"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)
In the “Apocalypse” movies, the rapture has come and gone, calling home the Christian right and leaving everyone else to suffer under the rule of the antichrist. While the gold-encrusted studios of the Trinity Broadcasting Network can be assumed to be silent as tombs, all is not lost. TBN footage has survived, offering words of advice for those “left behind,” presented by neighborly doomsday advisors Jack Van Impe and his wife Rexella.
The Van Impes have, of course, personally ascended to heaven, but a ragtag band of fugitive evangelists, who include Mr. T, use a stolen news van to hack into Satan’s satellite network and broadcast this pirate signal. It’s enough to make the antichrist, Nick Macalusso (Nick Mancuso) lose his cool: “Why can’t you idiots stop these treasonous transmissions?” he roars at his henchmen.
Scientologist John Travolta gave us “Battlefield Earth,” which begins with a note to the effect that “humans are an endangered species.” And a host of B-list Hollywood stars have given us “Apocalypse” and its three sequels — “Revelation,” “Tribulation” and “Judgment” — in which fundamentalist Christians are the endangered species.
The movies are the brainchild of Canadian televangelists Paul and Peter Lalonde. With 4.5 million videos sold, the Lalondes are moguls in a world rarely glimpsed by secular eyes: the parallel, semi-star-studded universe of Christian exploitation filmmaking. Here, actors from Judd Nelson to Louis Gossett Jr., as well as plots scavenged from “The Fast and the Furious” and “The Matrix,” find second lives in straight-to-video proselytizing adventures.
The “Apocalypse” films are similar to the hot-selling “Left Behind” novels, and in fact the Lalondes also produced “Left Behind: The Movie,” with a straight-to-video sequel due in October. As in “Left Behind,” it turns out the United Nations is the ideal framework for Satan’s One Nation Earth (ONE) regime. The antichrist wins his throne by promising to end hatred, prejudice and other things of which bleeding-heart liberals are always accusing the folks on TBN. And, besides which — hey, what’s Corbin Bernsen from “L.A. Law” doing here?
In the most recent “Apocalypse” sequel, “Judgment” (ad slogan: “The Supreme Court vs. the Supreme Being!”), Bernsen plays a reluctant attorney defending a holdout Christian who has been put on trial by ONE for “hatred of the human race.” In this show trial, the prosecutor is telling the upright Christian (the statuesque, English-accented Leigh Lewis): “The rest of the one world is paddling in one direction. And you’re against this!”
Do the filmmakers feel that American society has already left them behind? A vaguely gay-baiting hipster character (he addresses the male bailiff as “handsome”) takes the stand to hail “my man Lucifer.” As for Bernsen, he just wishes his client would renounce her pesky faith. “I suppose your God is going to come rescue you!” he sneers.
It’s not the Almighty who is going to rescue her. But when a typically impulsive Mr. T. proclaims, “They want fire and brimstone, they’re gonna get it!” and plans a jailbreak against all odds, it becomes unclear just how much of this is gospel.
“We’re not saying, ‘This is what’s going to happen,’” says director André van Heerden. With five films for the Lalondes’ Cloud Ten Pictures to his name since 1999, he’s been called the Steven Spielberg of Christian movies.
The original 1999 “Apocalypse” movie — van Heerden was assistant director on that one, under Peter Gerretsen — was billed by Cloud Ten as “so powerful, so timely, and so Biblically accurate that you will be gasping for breath from the very first frame of the movie.” But van Heerden, comparing his movies to George Orwell’s “1984,” says it would be fairer to call them allegories. He says they’re meant as much to dramatize the struggle of Christian life as to predict how the world ends. And the U.N., he says, is just thrown in there for purposes of sci-fi “verisimilitude.”
Let’s be frank. These are movies backed by people who hate the U.N., right? “Hate is probably too strong a word,” says van Heerden, who prefers “disagree with.”
Rapture movies date back to 1972, when Des Moines, Iowa-based Mark IV Productions issued “A Thief in the Night.” Made before the time of mid-budget Christian movies, “Thief” offers a low-rent view of the end times. In it, Iowans flee from the red-and-orange-striped vans of another hypothetical world government, UNITE.
As for Christian allegory, it’s as old as the Middle Ages, when the title character of “Everyman” met characters like Death, God and Good Deeds. His long journey symbolized the progress of every pilgrim resisting evil and tribulation. So it is in fundamentalist moviemaking. Facing slander as “those religious nuts,” Christians are challenged to resist the lure of the Internet, the liberal media, swarthy types, international treaties, lusty female TV reporters and other pitfalls of modern life. Members of the world’s largest faith are seen as persecuted victims, in a view of the world that would not faze Ann Coulter.
With the exception of the $12 million-grossing “The Omega Code,” Christian movies have been thwarted in their quest to follow Christian novels (“Left Behind”) and Christian rock music (Jars of Clay; P.O.D.) into the mainstream. The Kirk Cameron “Left Behind” movie flopped, along with the $24 million “Omega Code” sequel. So evangelists are trying new blueprints.
The latest van Heerden release, “Deceived,” is described in the press kit as inspired by “Contact” and “Seven,” but is really closer to the old “Star Trek” episode “The Naked Time.” More playful than the dire “Apocalypse” movies, it’s set in a deserted observatory (erroneously referred to in the movie as a “space station”) where everyone’s worst sin emerges. Then a weary-looking Judd Nelson realizes what’s going on: SETI@Home, the distributed-computing project for analyzing signals from space, is functioning as no less than Satan’s own peer-to-peer AudioGalaxy network.
When a signal arrives with a suspicious duration of 6.66 seconds, the usual archetypal characters from rapture movies have their own plans for it. Louis Gossett Jr., as a power-mad general, wants to control it. A crackpot New Age radio host — the kind of comic-relief character only found in Christian entertainment — begins raving about how the signal will “evolve” humans to a “higher consciousness” (evolution frequently appears in these movies in conjunction with madness.) The eyebrow-cocking “dot-com billionaire” wants to sell it, exclaiming: “It’ll be the biggest webcast in history!” And the lusty TV reporter, naturally, wants to corrupt Judd.
But when the foxiest lady around, a chaste space scientist and Christian role model (well-toned Michelle Nolden) persuades Nelson that the signal is evil, and thus shouldn’t be studied, good wins out. All the un-Christian players who thought they were sophisticated receive comeuppances. The once-proud anchorwoman asks to borrow the Bible. Carl Sagan rolls in his grave.
Some say concessions to the mainstream demand for end-times thrills are diluting the message. “They’ve left Christ out of it,” says California filmmaker Rich Christiano. He hopes the Christiano Film Group’s upcoming movie “Time Changer,” which TBN puts in theaters this October, will be different.
Featuring comedian Paul Rodriguez and Gavin McLeod of “The Love Boat,” it’s about a 19th century Bible professor who travels to 2002 — and finds out everything is turning out the way Scripture predicted. “I think this film affects every person on the face of this earth,” Christiano says. “It speaks to a lot of issues that people don’t want to think about.”
Huffing and puffing over the phone like an old-time revivalist, he finally says: “It’s like this. I don’t know you from Adam. I don’t know if you’re interested in spiritual things.” But he hopes even an agnostic Salon writer like myself will appreciate the intelligent construction of the ideas presented in “Time Changer.”
To get an idea of what to expect from a Rich Christiano movie, I watched his 1995 short film “The End of the Harvest.” A didactic video from the increasingly media-savvy world of videos for church youth groups, it’s about defending your beliefs against the jeers of society. The plot involves Christians who are mocked at a meeting of a campus philosophy club, whose members don’t actually discuss Spinoza or free will, but seemingly exist just to bully Christians.
Finally one of the Christians has had enough, and wins a typical Christian movie argument, which is as follows: The atheists call him a “Jesus freak” and say stupid things along the lines of “How can God be real if he’s invisible?” The hero (rising Christian star David White, who costars with Chuck Norris in an upcoming religious film) then launches into an extended, off-the-cuff concordance of Bible prophecy. He connects the dots between the seven days of creation and the 7,000-year age of planet Earth and surmises that the rampant perversion in our society (i.e., homosexuality) would seem to indicate our time is up. His audience is speechless!
Others say Christian film can’t be this scolding if it’s to succeed. “We’re making these movies not just for the choir,” says van Heerden, whose test audience is his skeptical Canadian soccer buddies. “They’re just regular guys who party,” he says. “One hundred percent, they come back and say, ‘Way better than I expected.’”
But how to achieve the crossover dream, if not by tapping into the American fascination with the end times? Some producers are tilling other fields of secular pop culture, embracing Hollywood cool even as they declare, in the style of “Hollywood vs. America” critic Michael Medved, that the public is fed up with Hollywood values.
Last year’s “Extreme Days” was a theatrical release that sought to capitalize on the teenage love of snowboarding. Writer-director Michael Cargile’s “Lay It Down,” also released in 2001, is aimed at youth groups rather than the wider theatrical audience, but it takes a similar tack, borrowing liberally from “The Fast and the Furious.”
“It’s not often that Christian filmmakers are cutting-edge enough to have a film out there that’s about the EXACT same subject matter as the Hollywood big boys,” Cargile writes on the ChristianCinema.com Web site. “We’ve got our finger on the pulse, and the only thing we’re lacking is the financial strength (we had less than 1/100th of their budget) to give the big boys a run for their money.”
“Lay It Down” concerns souped-up cars, wraparound sunglasses, techno and grunge music, modern teen lingo (“I guess you’re the big dawg now!”), jerky Video Toaster-aided direction that approximates MTV — and Christian conversion.
“I don’t want to go to hell,” says street-racer Pete after his brother Ben, mocked for becoming a clean-living Christian, dies in a car crash after returning to the sinful world of hot rodding.
“Then don’t,” gentle, denim-glad Pastor Gus tells him. “There’s only one mechanic in the world who can help you. His name is Jesus Christ.”
Movie evangelists are still trying to gauge the perfect balance of hipness and Christian morality. “Lay It Down” balances its thrills with scenes like that in which Ben’s pregnant girlfriend is comforted by a mom who tells her she’s caught “a disease called sin.”
There’s a scene in “Tribulation,” the third “Apocalypse” film, in which Margot Kidder (“Superman”) is telling Gary Busey — once upon a time, the consummate cop-movie supporting actor — about the rapture. She’s the nurturing mother figure who always appears in these movies, in which cozy living rooms alternate with low-budget dystopias. “What’s that thing all you Christians believe in?” Busey wants to know.
But it’s not true that every Christian believes in the rapture, let alone the entire end-times scenario promulgated by these movies. Many Lutherans, Episcopalians, United Methodists, Catholics and even a good proportion of Baptists have a tidier view of Jesus’ Second Coming. The end-times prophecy that drives the “Left Behind” saga is widely thought to have begun with a 19th century preacher named John Nelson Darby.
Most older interpretations would see God as disinclined to let evil freely wreak havoc for seven years while a tyrant appears in “Matrix”-like virtual-reality visions accompanied by a serpent, convincing everyone to wear “666″ tattoos. What’s the point of a Redeemer if you get a second chance after the rapture, when the point of faith becomes obvious?
Yet the pop-culture version of the “Left Behind” timeline seems to be spreading. The recent Time cover story about apocalypse fever quotes a Boeing employee who decided against upgrading to Windows XP for fear the antichrist might use Microsoft security features to track e-mails sent between Christians. This is exactly the kind of made-for-TV, Windows-progress-bar intrigue that engulfs Corbin Bernsen in “Judgment” (it’s after the rapture, and he’s still using Outlook attachments).
The Christian movie world’s steadily rising budgets have meant that these films are populated with more-or-less real actors. How easily can players from nominally liberal Hollywood make the leap to becoming pitchmen for the apocalypse? After all, these movies have featured such guest stars as WorldNetDaily columnist John Hagee, the Texas preacher who has declared that Washington is in the clutches of “tree-hugging neo-pagans” and “radical lesbian homosexuals.”
Busey, who became a Promise Keeper Christian after a 1995 cocaine overdose, was not available for comment. Neither were Louis Gossett Jr. or Mr. T, who don’t seem to consider these roles as career highlights. Kidder, who proclaims in “Tribulation” that everything in the Bible is true, was unavailable; according to her agent, she was on the road performing “The Vagina Monologues.”
When “Tribulation” was released in 2000, Busey promoted it on TBN as a “great way to minister.” But he’d also appeared in Master P’s less-than-pious exploitation flick “Hot Boyz” the previous year, and the gossip columnist for Parade has reported that he was recently seen at a Red Cross fundraiser making passes at women.
Even if the stars aren’t talking, van Heerden has his own explanation for how he snares actors for his movies: Even non-religious celebs, he says, are grateful to be promoting Christian goodness. “They say, ‘We love this movie because it’s something we can show our friends and family.’”
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)