"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)
Theresa Duncan’s widely praised CD-ROM games for girls have sported whimsical, fulsomely cute titles — Chop Suey, Smarty, Zero Zero — and have struggled to offset the splatterfest tit-show that governs much of the current gaming scene. But Duncan is no soft-focus cornflower scourge to the platoons of polygon-wielding code boys. Nor is she the pigtailed digital minx — Silicon Alley’s dream girl — who coolly winks from the dozens of photos that have graced reviews heralding her narrative-intensive projects as the kinderfeminist’s answer to Maximum Barbie.
She is instead a thoroughly savvy and, by her own admission, predatory businesswoman who just happens to possess a spunky narrative sense and an affection for old-school children’s books, as well as chutzpah by the gallon. Spending an hour with her in the Manhattan offices of her stakehorse, Nicholson NY, you can almost hear the pitter-pat of the business-magazine profile writers in the distance. With her streaky blond hair, braided in signature twin tails across her strap-halter-encased collarbones, thick stripes of black eye shadow and Paper magazine wardrobe, she could be a Condi Nast scout or a stylist for Marc Jacobs. Duncan’s image is just that, however; beneath lurks the spirit of a true player.
I’m immediately taken aback. I’m wearing a suit — a cotton summerweight Brooks Brothers suit that isn’t doing its job on a muggy and overcast August afternoon — so as to better confront the diva-ish Duncan. But I’ve completely overdressed for the meeting at Nicholson’s Puck Building suite — the kind of place where molded plastic chairs in very retro burnt avocado await the arrival of the first iMac. Plus, I’m in no mood to come off as a prototypical Alley scrivener, swaddled in St|ssy, Gap khaki and treads by somebody with point guards on the payroll.
Duncan’s latest undertaking is an hour-long, digitally animated mockumentary film called “The History of Glamour.” It’s a merciless satire of New York’s incestuous ’90s cultural moment: fashion, art, celebrity and various downtown style tribes converge and are shredded for our delectation. Clearly, Duncan is growing up, and I want her to think she’s being interviewed by an adult.
That didn’t work. Duncan, at 29, is engaged in a sort of preemptive maturation driven at least partially by market forces, and all my delusions of simpatico — not to mention the theory that I might snag a few pointers about exiting my current Peter Pan mode — quickly vanish. Duncan is making it up as she goes along, counterbalancing her Liz Phairish tomkitten chic with fabulous press and a slightly ballsy manner that at times can be patronizing.
I cringe a little, for instance, when an e-mail response from her describes Manhattan’s mopey gallery circuit as “the rarefied world of the New York art scene,” from which was drawn a “Glamour” collaborator, artist Karen Kilimnik. Duncan says that if she used live actors in her work, rather than just voices, she’d want to follow the ensemble model of Woody Allen, Hal Hartley and … Werner Herzog! She is not a woman who levels her cross hairs on the middlebrow, but the naked aspiration strikes me as more than a little overwrought.
Nothing to get all that ruffled over, of course, since her bootstrapping enthusiasm and indefatigable confidence in her ability to get noticed have resulted in a crucial whammy to the core assumptions of the interactive gaming cabal. “I’ve been thinking of us in terms of something like the Warhol factory,” she says when asked about the composition of her creative team, which includes illustrator/boyfriend/partner Jeremy Blake and Washington, D.C., punk stalwart Brendan Canty of Fugazi, plus former Bikini Kill bassist Karhi Wilcox and a pair of Mac-jockey animators. It’s a telling comparison: Like Warhol, Duncan’s business is her art, and even if she hasn’t completely abandoned her childish ways, she knows exactly what she wants.
“I was initially attracted to CD-ROMs because they’re driven by the reader’s curiosity,” Duncan says, “and for kids they offer multiple points of entry. But I really wanted to make something for adults, because with kids’ stuff you have to go through the parents to get to your intended audience.”
Of course, this turn has been prompted at least in part by the consolidation of the CD-ROM business, which now resembles the assembly line universe of so much other children’s publishing and entertainment, controlled almost entirely by licensers and a few central distribution outlets. For Duncan, the Web doesn’t necessarily represent an escape from this kind of constraining uniformity. But she doesn’t buy into the notion that the digital future is all secure transactions and Dow Jones downloads, either.
“Every time anyone talks about content on the Web anymore, it’s with a sneer. There a kind of Schadenfreude, like, ‘OK, now the artists have to move over and make way for the advertisers.’ But the idea that it’s all about e-commerce now is ludicrous, because everyone knows that’s not making any money either.”
In this sense, Duncan’s switch to film signals a savvy betrayal of the secret of her success. If anyone would know when to get out of a failing medium — or decline to take a stab at the one that’s now garnering all the frosty press — she’s the one.
“With the new project, I was interested in examining glamour as a semiotic system,” she claims, revealing her slightly wonkish academic background (her senior thesis at the University of Michigan was on technology and narrative). “In the film, the main character is looking for an identity, and glamour becomes for her a potent form of self-expression. She finds it very liberating, because she’s from a small town. But by the end of the story, glamour becomes limiting, then imprisoning, so she becomes a writer, chooses grammar over glamour.”
Duncan could be summarizing her own biography with these comments. There’s more than a vague resemblance between her and her antiheroine, Charles Valentine — who hails from the fictional backwater of Antler, Ohio, and who storms Manhattan with no coherent ambition beyond plying scams to get noticed (one of which involves smashing a window at the “Googenheim” museum with a fashionable baseball bat, dressed only in skimpy, iridescent underwear). Duncan herself was raised near Detroit and tumbled into CD-ROMs after first working as a rare-book cataloger in Washington, D.C. While her male colleagues at Magnet Interactive were enthusing over slaughter, she was putting $80,000 to a rather different use, spinning out the tale of two sisters who overgorge on Chinese food. Illustrated by Monica Geuse and narrated by David Sedaris, Chop Suey was praised by the Washington Post as “one of the finest stories-on-CD ever produced.”
Soon after, Duncan moved to New York, but by the time her second project, Smarty, came to fruition, the CD-ROM market had tanked and distributors were running scared. So Duncan took matters into her own hands, cold-calling stores and badgering magazine editors based solely on her avid perusal of mastheads. Gradually, a Duncan cult evolved, but it was short-lived. There was one more CD-ROM in the pipeline, Zero Zero, but after 1996′s Barbie Götterdammerüng, it was clear to Duncan that the good fight to empowering adolescent girls might be a field she’d want to surrender to the heavy hitters.
Her next frontier is indie-animation of the MTV variety, into which “The History of Glamour” could be tidily slotted. Charles Valentine, like Duncan’s preteen heroines, is an endearing individualist: pert lips, blond tresses and circumflex eyebrows mask a pilgrim soul with a built-in bullshit monitor. Fashion, with its host of pompous eccentrics (a crusty, limousine-dwelling agent, circa “Broadway Danny Rose”; a fashion editor whose mannerisms and diction are a mélange of Allure’s Polly Mellen, Vogue’s Anna Wintour and vintage Diana Vreeland; and a duo of pretentiously named designers), is an ideal medium through which to channel satire. Duncan’s own deep-dish clothes sense — desperately uncommon on the digital frontier — helps, of course.
“There’s a book that influenced ‘The History of Glamour’ called ‘Love, Loss, and What I Wore,’” she says. “It’s a series of strange little watercolor paintings of the author, Ilene Beckerman’s, outfits from childhood to the present. She describes all the things that happened to her in the outfits — being dumped, feeling beautiful, going to the prom, her mother dying, her marriage and divorce, her pregnancies. It’s a very spare but moving book. I, like Beckerman, remember incidents according to what I was wearing.”
Duncan’s shmatte devotion, which lent a hipster edge to her children’s projects, has now become the spur to her own developing sense of her glamorous horizons. Fox Searchlight is keeping tabs on her, and she has a literary agent at William Morris, with the possibility for a synergistic book deal hovering in the wings at HarperCollins. All the attention hasn’t slackened her verve for shepherding her projects through the media jungle, even though hustling up all her own press and advertising can be a drain. “I have such a passion for the product,” she says, “that I can do it better than almost anyone I could hire. Still, I’d love to be able to concentrate on the writing. But being in entertainment requires a lot of schmoozing.”
Her skeptical tone, however, disguises a genuine delight with the game she’s entered — a competition that goes beyond desktop animation and multimedia pioneering. Duncan seems to grasp concretely what dozens of other aspiring millionerds only understand in the abstract: that fluidity is pointless without products that can stand on their own. All the dazzling brainstorms in the world won’t amount to much more than a drizzle if consumers aren’t touched by what they buy — hooked, in a sense, on the personality pushing the fantasy.
Even though Duncan’s turn away from digital messianism, coupled with her gimlet attitudes toward multimedia’s artistic future, suggests that “The History of Glamour” is a retreat, in truth it’s a logical step toward the fulfillment of its creator’s master plan. A hard-working minor celebrity with an evidently carefree but actually quite deliberate business strategy, Duncan is exactly the sort of solo artist/entrepreneur one imagines surviving every market vicissitude — confirming that there’s no such thing as fleeting fame if it’s got talent backing it up.
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)