hold ’60s values close, you know.
There was something that happened then, but I have my own vision of it, and I’ve never applied it to anything. I have my own interpretation. When I was growing up in the
’60s, there was this amazing dichotomy between the practice
and the concept. The concept is paradise, and the practice is not paradise. But the concept is right. And the follow-through tries to get at it, but the problem is just human.
Who do you think are the most relevant young filmmakers today?
The young filmmakers not yet making big budget movies, they’re the ones most in touch with their culture. Harmony Korine’s “Gummo” got slammed in the L.A. press, but I thought it was pretty amazing. It seemed really open to me, really free.
Whatever happened with the Harvey Milk film you were reportedly working on?
Oliver Stone had developed about four or five screenplays, and I was working on it with Becky Johnston, the writer. But it wasn’t really working. One thing was, the character didn’t have a sense of humor. That was a very big problem, because I thought that was such a big part of who he was.
The first time I worked on it, I got fired. Then I made “To Die For,” and Warner Bros. called back and said, “Let’s try it again,” and I fell for it. Right now, they’ve got it at HBO. I asked if I could make a 10-hour version, not just about Harvey, but about the whole Castro. There’s a much bigger story there that you just can’t do in three hours. So I wanted to get a little closer. But it’s Hollywood — they get a little scared.
You’re next film, “Good Will Hunting,” is opening in a few months. What’s that about?
It’s about this janitor at MIT who secretly answers the problems left on the board by the professors. When he’s confronted, he doesn’t want anything to do with it. Robin Williams, Ben Affleck and Matt Dillon star in it.
In the book, “Pink” refers to this other dimension that exists outside of the ones we inhabit, not heaven exactly, but a place of potential salvation. How did you conceive of this other place, this other reality?
The one thing that you can be really, really sure of is that there is more. There’s more in the sense that there’s a future, you know, an hour from now, something else that’s a weird disconnected part of now, but its not here, right now. But you can be sure that in an hour from now there will be some more of what we have right now.
There is just definitely more. And that’s the kind of wild, unbelievable thing about reality. It doesn’t occur to you when you’re part of it, because reality is all about what’s real
and what’s in this reality, and it’s not anything about what’s outside of this reality. But if you just think about the other realities, it becomes unbelievably dumbfounding.
But ironically these explorations don’t make Spunky feel any less claustrophobic — they make him feel perpetually stuck in the present.
That’s the weird part of our dimension. There is only now. There is no such thing as
past and future, except in the way that we’ve been able to have a clock
go around and we can time it, and that means we can go, “Oh, I remember
you from five years ago, that was so long ago.” But it was the same time
then as it now, because it’s always “now.” Through the moon and the
sun going around, we have this passage of time and regenerating of
cells, but its all just a matter of transferring.
Is that why Spunky is panicked about recording everything, to have everything captured on film?
As a filmmaker, the first thing you find out is that you can lose film. The chapter when Spunky is talking about that, that is basically a story that happened to me. I made this first film — it’s actually the whole flip-book thing, that’s a re-creation of it — I made it, and I showed it to my friend. The next day it was missing, just gone. Later my friend said, “Actually, I took the film because I wanted to show my friends here how cool it was.” And I said, “Where is it? And he said, “I don’t know, I lost it.” That was my first film, and within two weeks, it was just gone.
What do you think about the Internet, where, theoretically, things could exist forever?
Well, I don’t know that much about it, except that it does seem like the Wild West. But
I had a really vivid and very strange and very scary thought, which
isn’t very original, but it was the first time that I really saw the
future of intelligence. It was machine, it wasn’t human, and it was
just hugely dominant. And I thought, wow, machines will take over and
humans are going to be like animals. We’ll just be organic fungus. And
the computers, the machine, the thing, once it gets its own
independence, will proliferate and become this huge intelligent
organism. It was the first time that I ever really understood that.
I’m sure it’s the subject of all kinds of science fiction, and I’m sure
that there are hundreds of people that have seen this and so forth, but I thought, it’s a logical step. When it finally gets to the point where it’s them calling the shots, and it can take care of itself, then it will be its own organism. And it’ll be fast enough that it can take over, and we’ll just
be like toads, basically, because it might just say, “We don’t need this
organism anymore, the organism’s a bummer. The organism is
bothering us.” And it’ll just blow us away. We’ll be back in caves, hiding
from these things that we’ve built.
Cynthia Joyce is a writer living in New Orleans.More Cynthia Joyce.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)