"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)
Perhaps one explanation for the current near-absence of what we might call traditional movie eroticism is the preeminence of TV, video and the Web as media forms. TV used to aspire to be like the movies. Now the effort is going in the opposite direction, into making movies more like TV, ads, rock videos and Web sites. There’s a big difference between new-media sexiness and movie eroticism.
Video tends to make everything literal and raucous. Tasty bits aren’t just brought to the surface, they’re made ultrabrite, and actively go after your nerve endings. This is sex as special effects and packaging, all tweaked and Photoshopped. It’s sex for kids, the kind of sex you run out of energy for at about the age of 30 — around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, many people lose interest in new pop music. (Has anyone yet made a movie that has intriguing sensual qualities using this new pumped-up, one-blast-after-another, nonlinear language? Some would say “Fight Club,” others have made a case for “Run Lola Run.” I’d argue for “The Matrix.” Whatever the case, there haven’t been many.)
As it’s generally used and encountered, video is either in “sell” mode (snazziness and production values = you’re being sold) or “reality” mode (no professionalism = truth), interrupted by the occasional blast of ESPN2-style nutcase edginess: ahh, “excitement!” Your nerves get a jangling, but you may wind up feeling like a figure from one of those out-of-focus, dysfunctional-life-in-the-’burbs literary book jackets: a flattened, wispy creature romping wanly in a backyard somewhere, recalling — too late! — the bliss of not growing up.
No wonder younger people sometimes say they feel like oversated, over-focus-grouped consumers before they feel like anything else. During a water-cooler conversation with a lively young co-worker the other day, I made a passing reference to “adult pleasures.” “Such as what?” she said challengingly.
If media sexiness tends to be like a Big Gulp, movie eroticism can sometimes be like wine; it can have layers and depth. At its best, it’s about seduction and invitation, and it coaxes responses out of you, even if (occasionally) brutally. It’s almost embarrassing how basic some of the reasons for this are — so basic we often forget what they are.
For instance: Movies have beginnings and ends, while the many channels of video just go on and on. Within delimited movie space and time, structured experiences can be created that are comprehensible and discussable — you don’t need to banter with friends to get oriented, or to hold what you’re watching at a distance. Languorousness, so important to mood, takes on meaning in movies; in video it seems like an absence of pace. Just as basic is the fact that the movie image is far more detailed and denser than the video image. There’s simply more to take in — and because there is, you’re more likely to enter into its world.
The ritual of moviegoing contributes to the qualities we think of as cinematic. You go to a theater at a specific time. You haven’t just sat down with the remote. You’re in the movie’s home, not your own, and when a movie works, you rise up into it. You submit in order to discover, and the experience can be like exploring both the world and your own imagination. You’re doing this in the dark, of course, half in private and half among other people: Who needs Plato’s Retreat? The limitations movies impose — the schedules, the frames around the image, the beginnings and endings, everything that stands between them and virtual reality — can contribute to experiences that may reach you on a deep level even when a movie isn’t very good. Exceptions do abound, but video sexiness is generally about effects (and suggests masturbation), while movie eroticism suggests a way of experiencing, and interacting with, all of life. (Is it only me or do other people sometimes feel as though they’re surrounded by only two classes of Americans these days: happy masturbators and unhappy masturbators?)
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that sex conceived of as excitement that aims for nothing but to become faster and noisier always lets us down.
Had I been less startled, what I might have said to that young co-worker is that some adults discover a larger world of sensation when they view eroticism not as a restless search for arousal, but as a matter of sinking into the moment, whatever that happens to be, and exploring what’s there. Moviegoing can be approached in that spirit, and when it is, it can become an occasion for reverie and poetry, for lust, sadness and discovery — and for probably much else.
Let’s first clear our palates of a few common assumptions, the main one being that sex must always have to do with feeling bright, energized and cheerful — with feeling good. That’s an assumption best left to sugar addicts, Jolt fanatics, the crude and the very young.
The other is that pretension, absurdity and silliness are anti-erotic. A strength of Americans may be their lack of pretension. But rote anti-pretentiousness can cut you off from experiences you might enjoy — almost the entire French film tradition, for instance.
It may be that Americans would be better off if they were able to find pretension erotically amusing. Those French actors up there carrying on about anguish, sex and philosophy? It’s all make-believe, just light on a screen. French characters on the movie screen become what they always should have been, our playthings. What’s more absurd than what turns us on and our pursuit of that? We need to see the humor in our pursuit of erotic experience, and to learn that giddiness and sexiness can enhance each other.
Think of the Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse “Girl Hunt” dance sequence in “The Band Wagon”; it’s nothing but a stylish, swingin’ parody of Mickey Spillane novels, yet my mind has returned to it regularly and with intense erotic pleasure ever since I first saw it several decades ago. Charisse wears an impassive expression, a black Louise Brooks hairdo, and a huge, fluffy coat, which she sheds as though whisking the cover off the signature dish at Lutece. She stands forth in a bright-green mini-dress, its skirt made of fabric slats. Each one is a frame for her life-of-their-own legs, and Astaire’s reaction to her is a witty piece of calligraphy. Then the comic tango of lust and seduction begins. The sequence might have been conceived of by the writers at Mad magazine, yet, as choreographed by Michael Kidd and shot in MGM’s best rubies-and-emeralds colors, it has its own straight-faced heat.
There are many things about movies that almost force us to take them erotically. The detail and size of the image, the proximity we feel to the performers, the intensification of the situations through dramatic means, the kinesthetics of movement and scene changes, for instance. I’ll use a couple of familiar movies for illustration, “Basic Instinct” and “Chasing Amy.” Each features a blond, lesbianism and lots of dirty talk, yet they have strikingly different feels. A sommelier might ask you to focus on a wine’s color, its nose, its palate and finish. I suggest that if you ask yourself the following questions the next time you watch a movie, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself experiencing that movie more erotically. No money-back guarantee, but you can flame me if you’re disappointed.
What is the movie’s mood or tone?
Not because there’s any right or wrong answer, but because making the effort at putting some answer, any answer, into words is a way of opening your mind to the movie — you’ll begin to mix your thoughts and responses with the matter of the movie.
“Chasing Amy” is known for its raunchy dialogue and humor, but the film’s tone is full of regret — about losing friends, about realizing that hopes and possibilities have passed you by, about what can’t be unmade and how, like it or not, you finally have to live with that. It’s an unusual mix of the touchingly melancholy and the explosively rude.
“Basic Instinct” is flamboyantly melodramatic, hard-charging and intense, “adult” in an almost comically determined way. Its world is one of fantasy, antagonism and danger. It brings together the coarse and the glamorous; it’s the movie equivalent of a leather-faced old roué who comes on too hard, yet still has a few good tricks left to peddle. It’s like supercharged porn, square yet evil.
How does the movie engage your imagination?
“Chasing Amy” relies on its offbeat setting, and on unusual types — comic book artists and Jersey semi-hipsters. Its blond embodies a flaw in the script; you never really know what she’s up to. Yet that works because you keep hoping to find out. And with her big Martina Hingis smile, her downtown jewelry, her broad, flat Slavic-style face, she’s a whore/madonna who seems to exist only to fascinate Catholic boys, then make them feel inadequate. She’s a phantom, yet enticing.
“Basic Instinct,” on the other hand, uses voyeurism. We’re always trying to get a peek — we’re like the sweaty, overawed guys in the interrogation room who watch Sharon Stone uncross her legs. If the movie works for you, you may find that it hammers its way crudely into some of your dirtiest desires; it puts you in the position of peeping on your own fantasies. The sex shocks keep us off balance. We don’t know from moment to moment how far the movie’s going to go.
The icy, willful blond who’s probably up to no good is an image of mystery and eroticism from far back in movie history, and it was canny of writer Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven to use this image in a sexed-up thriller. As Verhoeven uses her, and as Stone portrays her, the Catherine Trammell character never loses her luster despite all the nudity. She’s seen with near-pornographic explicitness; we see the Stone beaver, yet she and her character remain mysterious.
This is a rare accomplishment, and it raises a question: Once everything you could ever want is not only made available but is pushed at you, how does erotic reverie flourish? It’s not just that nudity and explicit language can overwhelm reserve. It’s also a matter of what surrounds the movies today — the reports on movie grosses, the regular behind-the-scenes and how-they-did-it articles in Premiere, Entertainment Weekly and the Sunday supplements, and the confessional interviews. It’s too much. What remains to be found out?
How does the movie engage your senses?
Movies are, empirically speaking, made up only of image and sound — how absurd to talk about them engaging the other senses. Yet when, say, you eat a Moroccan dinner, it isn’t just your senses of taste, smell and touch that are tickled. In your mind, you see things (the Casbah!) and you hear things (belly-dancing music!). A note to the politically anxious: Fantasies seem to operate in terms of stereotypes and archetypes, and if they’re to be explored and enjoyed we mustn’t be too censorious.
“Chasing Amy” is full of cigarettes, beer bottles, old sofas, Army-surplus slacker clothes, Jersey parks and nothing-special chilly days. The first big emotional scene is set — movie convention! — during a rainstorm, but the argument takes place on a random industrial block, in front of a heap of stray cardboard cartons. In the midst of the film is the image of Joey Lauren Adams, her eyes and teeth wet, her face glossy with makeup and a little sweat, wearing a net shirt and smooching with a girl. She and the environment set each other off. The film’s writer/director, Kevin Smith, has sub-rudimentary camera skills, yet that works here — you fill in the camerawork yourself.
“Basic Instinct” is shot in Douglas Sirk-goes-insane colors that make you feel a prickle — hot sun on your skin, perhaps, or cocaine in your nose. The fast cars, the ice picks, the tanned flesh of Stone — it’s all luxurious to the point of repulsiveness, yet delicious, too.
What is your relationship with the performers?
Performers are nearly always the focus of our fantasies and speculations. Watching “Chasing Amy,” I find myself wondering and musing about Adams. That gesture she makes with her hands indicating fist-fucking — how did she feel doing that? Mischievous? Shy? Did the director have to overcome any resistance on her part?
Watching “Basic Instinct,” I remember that I’d been following Stone for years. I’d noticed that she’d learned something about acting since her performances in “King Solomon’s Mines” and “Irreconcilable Differences,” and that she’d developed some emotional daring. I remember too that shortly before doing “Basic Instinct” she’d done a photo spread in Playboy. Did an agent persuade her that it was now or never? Did a boyfriend? Did she decide on her own? Did she need drugs and champagne to get her through some of these scenes?
One could go on and on. And, watching a movie, one generally does. For men, speculation about actresses almost always boils down to two questions: What would she be like to fuck? And, what’s she like when she comes? But why stop there? Why not also wonder: What’s it like for her to know that so many people watching are having imaginary relationships with her? If I were her boyfriend and saw this movie, how would I feel about her performance? How would I feel about the way she has revealed herself? What kind of sex would we have after the screening?
Women’s erotic conjectures may tend to go off in other directions. I once overheard some female colleagues raving about the sexiness of the movie “Ethan Frome.” When I expressed surprise about their enthusiasm, they laughed and said, “You wouldn’t understand. It’s all about buildup.”
Such private and semiprivate speculations and fantasies are unavoidable parts of moviegoing. My feeling is that, since we’re going to have them anyway, we might as well indulge and relish them. Some filmmakers have been able to weave our thoughts and fantasies about performers into their films. The results have been such glories as “Trouble in Paradise” and “Tales of Ordinary Madness.” And “The Band Wagon,” come to think of it.
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If you’ve seen “Chasing Amy” and/or “Basic Instinct,” I’m hoping that you were comparing your impressions and memories to mine. Perhaps you had a moment when you were annoyed, or pleased. Perhaps you pulled back and gave your own memories and sensations a little musing attention.
It’s a pity these moments aren’t recognized and discussed more widely, because they can mean so much. When you’re in that state, it can seem as if space is being made available inside you for savoring; it can feel as if you’ve let go the day-to-day and dropped into something more essential and succulent; it can seem as if your mental focus has melted into the object or sensation of its attention. Everything stands in high relief, and seems available in a way it doesn’t in our usual lives. These falling-into-sensation-and-feeling moments can be terribly elusive. We don’t know how or why we get there. Often when we notice them, they vanish. But you can find your way back, over and over again. You can linger, extend, explore. You can — hint, hint — have sex while in this state. You can also watch and discuss movies while in it. Movies themselves can help us find and grow familiar with these states.
I’m as annoyed by the idea that movie-watching can be an art form as by the M.F.K. Fisher argument that eating can be an art form — moviemaking and cooking, yes, but not watching or eating. Still, movie-watching can certainly become a more adventurous, mysterious thing than it usually is. If you’re so inclined, the whole world of art, movies and literature can become an erotic playground.
If you do watch most movies on videotape, may I suggest one final trick? Imagine while you’re watching a movie on TV that you’re at the movies. The screen is so tiny not because it’s in your living room or at the foot of your bed, but because you’re in the last row of a crowded theater. It’s dark, you’re beside your sweetie, and otherwise among strangers. You aren’t talking and there’s no need to wiseacre — you’ll compare impressions, crack jokes and swap confessions later, over coffee or cognac. For now, the moment is all about steeping in the mood, and about observing, now and then, the stirrings of your senses and your imagination. Not to worry: The observing won’t kill the sensations, at least not if you view sampling them as part of the moment. You’re a divided soul, you might wail. How true — yet perhaps there are better things to do with such feelings than to fight them.
As Jennifer Grey’s Baby learned in “Dirty Dancing,” it’s a lot more rewarding to enter the game than it is to stand outside and giggle helplessly.
Ray Sawhill worked as an arts reporter for Newsweek.More Ray Sawhill.
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)