"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)
When it comes to stories about death, grieving and moving on with things, we’ve become all too used to mainstream movies that cheat us of our own feelings, telling us how we’re supposed to respond to those experiences instead of reflecting how, in real life, we often actually do. “Moonlight Mile” is a blessed relief because it doesn’t treat grieving as a cottage industry, recognizing that although grief has certain universal attributes, everyone’s sorrow also has its own complex, fine-grained texture.
It’s one of those rare pictures that’s both conventional and unusual: It’s made with a kind of classic-mainstream workmanlike craft, so it will look and feel right at home in any multiplex anywhere in the world. Even so, the smoke signals it’s sending us aren’t average or sanitized or predictable. Its complexity and delicacy of feeling haven’t been steamrollered out of it. “Moonlight Mile” is a prime example of a picture that survives (and maybe even thrives on) the whole brutal Hollywood moviemaking process and doesn’t leave its heart at the door.
It’s also another example of that platinum-clad rule we all lose sight of now and then: Good work can come from anywhere, and in this case, it has come from writer-director Brad Silberling. I couldn’t watch Silberling’s last movie, “City of Angels” (which was based on Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire”) because I felt as if I was being played, and cheaply. “Moonlight Mile” doesn’t walk the easy road, even though there are plenty of moments, early on, where you fear it might. An early sequence features that dreadful, “Buckle up, it’s going to be a sensitive ride” “American Beauty”-style marimba music, but before long it has disappeared from the movie (and the memory) like smoke, never to be heard from again.
When we learn that the character for whom everyone in the movie is grieving, a young woman named Diana, has been killed by a crazy gunman’s bullet, we get ready for a bunch of protracted courtroom scenes in which the family’s suffering is plucked like a harp. That never quite happens — or, at least, not in the way we expect it.
Instead, Silberling chooses to explore the kinds of feelings that everyone has but no one likes to cop to. Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal) is Diana’s fiancé. He has recently moved to her small New England town to possibly take a job with her father, Ben Floss (Dustin Hoffman), a mildly successful commercial real-estate agent. (The movie’s nods to “The Graduate” are clearly intentional.)
Joe and Ben have a cordial but vaguely distant relationship, largely because Ben, especially after years of striving to be some sort of successful business model, is somewhat closed off to the people around him. Joe has a much warmer relationship with his fiancée’s mother, JoJo (Susan Sarandon), a writer, and a woman who never daintily veils what she’s really thinking — she just shoots it out like a mini cannonball, often to Ben’s dismay.
The movie opens immediately after Diana’s death, and Silberling quickly sets the tone for the rest of the picture by resolutely (if subtly) defining the difference between public and private grieving. Diana’s funeral is attended by the usual army of well-intentioned well-wishers, people who swoop down upon the family in that confused outpouring of love that results when good people don’t know what to say or do.
Even though communal grieving is traditional and expected and certainly serves its purpose, Silberling and his actors are more interested in showing us how each character is submerged in his or her private underwater bubble of grief, and the air is different in each one. After the post-funeral get-together, JoJo sifts through a pile of books on grieving, given to the family by kindly friends, and methodically tosses them into the fireplace. She’s not so much dazed by grief as fueled by it — she’s eager to dish on the day’s events, to gossip about people, obviously as a way of separating the awkwardness of public grief from the unbearable intimacy of her own. “Didn’t you just wanna smack ‘em?” she says of one earnest couple.
Ben, more out of stunned, automated kindness than anything else, quickly defends them, reminding her (rightly) that everyone feels awkward in these situations, and that she should put herself in their shoes. Her retort — Why should she put herself in their shoes? She’s the one who has lost a daughter — is unreasonably uncharitable, which is exactly what makes it so perfect and real. JoJo’s response is a fierce assertion that grieving is essentially a selfish and wholly private act, and one that takes place in a corner of the heart where decorum and manners mean nothing.
Ben, of course, grieves in his own way, and in one sense he’s got it the toughest: His office is directly across the street from the coffee shop in which Diana was killed, and the owners are taking their sweet time in replacing the window shot out by the gunman. Ben stares out at the nailed-up boards day after day with mounting self-reproach. (He was supposed to meet Diana at the coffee shop the night she was killed but allowed himself to be delayed by his work.)
It’s impossible to weigh which character is in the most pain, but perhaps because he holds his cards the closest, even within the cocoon of his “new” family, Joe is the one we feel for the most. He’s devastated by Diana’s death for the obvious reasons, but there’s one secret detail of their relationship that deeply troubles him.
Yet one of the most surprising qualities of “Moonlight Mile” is how strangely energizing it is. It uses grief as a departure point, suggesting that for every unseen force that tugs you back toward the past, there are many more that pull you forward. Joe is trying desperately to be the kind of son-in-law JoJo and Ben would have wanted him to be; he figures that since he hadn’t figured out what he wanted to do with his life anyway, he may as well do something to help them.
But that’s an uneasy kind of altruism. Eventually, Joe strikes up a friendship, and potentially a romance, with Bertie (Ellen Pompeo), a young woman who works at the local post office. Their mutual attraction is inconvenient for any number of reasons. It’s happening too soon for Joe, not to mention for his would-be in-laws. And Bertie has been stuck in her own state of suspended animation for several years: Her boyfriend has been missing in action in Vietnam — the picture is set in the early ’70s — and she hasn’t been able to bring herself to give up on him.
Silberling doesn’t take the simple route of allowing Joe and Bertie’s sorrow and loneliness to unite them. Instead, he shows how it may take some time for their free-floating space capsules to drift toward one another and connect in some meaningful way. “Moonlight Mile” doesn’t rush its conclusion; it floats toward it.
Silberling is attuned to the right details every minute. In one scene Ben and Joe sit side-by-side on a wooden bench in a grassy, open area, bathed in late-afternoon New England sunshine. Ben starts out discussing his optimistic business plans for himself and Joe (unaware of how unenthusiastic Joe is about them), only to find himself drifting into an explanation of how distant he felt from his daughter. Ben sits awkwardly on the bench, his legs dangling, and we can see, for instance, how badly hemmed his pants are — for all his dreams of big-money success, this isn’t a man who pays attention to the telling details. A shadow crosses the sun, casting his face in semidarkness; moments later, the sun reappears. It’s the kind of effect a cinematographer (in this case, Phedon Papamichael) would never be able to plan, but it’s a wondrous accident that works perfectly.
Silberling’s finely detailed script was clearly written with actors in mind, and Hoffman, Sarandon and Gyllenhaal all rise to meet the challenge: They make a marvelous ensemble. Hoffman is the most shadowy figure of the three, and for that reason the most frustrating. We can never really see what’s eating away at him, because he has so habitually closed himself away from everyone around him. But his performance rounds itself out in his last scene, where he shows that the love of even a distant father can be its own fragile and remarkable thing, no less valuable than that of a dad who shows everything.
Sarandon’s JoJo is part romantic-comedy wisecracker and part no-nonsense New England bohemian. Her marriage to Ben is mysterious in its workings — they seem tremendously ill-suited to each other — but Sarandon shows us, in subtle ways, how it has thrived over the years on both tenderness and habit. At one point she practically kicks Ben out of the house, telling him it’s time to walk the dog. Then she calls after him, “Lower your shoulders, Benjamin” — she’s more aware of Ben’s hunched-up, stiffened carriage than he is — and then, briskly, “Come back to me.” It’s Sarandon’s finest performance in years, one that makes the best use of her devil-may-care intensity and also plays off her wonderfully idiosyncratic, intelligent beauty.
But it was Gyllenhaal I found most affecting. His performance is a largely interior one — more so than in his earlier performances in pictures like “Donnie Darko” and “Lovely & Amazing.” I suspect some people will think he’s just not doing much, but for me, that’s exactly the key: Joe is so immersed in grief that he’s had to remove himself from it as a survival tactic — he’s drifting and paddling alongside it, like a cowboy who has dismounted his horse to ford a river.
In Gyllenhaal’s performance, it’s the little things that count: He has gone to the post office to retrieve the already-mailed wedding invitations, and he sits at a desk in Ben’s office with the envelopes stacked in front of him. Joe listens as Ben yammers on about some unnecessary detail, but when the unwieldy stack of invitations topples softly onto the desk, his eyes follow the slip-siding pile automatically, drifting away from the palpable present and back to the memory of a planned (and now disintegrated) future. The characterization is built out of small, unstudied looks and gestures that we catch only on the fly. Gyllenhaal plays the whole movie as a guy who betrays his deepest feelings when he thinks no one is looking; it’s an intensely private, and quietly magnificent, performance.
Separately and together, Gyllenhaal and Sarandon make perfect sense in what may perhaps be the funniest serious movie about grief ever made. Silberling, God love him, is not immune to the charms of slapstick, especially as a way of cracking up the most dutifully solemn moments: Post-funeral, a friend of the family’s stoops to say a kind word to the gastrically troubled family dog, who promptly hurls all over her shoes. In a small, outlandish role, Dabney Coleman spins out lines of dialogue that are pure Dada. And at one point well into the movie, as a follow-up to an intensely personal conversation, JoJo turns to Joe and says smartly, “Isn’t it the tits you and I have the same name?”
The line, like something lifted from a ’30s gangster picture, sums up the loose, comfortable rapport between them, but it’s also typical of the casual, easy warmth that envelops the whole movie. “Moonlight Mile” is a picture about the odd, shapeless weight of suffering, and the ways it doesn’t exactly disappear so much as turn into something else entirely. The tough part is that you can’t know what that something else is until you get to it. But the comforting reality is that it’s right there ahead of you, waiting patiently for you to catch up.
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)