"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)
Kevin DiNovis sits in a dark corner, hunched beneath a coat rack and wedged between two doors. From one door, the loud, brittle shudder of a 35 mm projector. From the other, the muffled moans of a makeshift movie theater. Every minute or two, someone exits the theater. And each time, DiNovis scurries up from his stool and buffers the inevitable slam by closing the door gently. “I know how it feels when you hear that sound,” he whispers.
DiNovis is working the back door of the 2000 Slamdance Film Festival, located — literally — across the street from the Sundance Film Festival’s famous Egyptian Theatre. DiNovis is volunteering his time to the festival that premiered his 1998 film “Surrender Dorothy” and presented him with the first of several awards that he would accumulate over an unprecedented 23-festival run.
While Sundance has busied itself with a TV channel, a clothing line and expensive, rustic-type furniture — while still maintaining its rep as the hipster Hollywood end-all — Slamdance has grown up in dog-years, becoming one of the biggest film festivals on earth in only six short years. Founded by four filmmakers rejected from Sundance, it was christened “Slamdance ’95: Anarchy in Utah — The First Annual Guerrilla Intl. Film Festival” before arriving at its current, much cooler truncation.
Sundance honcho Robert Redford threw down the original gauntlet himself by calling Slamdance “a festival that’s tried to attach itself to us in a parasitical way.” Now, with 2,050 submissions, Slamdance is statistically harder to get into than Sundance. Variety calls it “the unofficial Director’s Fortnight to Sundance” and Chris Gore’s “Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide” assures us that “Slamdance has become THE festival to watch for the next big thing.”
“The Daytrippers,” “20 Dates” and other Slamdance films have received major distribution. “Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life” and “Armagosa” have nabbed Oscar nominations. And Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Keri Russell and Billy Bob Thornton all Slamdanced on their way to stardom.
But in 1998 a strange thing happened. A scruffy little band of ruffians calling themselves Slumdance holed up in the cellar of a closed Park City cookie factory, tossing movies onto walls above filmmakers passed out from exhaustion and/or vice. By 1999, there were no less than nine Slamdance-wannabes with names like Tapdance, Laughdance and Independance, as well as the yet-to-be-confirmed Docudance, Netdance, Indiedance, HDdance, Shortdance, Streamingdance, Eurodance and Clonedance.
Skindance (formerly Sleazedance) was reported to run out of a 30-foot Winnebago fitted with tasseled headlights and privacy stalls offering such renegade fare as “Viagra, Viagra” and “Bitch Cassidy and the Bundance Kid.” Undance unspooled in a hidden room at the Underground Bar, where people were led in pairs to confront a short film about a monk thwarting ninjas with his prehensile penis.
Stinkdance is a Web site seeking the worst films ever made. “Dances on Wheels” occurred inside of a van before a gas leak threatened to blow the “theater” to smithereens. And Son-of-Samdance, despite getting international press, was a massive Web hoax, complete with juicy summaries of films that didn’t even exist (like “Some Enchanted Life: The Weird World of Robert Goulet”). Incidentally, by order of the Sundance-worshipping Park City City Council, none of these events can be called “festivals.” Only “assemblies.” Just so you know.
Then a February 1999 New York Times headline asked about Slamdance, “Is Success Seducing the Rebels?” Indeed, if Slamdance arose because of Sundance’s failure to identify with truly independent filmmakers, it stands to reason that the proclivity of “dance” suffixes reflects a similar identity crisis for the adolescent Slamdance.
“You can’t fault them for doing it, but Slamdance turned their backs” on the small-time filmmakers, says James Boyd, director of No Dance. No Dance is having a triumphant year three, utilizing attention given to the controversial rape/snuff film “15 Minute Tape,” giving out free back massages in the lobby and promoting itself as the first all-DVD film festival.
Boyd’s 1998 film “The New Gods” was rejected by Slamdance, perhaps due to a conflict of interest — Slamdance festival director Peter Baxter was one of Boyd’s producers. Park City’s increasingly incestuous interbreeding of talent continues to muddy boundaries. Actress Eddie Daniels starred in the 1998 Slamdance feature “Central Standard Time.” Today — sporting leopard-print hot-pants, pink tutu, feather boa and a stocking cap stretched atop a straw farmer’s hat — Daniels works for Slamdance. “I think all the filmmakers [who I've recently acted for] are kind of mad at me, blaming me that they didn’t get in,” Daniels says.
Although they’re outwardly congenial to one other, there is an obvious air of one-upsmanship among the upstarts. A Slamdance filmmaker stages a motorcycle jump on Main Street. Just up the block, actor Will Keenan appears to douse himself with gasoline, threatening to set himself aflame if onlookers don’t go see No Dance’s “Waiting.” Several people are disturbed enough to call 911.
Yet this cut-throat ballyhoo is crucial. Every third week of January, this tiny ski town is wallpapered with millions of multi-colored posters, each jockeying desperately for an angle — the poster for Slamdance’s “The Meeting” boasts, “From the Production Designer of the ‘The Blair Witch Project’!” Yep, the guy who tied up those twigs.
Festivals without this brand of mad zeal, like 1999′s Souldance — an awkward, self-conscious experience involving two people, a hotel room and a large-screen TV — may never return.
“There’s never enough festivals,” stresses Cabot Orton, co-founder of SlamDunk. “It is, lamentably, a public art form. Unlike writing or painting, it’s expensive, it’s collaborative, it takes a long time and a lot of work, and it’s really for the public more than it is for the individual filmmakers. There are very few people cut out to be filmmakers, but it’s an admirable thing to try.”
Three years ago, Orton and his partners staged SlamDunk as a publicity stunt to create a buzz around their unfinished feature film. But when they arrived in Park City, Sundance was bowing to legal pressure and kicking out Nick Broomfield’s contentious documentary “Kurt & Courtney.” Realizing that careers are made over breaks like this, Orton scrambled to screen the film at SlamDunk’s location — the Park City Elk’s Lodge. “Every cell phone in town was going off, people were running out of screenings to get there, we had 500 people in the street, and cops at the door running the whole thing,” Orton recalls.
SlamDunk alternates small, experimental works with brand-name productions. Orton raves about “Dogdance 2000″ (a film festival farce featuring the likes of “Pup Fiction” and “The Terrier Bitch Project”) as well as “Woman Wanted,” starring Keifer Sutherland, Michael Moriarty, Holly Hunter and directed by Sutherland under the pseudonym Alan Smithee. Sutherland allegedly removed his name when the film was reedited and re-scored.
“I could not believe they were considering showing it” at SlamDunk, says Orton. “I was very flattered, very honored and a little nervous. I’ve pleaded to have the cast come back and look at the film. Hey, if you’re out there reading this, Keifer Sutherland, stop being a childish fucking actor, watch this movie and be so proud of the work you did as a director. Scorsese and Fellini don’t edit and score their own works, and neither should you.”
SlamDunk offers a spread of Woody Harrelson-endorsed bottled oxygen, and screens its films in the basement of Harry O’s, a popular Park City night spot. To get to the screening area, you have to walk through the kitchen, where Mexican cooks stand with their arms crossed, vaguely disinterested, watching you like goldfish. When you sit down, your shadow blocks out some of the screen. Inevitably, at some point a viewer will collide with the aisle projector, knocking the film from the screen over onto the side wall, illuminating the menus and plastic flowers that betray the theater’s previous life as a dining room.
Also providing alternative media outlets at Harry O’s are Digidance, Jamdance, Webdance and Lapdance, the last of which was bandied about as the biggest and baddest party in Park City. This was due in part to the musical performance of DVDA, fronted by “South Park” brainiacs Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Parker and Stone — whose 1997 short “Spirit of Christmas” and 1998 film “Orgazmo” both premiered at Sundance — started off their set with a disrespectful little ditty called “Robert Redford Baby Fucker.” Muttered Parker to the howling crowd, “I believe it was this time last year that Robert Redford called us the lowest of the low.”
The grudge stems way, way back to 1994, when Parker and Stone’s first feature, “Cannibal: The Musical,” was forsaken by Sundance. The duo trekked up to Park City and screened the film anyway, and are therefore sort of spiritual forefathers of not only Slamdance, but the entire indie insurrection in Park City. “This year, 2000,” claims “South Park” and “Orgazmo” producer and Lapdance director Jason McHugh, “is as wild as I’ve ever seen it.”
Young, attractive hipsters exhaled plumes of steam into their cell phones as they waited in line for up to two hours to get in to Lapdance, ears freezing red because of their refusal to compromise their cleverly gelled hair with a winter hat. This is particularly amusing when you consider that it is nearly impossible to turn around in Park City without someone offering you a free stocking hat emblazoned with the logo of a film that has yet to be made, or, in many cases, even written.
So, although it is hard not to enjoy Lapdance’s anarchistic revelry, it is easy to see how Lapdance’s long lines also represent what is rotten in Park City. Park City is about being at a doorway and crossing over. It’s not about what you do once you’re allowed in, it’s about simply getting in — possessing that pass, holding that ticket, getting the Sundance seal of approval while everyone else presses their face against the icy glass.
Unfortunately, Park City caters mostly to Park City, not the rest of the movie-going universe. Hence the flood of self-referential, in-joke movies-about-movies — Sundance’s “A Sign From God” is about making a film; SlamDunk’s “Falling” is about a Sundance film; and Slamdance’s “Road to Park City” is “a film about a film about a film about a film” about getting your film into Sundance.
In the self-involved, egocentric scheme of Park City, it often feels as if everyone is making a movie about everyone else. An unsettling sign on my condo door read: “Entrance into this condo constitutes a tacit agreement to be videotaped and your likeness reproduced in any medium without any further consent by you. — Proprietor.”
“Road to Park City” dispels countless Sundance myths, including “Your film must be black-and-white and confusing enough that people won’t want to admit that they don’t get it” and “you have to be gay to get into Sundance.” Director Bret Stern cheekily announced during his Q&A, “We have a press release coming out. The whole crew is going to announce they’re gay.”
“R2PC” senses the subtle competition within the network of supposedly affable film festivals by issuing Pokimon-esque battle-cards that pit indie heroes against one another, like Atom “The Sweet Hereafter” Egoyan (Strength: strong visual style. Weakness: Canadian citizen) vs. Darren “Pi” Aronofsky (Strength: creativity galore. Weakness: obviously insane).
Troma films, the schlockmeisters behind such underground classics as “The Toxic Avenger,” are hosting a Tromadance party just down the street from Lapdance. Sweaty bodies are packed together like sausages. It’s so crowded, in fact, that the waxed, oiled and bikini-clad Miss Hawaiian Tropic contestants can barely nudge their way to the small stage. Outside the window, barely clothed dancers blow fire in the snow. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barks.
“Sundance sucks, and now Slamdance is going in the same direction,” says Troma president and ex-Slamdance sponsor Lloyd Kaufman. “They were in Cannes having this big party and they were keeping people out. It was horrible, it was disgusting, I was so depressed. We’re not going to sponsor them anymore, but hopefully they’ll [keep showing] some good movies.”
“We had a party at Cannes,” sighs Slamdance co-founder Dan Mirvish. “And unfortunately it was the hottest party that night and there were like 500 people trying to get in. But we did let [Troma] in as opposed to some executives at Miramax and Fine Line that didn’t get in at all. It was one of those crowded party things, what the hell are we supposed to do? People would’ve drowned on the beach if we would’ve let everyone in.”
For filmmakers shut out from the warm celebrity glow of Sundance, getting in to such galas represents the rare opportunity to play out their Hollywood fantasies. At Slamdance — whose unofficial mantra is still “By unemployed filmmakers, for unemployed filmmakers,” and whose screenings are, despite criticisms to the contrary, still stubbornly hot, crowded and uncomfortable — “Matt in Love” filmmaker Adam Kleid gushes about how he and Martin Scorsese were competing for the same New York location one day. “I took the day, he took the night, so it all worked out,” Kleid says, grinning from ear to ear.
“In case of emergency, your seat cushions can be used as flotation devices,” announces Mirvish to the capacity crowd sitting before him on folding metal chairs. He introduces the next film by pushing a button on his infant’s Fisher Price camera. “Lights! Camera! Cookie!” it squeals. “It’s like giving your kids candy cigarettes,” quips Slamdance projectionist Gabe Wardell. “It teaches them to spend lots of money on film at an early age.”
The false impression that Sundance gives is that this money will assuredly be compensated. “The nature of Sundance is that filmmakers’ expectations are, ‘Oh, I’m coming to get picked up.’” says Mirvish. “I think what Slamdance tries to do is emphasize to filmmakers that you might get picked up, and that’s great, but it’s also about getting your film to other festival directors and meeting other filmmakers and having a good time.”
What Mirvish means is that it is what you make of it. “I would kill to have my film at Sundance,” says No Dance’s Boyd. “It’s the best festival in the world. But the overcommercialization of it has created a watered-down product. For example, we’ve come a long way from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ to ‘Happy, Texas,’ where anybody off the street with $3 million to throw at actors is gonna get their film into Sundance.” Still, Boyd embraces No Dance as an inherent “Sundance tutorial” for filmmakers who might one day move on to the bigger, more economically encouraging festival.
It is true that Sundance’s impressive sales record has influenced filmmakers to create Sundance-formula pictures, thereby undermining the power of the medium. However, this is mostly the fault of the uninspired filmmaker. After all, Sundance also programs non-commercial, low-budget opuses, like the deliberately paced meditation of deaf black culture “Compensation,” or “Could Be Worse!” a documentary by gay filmmaker Zach Stratis about his family’s reluctance to accept his lifestyle; a documentary that includes several musical numbers performed by Stratis’ real-life sisters and aging, non-actor parents. No, really.
Executive producer Gill Holland — producer of 1998 Sundance triple-winner “Hurricane Streets” — writes in the Film Festival Reporter: “I am lucky enough to be involved with two [Sundance] productions (“Spring Forward” and “Snow Days”) … I also worked on “Home Sweet Hoboken” (making this my first official trip to Slamdance) and a short (“A Clockwork Maury”) in competition at No Dance. I do not even know what this last festival is, but the film is about Stanley Kubrick’s brother and it’s pretty cool.”
This “pretty cool” film, directed by Bob Leddy Jr., won the jury prize for best short at No Dance. Atom Films, one of the current leaders of online short film representation, has picked it up. “These people are aggressive marketers,” says Leddy. “They get out and shop your film to HBO, Canal +, BBC, to Japan, Australia, to airlines … They say their average short will make between $50,000-$60,000 in the first year. The days when a short meant nothing other than a calling card are gone.”
The overwhelming onslaught of net-based entertainment — or “dot-commies” as Slamdance puts it — seems a realistic (if financially unproven) end for many of Park City’s forgotten. “Sundance has gobbled up all of the physical space in Park City,” Slamdance co-founder Shane Kuhn says. “So we are moving to virtual space.”
Online distribution, unfortunately, is not yet equipped to handle feature-length films. Which makes it no use to Kevin DiNovis, whose “Surrender Dorothy” currently rests on a shelf — and not Blockbuster’s shelf, either.
“After my film won the Slamdance jury prize, I had lunch with a big agent in Beverly Hills,” DiNovis says, eyeing Slamdance’s back door for
defectors. “He said, ‘I didn’t see your movie, but I loved the reviews — I want to be in the Kevin DiNovis business.’
“And my heart just sank. I had been in the Kevin DiNovis business all my life, and I was dying to get out.”
Daniel Kraus is the director of the award-winning film "Jefftowne."More Daniel Kraus.
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)