"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)
There is a car wash on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles not far from David Lynch’s home in the Hollywood Hills. Its marquee is supposed to read “God Bless America,” but the ‘B’ has fallen off. The message that’s left — “God Less America” — is an accordingly odd mixture of eerie and comical. In other words, it makes for a perfect Lynchian moment.
Forget Oscars and Golden Globes, thumbs up and four stars: The greatest accolade for any filmmaker is immortality through the common adjective. There is no finer tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, for example, than the acceptance of “Hitchcockian” as a term denoting unease, suspense and intrigue. Likewise, “Felliniesque” elicits visions of chaotic, colorful, circuslike surroundings, and “Bergmanesque” can only mean oppressive melancholy and the absence of God.
But the list essentially stops there, save for the one contemporary filmmaker to conceive an entire world so unquestionably his own that you can only call it by name. “Lynchian” has seeped into our consciousness as a bizarre intersection of the macabre and the mundane, once described by novelist David Foster Wallace this way:
“Some guy killing his wife in and of itself doesn’t have much of a Lynchian tang to it, though if it turns out the guy killed his wife over something like … an obdurate refusal to buy the particular brand of peanut butter the guy was devoted to, the homicide could be described as having Lynchian elements.”
It’s easy to see where David Lynch’s gift for juxtaposing innocence and depravity comes from. In his office on a recent afternoon, his gravity-defying pompadour backlit by the Southern California sun, Lynch is as amiable and optimistic as an astronaut. At various instances he calls me “Buddy” and “Buster,” without a trace of guile in his voice. Longtime members of Lynch’s film crews are among the most loyal and devoted in Hollywood, and the filmmaker enjoys a quiet family life with editor/producer Mary Sweeney. As reputations go, his is remarkable only for how slowly he drives on the freeway. Yet a few feet away sits a collection of his own morbid paintings in menacing hues of blood red and dirt brown. One canvas has a rolled-up gauze bandage glued to its surface, while another has the word “hide” scribbled over and over again.
And then there are his films. Collectively, they form one of the most ominous visions in cinema. Lynch’s latest, “Mulholland Drive,” opened nationwide to overwhelmingly favorable reviews, most notably from several critics who have not always been kind. But it’s more than just a critical victory for the writer-director: It’s outright revenge. Lynch first conceived “Mulholland Drive” as a television series for ABC, the network on which his “Twin Peaks” became arguably the most original programming ever to appear on small screens. But nervous executives canceled the “Mulholland Drive” show before the pilot was ever aired. Undeterred, Lynch eventually got Canal Plus to buy the rights, proceeded to shoot some new footage and turned it into a feature film.
“It’s like having a child who had to have a serious operation that made it OK, and maybe even a little bit better because of the operation,” Lynch says, exhaling cigarette smoke. “It looked like this project was dead for awhile. Then I got really lucky as these ideas came to me. Now it feels like this was the way it was always meant to be.”
Intriguing as a “Mulholland Drive” series may be, it’s amazing that he ever wound up working in this most conventional and formulaic of mediums in the first place. Throughout his career, Lynch has favored a manner of abstraction many moviegoers and even some critics find confounding. Of Lynch’s 1997 film “Lost Highway,” a stunning if enigmatic treatise on identity, revenge and sexual frustration, Roger Ebert wrote, “It’s a film made with a certain breezy contempt for audiences. I’ve seen it twice, hoping to make sense of it. There is no sense to be made of it.”
Ebert joined the majority of critics in giving “Lost Highway” a bad review, and yet it may be Lynch’s most fully realized film. This speaks to the great predicament of David Lynch’s career: He’s essentially an avant-garde filmmaker working within the Hollywood system. As a result, his work is often judged by how much he balances these tendencies with straightforward storytelling. It’s no coincidence that “Mulholland Drive,” “Twin Peaks” and “Blue Velvet,” which do this extremely well, are his most acclaimed films. Like impressionist paintings, they display abstract thinking in a classical form, which is easier to comprehend than more surreal, abstract works like “Lost Highway” and “Eraserhead,” which get as much head scratching as praise. Sadly, many fear Lynch being too Lynch.
“It’s a subjective thing,” the filmmaker shrugs. “Some people love getting lost and feeling their way out. Other people have more literal minds, and get angry when things are not very specific. You just hope that people get the same thrill that you got getting those original ideas.”
However the Lynchian world is presented, the key is still the darkness itself. Lynch is a kind of Jacques Cousteau of the postmodern nightmare, where our cartoonish notions of family values and the American dream are ravaged by an undercurrent of forbidding treachery. And with apologies to Wallace, it’s about much more than peanut butter or, for that matter, Pabst Blue Ribbon (“Blue Velvet”) and cherry pie (“Twin Peaks”). It’s about decent people cornered by obsessive evils we can’t clearly see.
So where does such a polite, gee-whiz kind of guy dream up such things? Ever since “Eraserhead,” his ghastly 1978 debut feature, fans have assumed Lynch experienced the dysfunctional childhood to end all dysfunctional childhoods. Not so. Born in Missoula, Mont., and raised in various cities throughout the Pacific Northwest, Lynch led the kind of peachy-keen 1950s family life we’ve all but written off as mythology.
“It was an innocent time, and in a way, a false time,” he recalls. “But that’s how you see it looking back. When I was in it, it was fantastic. It didn’t seem false. There was an enthusiasm, a very positive feeling that you could do anything.”
All that changed — for a while, at least — when Lynch moved to Philadelphia. “It was a corrupt, sick place,” he recalls. “I found myself living under this blanket of fear. It’s called ‘the City of Brotherly Love,’ and I always say if a city is going to call itself that, then they kind of owe it to the people there to make sure that that’s true. It was so far from true that it wasn’t even funny. It took a year after I got to California for the fear to lift off.”
As we now know, Lynch put that fear to work. Five years in the making, “Eraserhead” articulated Lynch’s twin nightmares of urban degradation and parental anxiety. (He must have overcome both, because he lives in Los Angeles and his daughter, “Boxing Helena” director Jennifer Lynch, seems to be a chip off the old block.) Although much of that time was eaten up by budget problems — Lynch even had a job delivering newspapers during production, and once sent Christmas cards to people on his route asking for donations — he clearly relished the chance to complete this labor of love his way.
“I have heard filmmakers say that they know exactly what they’re going to do every day of the shoot, but I don’t know if I believe that,” he says. “You always have to stay on guard for something new that comes in to join with the ideas that have already gone down on paper. These discoveries don’t necessarily need a lot of time to occur, but when you have time, you sink deeper into the world.”
After “Eraserhead,” Lynch’s career took an unexpected turn when Mel Brooks tapped the young director to helm “The Elephant Man,” a more straightforward film that won him high praise from a mainstream audience. This, in turn, led to “Dune,” a critical and financial disaster that ultimately may have been a blessing. It returned Lynch to filmmaking on a smaller scale and, more important, on his own terms.
Which brings us to “Blue Velvet,” a story of blackmail, sadomasochism, kidnapping and insanity percolating from beneath an innocent small town fagade. As critic David Thomson notes, the film “kept surrealism, hallucination, and ‘experiment’ in perfect balance with Americana, a simple compelling storyline, and the huge, gravitational force of a voyeuristic setup. I believe ‘Blue Velvet’ is also an allegory on sexual awakening, about innocence and peril, family ties, and adulthood, such as no American film has achieved.” And it didn’t hurt that gas-sniffing Dennis Hopper made one of the eeriest movie villains of all time.
This led to Lynch’s greatest imprint upon mass American culture: “Twin Peaks.” It didn’t last long, but rarely has the viewing public been so gripped by a television drama — particularly, in light of today’s reality-based programming garbage, by one so good. Many lost interest after Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed, and the show was canceled after two seasons. But it’s likely “Twin Peaks” will be remembered long after, say, the 20-year run of “Gunsmoke” is forgotten.
Despite a Palme d’Or prize at Cannes, Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” and an ensuing “Twin Peaks” theatrical prequel, “Fire Walk With Me,” were less successful ventures. It’s not so much that they were too surreal, but they seemed less genuine, as if the pull of evil was more inevitable, and therefore less inherently dramatic. That his next two ventures, “Lost Highway” and “The Straight Story,” were so unbelievably different in every way — yet oddly appropriate to the Lynch canon — is a testament to his inability to be completely typecast, no matter how defined the Lynchian world may seem.
Asked to name his greatest filmmaking influences — one sees traces of Hitchcock, Fellini, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Sunset Boulevard” in his work — Lynch downplays their significance. Taking their ideas, he says, would be “like eating somebody else’s food.” With Lynch, you see, it’s all about the ideas. He speaks in countless metaphors about their generation — sewing a rug, water skiing — but his favorite seems to be ideas as fish, which can only be caught with patience and concentration. “You can’t force an idea to come to you,” he says, “but you can make preparations. It’s like you can’t force yourself to go to sleep, but you can lay comfortably in the bed and close your eyes, get nice and cozy, and eventually you’ll go to sleep. If you sit in a chair, and you have a desire for ideas, you begin to daydream, and as you’re daydreaming you’re sinking deeper in. And all of a sudden you can catch one.”
No matter how flexible the interpretation of certain Lynch films may be, the filmmaker says he always knows unequivocally what they mean. Yet he is famously reluctant to divulge their secrets. “It robs people of their right to figure things out for themselves,” he argues. “It’s like somebody saying, ‘This is what life is all about.’ People have said it in different ways, but it falls on deaf ears because you have to experience life yourself and find your own way out.”
What does Lynch say to people whose theories about his films differ from his original intent? “I would say, ‘Very good.’ Every translation is valid. In a way ideas are like music on the page. The notes may come one at a time, but the translation of that music has to do with the ability of the musicians to play and the conductor interpreting them. You can get huge variations, but it’s the same notes on the page.”
In the wake of Sept. 11, some may find the Lynchian world suddenly a little too close for comfort. There is a moment in “Fire Walk With Me,” for example, when the Log Lady warns Laura, “When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first. And the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy.” But for those willing to stare down the darkness, Lynch’s films are, like our own nightmares, oddly informative. Whether onscreen or in the world outside, we can’t defeat our demons without knowing who they are. “It’s about examining hard realities,” says Lynch. “I think it’s safe to say the world’s getting crazier all the time, and facing the music is all you can do. That can be a beautiful thing.”
Brian Libby has written for the New York Times, Premiere and the Christian Science Monitor.More Brian Libby.
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)