"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)
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Some years ago I was channel flipping and came across a shot of headlights moving along a street at night, accompanied by a Beethoven string quartet. Though I couldn’t articulate why it filled me with such a melancholy feeling, something about that combination transfixed me. It was as if an essential image of modern rootlessness had been made to talk, to express a deep need for connection. After a few seconds I realized I was watching director Jean-Luc Godard’s 1984 “First Name: Carmen,” which I’d seen a few years earlier and hadn’t liked. And as the movie went on, the spell cast by that Beethoven-scored shot evaporated very quickly.
There’s always something a little dangerous about saying that an artist has never recaptured the excitement of his initial work. Too often that attitude is just a way for audiences to rationalize their own refusal to let an artist grow and change past the qualities that first attracted them. The growth Godard shows in the 15 movies he made between 1959′s “Breathless” (“A bout de souffle”) and 1967′s apocalyptic and deeply frightening “Weekend” covers a distance in style and sensibility that most filmmakers don’t approach in a lifetime.
And I have to be honest here and say that, while I long to believe the praise about the return of Godard that has greeted films like “Tout va bien” (1972), “Numero deux” (1975), “Every Man For Himself” (1979), “First Name: Carmen” and “Nouvelle vague” (1990), none of the films he’s made since “Weekend” have captured me in the same way. Though fragments of them have: those headlight shots in “Carmen,” the sight of an aged Eddie Constantine (reprising his “Alphaville” role of detective Lemmy Caution) wandering through a run-down Germany in “Germany Year 90 Nine Zero” (1991), the beautifully lit rooms of a mansion at twilight seen from the outside by a camera tracking along them in “Nouvelle vague” and the scenes of the French band Les Rita Mitsouko recording an album in “Keep Up Your Right” (1987).
The most heartbreaking thing about Godard’s later work is the look of his movies. It’s fair to say, especially in “Carmen” and “Detective” (1985), that Godard achieved one of the richest mature visual styles in films. Bathed in browns and golds that seem to be glowing from within, the movies depict human flesh with a richness that Ingres would admire. But Godard seems to have lost all interest in what’s going on beneath the flesh, and even the assumption that something is. “Kids today are scum,” he declares in “First Name: Carmen” in his role as “Uncle Jean,” a broken-down old movie director. It’s hard to laugh at this self-deprecating turn because it so obviously expresses the contempt and exhaustion evident in the rest of the movie. It’s as if he finally reached the state described by the title of his first film “A bout de souffle”: at the end of breath.
Exhaustion is not something you’d expect from watching Godard’s ’60s films — immolation maybe. The 15 films from “Breathless” to “Weekend” fly through possibilities of style perhaps even faster than they fly through ideas. If there is one misconception about Godard that deserves changing it’s that he is a cold, cerebral filmmaker. Yes, his films are filled with quotations (often spoken directly to the audience) from books and films, slogans, interpolated titles, philosophical concepts, musings on the very nature of movies and, especially as they go on, political agitprop. But no one who worked as fast as Godard (15 features and several shorts in eight years) could be expected to develop ideas fully. Instead what we often get are fragments, as beautifully structured as an epigram or as sloppily inserted as a note scribbled on a scrap of paper, and often abandoned as suddenly as they are introduced. This isn’t to say that Godard’s ideas aren’t worth considering. No filmmaker has ever been more profoundly obsessed with the question of how movies, even ones made at the speed Godard worked, could keep pace with a culture that was both fragmenting and accelerating.
Responsive to pop, Godard refused to be limited by it. His first film, “Breathless,” dedicated to the B-movie studio Monogram Pictures, was a poeticization of the grubby little gangster movies championed by Godard and his fellow critics at Cahiers du Cinema, Frangois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette among them, who went on to become the leading filmmakers of the French New Wave. “All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun,” he once said, and breaking the appeal of noir down to those elements freed him from the genre’s limitations. In this sort of love story between a small-time French hood (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and an American girl (Jean Seberg) abroad, Godard got at the intersecting and clashing sensibilities of the two cultures that had formed him. “Do you know William Faulkner?” Seberg asks at one point, and Belmondo replies bluntly, “No. Who’s that? Some guy you slept with?” But it was the film’s style, particularly Godard’s invention of the jump-cuts (cutting within the same camera setup as opposed to from scene to scene or from actor to actor), that startled audiences and (even today) led some to accuse him of being a slipshod craftsman.
“Breathless” is still startling to audiences used to conventional storytelling; for others, it’s the only Godard film they like. Only one of the films that followed had the same poetic approach to the crime genre (1964′s almost unbearably tender “Band of Outsiders”); most became more fragmented. Godard liked to say that he was writing essays rather than telling stories, and that’s certainly true of films like “Masculine-Feminine” (1965), whose subject has been famously described by its line “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” and “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” (1966), an elegiac meditation on the dissatisfactions of consumer society and the ways in which film has and hasn’t been co-opted by that society.
Both attracted to and repelled by that culture, Godard fought to get all his conflicting feelings about it on film. Filled with ad graphics and movie posters, soundtracks whose music often sounded like a battle of the bands where Mozart fought it out with Sylvie Vartan, Godard’s films essayed the sponge-like quality of pop. At the end of “Two or Three Things” the packages of consumer products are arranged in the grass in a mock-up of the preplanned apartment complexes we’ve seen blighting the outer borders of Paris; the whole image, visually beautiful and somewhat ominous, suggests the merging of the natural and the manufactured. As does the scene of the ye-ye singer Chantal Goya, in “Masculine-Feminine,” recording her latest number, perfectly content as she turns herself into a shiny new product. Likewise, in “La chinoise” (1967), Godard’s chilling and sympathetic portrait of radical youth, the piles of Mao’s little red book that litter the radicals’ apartment have the allure of a new car.
But Godard’s political and social preoccupations have often obscured the emotion of his films. As analytical and cerebral as they were, Godard’s films were also deeply romantic, whether the object of his affections was youth, the movies that remained his obsession or the Danish actress Anna Karina, who, before their divorce in the late ’60s, starred in five of his films. The camera regards Karina with a mixture of adoration and bafflement, completely enraptured with the pigtailed schoolgirl she plays in “Band of Outsiders” and the eager young wife in his musical “A Woman Is a Woman,” or suspicious of what that beauty might hide, as in the flawed and deeply affecting “Pierrot le fou” (1965), where Karina lures bored bourgeois Jean-Paul Belmondo into an imbroglio of gun smugglers and murder. If Godard’s view of Karina was limited by the jealousies and pettiness of male sensibility, he was also aware of his own complicity in the shortcomings of romance. In 1963′s “Contempt” (“Le mepris”), a film that relentlessly ties the breakdown of a marriage to the breakdown of film’s ability to function as an art, a single moment of male thoughtlessness on the part of a struggling novelist and would-be screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) starts the process that unravels his relationship with his adoring wife (Brigitte Bardot, giving the performance of her life).
The fever to encompass more and more of the world in his films and to force himself to find a new film language with which to express his perceptions reached its peak in 1967′s “Weekend.” One of the seminal works of the decade and of movies as a whole, “Weekend” is a film about which it is impossible to ever resolve your feelings. Coming at the moment when the counterculture had reached its most expansive and celebratory height, “Weekend” is Godard’s vision of the breakdown of society. The movie is both raging and distanced, horrifically funny and often just horrific. It’s a movie designed to start arguments about its intent, its execution and its effect, which can be violently upsetting (the first time I saw it I left the theater shaking).
In the film, a bourgeois couple leaves the city for a weekend in the country and encounters the carnage of a car wreck, figures from history and finally a band of cannibal hippie-guerrillas whom, Godard appears to be saying, are both the logical outcome of this society and the promise of the “return to zero” from which a new society will come. The movie holds no answers, and perhaps only a filmmaker at the peak of his craft could remain in control making a film about breakdown. In the course of watching the film you begin to feel that the cogs of civilization itself are grinding to a halt and springing madly from their mechanism. It’s no surprise when the film closes with the words “End – End of story – End of cinema.”
And it wasn’t a joke, either. Godard spent many of the following years as part of a radical filmmaking collective, sometimes not signing his name to films, sometimes turning out pictures whose main purpose was a maddening theoretical didacticism (as in the 1968 “Le gai savior”). There has been the occasional heralded return to “commercial” filmmaking, but though even in the ’60s Godard’s films didn’t attract wide audiences outside of the festival circuit, his post-’60s work has made him almost entirely the province of critics, theorists and academics.
It’s a mistake, however, to relegate Godard to the trash heap of the ’60s, as some of his detractors in the generations of film critics that followed have been so eager to do. If the films he turned out in that decade are redolent of their time, their astounding technique, their driven freedom, the seeming contradiction of their sometimes maddening and even cryptic attempts to break through to a plain, shared language have kept them some of the most exciting and alive films ever made. I’d be hard pressed to name an artist in any medium who developed and changed at the almost frightening pace Godard did. If his films haven’t aged, neither, in the right hands, did the techniques he pioneered. It’s startling to see Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Besieged” (that director’s finest film in years), encounter its use of the jump-cuts Godard introduced 40 years ago and realize how utterly modern, even ahead of their time, Godard’s films still seem.
That Godard has produced nothing to match “Besieged’s” examination of the intersection of love and art and culture and race and language is a tragedy. But perhaps expecting a director who accomplished so much in eight years to continue at that rate is to expect Godard to be superhuman. The formal perfection of his late work is a heartbreaking reminder of what it is missing, of how it’s the work of a man born to make movies, and who no longer seems to have any idea what good that is.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
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)