"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)
“I think people are taking it way too seriously,” said novelist Chuck Palahniuk at a Los Angeles press conference to promote the always dizzying, sometimes ditzy movie of his 1996 cult hit “Fight Club.” Four years ago he pulled together this saga of disaffected drones who gather secretly in basements to whop the bejesus out of each other. The antiheroes’ “fight club” is a primal men’s group: These guys want to escape despair. But Palahniuk was not writing a prescription or a manifesto.
“It’s a scenario; it’s a what-if?; it’s a proposal,” Palahniuk insisted. He might have been mischievously signaling that he knew how radical his work really was. For “Fight Club” on film (as in print) is akin to the out-there satirical “proposal” that Jonathan Swift wrote when he suggested that the Irish could overcome their poverty if they sold their babies as food.
Of course, if I were facing a room of tired, testy radio journalists, I would have been tempted to present a full-blown position paper complete with polls and diagrams. There was a tense exhaustion in the air, as if the press didn’t want to deal with a 139-minute movie that serves up, with equal panache, perfectly cooked and half-baked ideas.
“Fight Club” tells the story of a representative Gen X-er, billed in the movie as “the narrator” (Edward Norton), who suffers from insomnia, depression and terminal consumerism. (The film contains an uproarious attack on advertising for the IKEA home-furnishings chain.) For a while he derives comfort from enrolling in support meetings for critical diseases. But he finds long-lasting relief only when he teams up with a mysterious new friend, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), to organize a counterculture that’s not about peace and love.
In Tyler Durden’s fight club, alienated guys get in touch with their inner primates via bare-knuckled scraps that leave them scarred and happy. To Palahniuk, these sessions are like “a Pentecostal Church meeting, or a mosh pit. Some very gestalt expression of rage to the point of exhaustion.”
“Chuck is connected to the whole underground world in Portland, and he makes it sound like Los Angeles is Dubuque in comparison,” screenwriter Jim Uhls told me later. Maybe that’s what gave Palahniuk the confidence to wield such wild tropes as “the rules of fight club” like a comedy hammer. (The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.) His combination of verbal gamesmanship and quirky observations took the moviemakers to unexpected and unsettling places. Once Tyler Durden puts fight club on a solid footing, he assembles an army to execute an explosive nihilist/anarchist campaign called “Project Mayhem.”
I think the result is often potent: a cautionary parody of unhappy individualists sliding into fascism. (One critic has already dubbed the movie fascist, period.) When Tyler’s black-shirted legions fund their activities with luxury soap made from human fat, it’s difficult not to think of Nazis. But when I asked Palahniuk if the soap was meant to refer to the concentration camps, the short answer was no.
“The soap thing,” he explained, “was based on my friend Alice, she taught me one day how to make soap.” Alice regaled him with the myth that soap was invented when water seeped through the burnt pyres of human sacrifices and merged with melted body fat. That evening, when Palahniuk’s sister called from Canada, she reported “that the Canadian government was falling farther and farther behind in incinerating liposuction fat” and it was starting to fill up the Alberta prairies. Palahniuk thought he knew what they could do with bags of human fat. He said, “It just sort of clicked.”
“Just sort of clicked” — exactly! Both book and movie are at once hilariously self-aware and flippantly unexamined. For example, Palahniuk and his friends were complaining about emotionally absent fathers, so he put the issue into the novel and made it part of a Gen X anthem. The characters come off incongruously oblivious to everything boomers have discussed on talk shows for 20 years.
“Fight Club” will leave with-it audiences giggling, gasping — and scratching their heads. But it has set the mainstream press shuddering at the notion of hordes of impressionable youths leaving theaters and threatening law and order.
Sniffing the potential for media disaster, director David Fincher seized the high ground and declared that what made the bloodshed in “Fight Club” different from that in, say, “Blade,” was this: “‘Fight Club’ puts violence in a context that is moral.” He testified that he’d even experimented with deleting some of the violence, but found that it made the remaining graphic episodes seem more vicious. Having preempted all the ethical arguments against it, Fincher went on to say that he saw the film as the journey of the narrator to maturity, and that he hoped it would appeal to people who are not doing what they want to do and are tired of letting others define them.
Fincher brought up his unique affinity for the anti-consumer angle as a renowned director of commercials who made “lifestyle” ads in the ’80s — lite-beer slots selling fantasies of nocturnal cities with sleek blonds in black cocktail dresses. Yet before Fincher could expand on turning commercial techniques inside-out in “Fight Club,” he was deflected into discussing a tentative adaptation of James Ellroy’s “Black Dahlia.” He won me over when he was asked whether he thought Ellroy was from another planet. “Yes, he’s from another planet,” said Fincher, “but in a great way.”
Also from another planet — Planet Gen X? — is the consistently brilliant Norton. The high point of his Q&A came early, when he characterized “Fight Club” as “this weird millennial ‘Catcher in the Rye.’” When asked the dangerous “What’s the message?” question, Norton gamely talked about the tangle of complaints and themes in the book, and how they called for a director capable of handling “dialectic” and “moral ambiguity” — as he thought Fincher had done triumphantly in “Seven.” He explained the dialectics of “Fight Club”: “Tyler’s practical execution of this idea of self-liberation through a kind of anarchism: Is that negative? Did that become negative in its own right? Did people who were surrounding him lose their identity as much as they had been before they got into this whole thing? Or was this narrator afraid to go the final mile?” Norton praised Fincher for leaving the audience “without essentially a pat theme or a glib conclusion; it doesn’t get wrapped up in a neat package for you so you can walk out and go, ‘Oh, the message of that film was this.’”
So far, so eloquent. However, when Norton spoke about chortling with recognition over Palahniuk’s book, he conveyed a Gen X tunnel-vision. Reading it, he said, “You instantaneously remember little passages, like: ‘We’re the first generation raised on television, and we’ve been raised to believe that we should all be millionaires and rock stars and everything, and we’re discovering that most of us aren’t, and we’re getting very upset about that.’” Norton turned 30 in August. He accepted the book’s notion that his generation is “having its value system largely dictated to it by advertising culture.” He agreed with Palahniuk that many of his peers thought they could achieve “spiritual happiness through home furnishing,” only to wake up to the emptiness of “acquisitions” and a “received value system.”
There may be something to Norton’s belief that “my generation is having its midlife crisis in its 20s.” Yet many another graduating class has claimed to be the first raised on TV; Sinclair Lewis was pillorying all the other stuff 70 years ago.
Norton keeps touting this movie as “The Graduate” for the ’90s. To a lot of us who saw “The Graduate” in the ’60s, what limited it was precisely its youth-centric self-absorption. Norton was particularly proud that Fincher had let him and Brad Pitt add a bit about bashing a new Volkswagen beetle with baseball bats. “There’s the perfect example of the baby-boomer generation marketing its youth culture to us as if our happiness is going to come by buying the symbol of their own youth movement.” But isn’t the VW bug the perfect example of boomers peddling their youth to themselves?
I happened to sit next to Jim Uhls, the screenwriter, at the press screening. He laughed all through the movie. And he had a functioning sense of irony: When I asked him to pick a place where we could meet privately to discuss this epic about the tyranny of brand names, he boldly suggested Starbuck’s.
Two days later at Starbuck’s, Uhls was still laughing. Why wouldn’t he be? “Fight Club,” his first produced script, will at least be a cause cilhbre. Uhls, who studied theater and film at UCLA from 1983 to ’85, had been peddling a spec script that suggested he had the temperament to transpose Palahniuk’s novel.
Uhls describes that script as a “romantic comedy, but not a typical romantic comedy. It has to do with the characters’ attitudes toward a healthy relationship, which is a lot of behavior which seems unhealthy and harsh to each other, but in fact does work for them — because both characters are out on the edge psychologically.”
A movie executive who had read “Fight Club” in galleys remembered Uhls and guided his spec script to Fox 2000, where the novel had landed. Before Uhls began his adaptation, one of the producers, Ross Grayson Bell, got him and Palahniuk in a room together for a creative bonding session. Uhls didn’t share Palahniuk’s hard-knocks background, but he did identify with the emotions in the book.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been in a physical fight,” Uhls says, “but I do remember that a lot of strange emotions come out, not all of them bad. It’s an adrenaline experience. When I read the novel I warmed to it, not because I have exactly the same sensibility as Chuck but because I felt a connection to the emptiness and the numbness of the lead character’s life. I think everyone’s gone through periods like that, and has questioned the overlay of consumerism and commercialism in the society around them. The book is more of a dream than the movie, in the way it establishes the emotional logic of why something would follow something else. But Chuck was enthusiastic about us trying to create a more realistic structure. And he was very complimentary later about the way we had aligned the story.”
For example, in the film, as Tyler veers crazily into non-fight-club activities, he terrorizes a convenience-store clerk at gunpoint. “In the book, it was the narrator who does it,” says Uhls, “and he does it at a time when cause-and-effect wouldn’t necessarily lead him to that point. We thought it was more powerful for Tyler to do it, to affect the other character. And when Tyler does it, it’s part of an escalation. Especially in the second half, we wanted Tyler to be pushing things further and further.”
When Fincher left to do his post-”Seven” picture, “The Game,” Uhls found time between “Fight Club” rewrites to tackle his next big script: an adaptation of “Last Train to Memphis,” the first part of Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis Presley biography. Uhls comes from Cape Girardeau, Mo., a small city on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Memphis that is flavored with Delta culture. Uhls wound up writing “essentially an original script about Elvis Presley, drawing heavily on Peter’s research and on his feel for the people.” He contrasted Presley’s relationships with his nurturing Sun Records producer Sam Phillips and his glitzy breakout manager, Col. Tom Parker.
“Elvis really wanted to be a movie star, and he needed Tom Parker to make that happen,” says Uhls. In his script, there’s “a sad transition” from Presley’s authentic music-making with Phillips to his association with Parker, “who represented the slickness of show business, and if you got right down to the core of him, the carnival. That’s where he came from. The carnival influenced how Parker thought of merchandizing Elvis Presley.” Uhls uses the death of Presley’s mother after he went into the Army “as the closure to this part of his life. That devastated him psychologically and changed him as a person and emptied him out emotionally.” But in Uhls’ vision, Presley is less a victim than a tragic hero — he participates in his own diminishment from grass-roots sensation to hound-dog-man in a gilded doghouse.
Working on “Fight Club,” Uhls found Fincher to be a “terrific” writer’s director, “focusing in on the story and the philosophy of it, and the tone.” Uhls and Fincher wouldn’t touch some of Tyler’s misdeeds — not because they were too extreme, but because they muddied the issues. “We thought Tyler wanted to get rid of the construction of society, but not kill people; we wanted him to have a clear philosophy, and it was not about killing people but about creating a world to leave behind for people.”
In general, the adapter’s task was one of aesthetic refinement, not wholesale invention. Uhls took Palahniuk’s pungent first-person prose and supplied a narration as torrential — and modulated — as that of “Trainspotting.” “We didn’t want the voice-over simply to help support the narrative or to bridge one part to the next. We wanted it to be ironic commentary and maybe even somewhat of a counterpoint to what you see take place in the scenes.” Did the finished film have the tone they’d wanted? “Oh yeah — at least for me, there was nothing so dark it couldn’t be funny. It’s got a harsh, edgy, textured sort of feel.”
Adapting Palahniuk’s powder-keg of a novel, Uhls had to be sure where to place the detonations. “I think that fight club begins as a simple empowerment of the individual. People who have elected to do this with each other get together in basements and fight. It starts out as a natural magnet, picking up people however they happen to hear about it. But after Tyler realizes what fighting can do for you, and that going back to a sterile, consumer-driven society is purposeless, he decides that society has to be dismantled, and he changes course. Basically, when Tyler forms an army to generate whatever the verb for anarchy is, he and the narrator separate.
“Everything happens in slow increments. But at one point the narrator says, This has gone too far. When you go out and blow up a building, you’re not doing it in agreement with the people who own the building. Even if care is taken that no one is in the building, it’s a destructive act to civilization as we know it. One way this might work for an audience, is: If you come a certain distance with Tyler, and continue to follow his logic, you realize at a certain point that he’s going to have to tear everything down — and you may not be ready to tear everything down. What should be done? What is the answer? In the end, the movie leaves the questions in the air.”
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)