"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)
One of the delights of meeting Pauline Kael was discovering that, like Molière’s bourgeois gentleman, she conversed in prose. This prose was neither bourgeois nor gentle, but an earthier version of the style she used for the famous and still oft-quoted reviews she wrote for more than two decades in the New Yorker.
Pauline gave great interview, dispensing opinions that seemed to be, like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus, fully formed at birth. (You can catch many of her best interviews in “Conversations With Pauline Kael,” from the University of Mississippi Press, with entries from Hollis Alpert, Sheila Benson, Michael Sragow, Ray Sawhill and others, including myself.) It was in conversation where she really came alive, burning with a hard, gemlike flame one moment only to unleash a starburst of self-deprecating humor the next.
“Afterglow,” Francis Davis’ interview with Kael, is an important little book that serves as both oral history and memoir. Some are criticizing it for not being a better or more comprehensive interview, but that’s missing the point. The book’s subtitle is “A Last Conversation With Pauline Kael,” and more than anything else in print, it offers a glimpse into the mercurial quality of her thought and the easy charm of her expression.
Francis Davis, a well-known music critic and contributing editor for the Atlantic Monthly, interviewed Kael three times over two days in July 2000 at Kael’s home in Great Barrington, Mass. (Over the last 10 years of her life Parkinson’s disease had pretty much diminished Kael’s ability to travel, even to New York.) The interviews were originally intended for a nationally distributed radio lecture series; Davis hasn’t altered the transcripts except to rearrange them chronologically.
This allows Davis to begin the book with a look at Kael’s push-pull relationship with New Yorker editor William Shawn, who gave her much encouragement in her writing while constantly trying to rein her in. Kael recalls him as taking “very dowdy attitudes towards what would appear in the magazine, but he himself was very alive and alert to all sorts of things. He often argued with me about how I shouldn’t review a particular movie because it was brutal or dirty or one thing or another. He wanted some sort of censorship imposed, but he couldn’t, rigorous man that he was, impose it. So he tried to talk the magazine’s writers into censoring themselves, and I didn’t go for that.”
Apparently one of the films Kael went for that Shawn didn’t was “Deep Throat”:
Davis: According to legend, the only movie [Shawn] ever talked you out of reviewing was “Deep Throat.”
Kael: That’s right. And I still feel I should have put up more of a squawk, but I’d gotten so tired of battling with him. Charlie Simmons has a passage about going to see that movie with me in his novel “Wrinkles.” (From Simmons’ “Wrinkles”: “She invited him soon after to see ‘Deep Throat,’ giggled throughout, and was shushed by the men in the audience.”) But I couldn’t convince Shawn that a porn movie was worth writing about.
Kael’s interest in “Deep Throat” had nothing to do with the quality of the film and everything to do with her interest in eroticism in the movies, a subject she was allowed to touch on only occasionally in the New Yorker. She had a rough time, she tells Davis, getting Shawn to let her write about Marco Ferreri’s “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” “An amazing movie, with some scenes that are quite erotic. I had to put up a terrible fight to get it in. Shawn wanted to know if the critics for other magazines were covering it. I said that shouldn’t be our standard for what we covered in the New Yorker. But it was hard to convince Shawn that I wasn’t pulling some sort of swindle by sneaking material into the magazine that he felt didn’t belong there.”
Kael claims Shawn was sympathetic about her efforts to boost the work of Jean-Luc Godard. “The New Yorker’s critics had been panning movie after movie by him for years.” In a footnote, Davis slyly observes that, in fact, “Several different New Yorker writers had reviewed Godard’s early movies enthusiastically — though perhaps not as enthusiastically as Pauline thought they deserved.”
Davis is loyal, but, to paraphrase Shaw, not so loyal as to be corrupt. He wonders out loud if his friend and mentor would have “tolerated my disagreement so easily were I a fellow movie critic, rather than someone who wrote mostly about jazz.” But coming from outside Kael’s circle enabled him to ask questions that wouldn’t have occurred to an establishment film critic.
This is new territory for a Kael interview, as are several other topics that Davis broached that more formal interviewers had shied away from. On the subject of why she never tested the New Yorker’s waters on any subject but movies Kael said, “Well, it was tricky. I had to go out and make a living for six months of the year, so I didn’t have the luxury of sitting home and working on a long piece. I had to go out and teach at UCLA or somewhere else, generally, because if I wrote about new movies it would be in conflict with what was being said in the New Yorker. A few times, I tried to work on pieces that I was unhappy with and threw out. I tried to write about television once. I worked on the piece for several weeks, and it was just awful … Maybe if I had written about it [television] week by week as I did movies, I could have gotten the hang of it, but writing a big piece on television was a nightmare. It was just crap, and I threw it out … There are times now that I wish I had branched off.”
Exciting as the possibility of Kael writing on other areas of pop culture may be, the simplest answer to why she never attempted to “branch off” was that all her critical itches were scratched by movies.
One of the important revelations of “Afterglow” is that it catalogs Kael’s regrets regarding filmmakers she didn’t get to spend enough time with, particularly documentarian Chris Marker and Jacques Demy, who directed “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”: “One of the sad things about our times, I think, is that so many people find a romantic movie like that frivolous and negligible. They don’t see the beauty in it, but it’s a lovely film — original and fine … The other film of his that I love along with ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ is ‘Bay of Angels,’ with Jeanne Moreau as a gambling lady, like Barbara Stanwyck in some of her movies.”
The most enjoyable aspects of “Afterglow” aren’t any strong revelations, but the seemingly endless stream of declarations, opinions and offhand remarks that reflect the joy Kael took in a good conversation. For instance:
“Afterglow” is an elegant farewell that captures better than anything yet written the pleasure of Kael’s company. However, it is not her last formal sit-down with a journalist. On June 20, 2001, the day after her 81st birthday, Pauline Kael gave her final interview. The interviewer was my daughter, Maggie, age 10, who was working on an assignment on working women for Jefferson Elementary School in Maplewood, N.J. Maggie had a long history with Pauline and her grandson, William, the three of them having spent many a Sunday afternoon watching and rewatching Will’s favorite videos. (Pauline watched most of them while peering over the top of a book.) The interview was conducted after a viewing of the Disney musical “Newsies,” a movie they all loved.
Maggie: When did you start liking movies?
Pauline: The first time I saw a movie I was on my parents’ lap in the little theater in Petaluma, Calif. I knew that it was for me.
Maggie: How did you become a film critic?
Pauline: I was lucky I was able to write about movies in a way that people were willing to pay me for.
Maggie: What was the first story you ever wrote about movies?
Pauline: It was a review for Charlie Chaplin’s film “Limelight.” It was con; someone else wrote a review that was pro. Pro means for, con means against.
Maggie: How many books did you write?
Maggie: What is your favorite story that you wrote?
Pauline: A piece I wrote about Sam Peckinpah for the New Yorker.
Maggie: What was your favorite story or book when you were little?
Pauline: I loved the Oz books. I liked all the characters, like Tic Tock of Oz and the flying couch. I loved all the characters because they didn’t have any message for us, they just were there for our pleasure.
Maggie: What things are you most proudest of?
Pauline: That I survived.
Maggie: What is your favorite treasure?
Pauline: My daughter and my grandson.
Maggie: What was the favorite time of your life?
Maggie: What was your mother’s name?
Pauline: Judith, known as Judy.
Maggie: Did she vote?
Pauline: Yes, she voted as soon as the first votes for women were made possible. She voted in California.
Maggie: What was your favorite holiday?
Pauline: St. Patrick’s Day, because that’s my grandson’s birthday.
Maggie: What is your favorite animal?
Pauline: My favorite animal? Well, I have a very specific favorite — my dog Bush Baby. He was a basenji. They’re African dogs that can’t bark.
Maggie: What is your favorite painting?
Pauline: I like some of the Monet waterlilies paintings.
Maggie: Was it very hard to get a job because you were a woman?
Pauline: It was hard to get a job as a movie critic because newspapers didn’t take it very seriously and gave the job to any editor who wanted to retire and have a lazy life. But it was especially hard for a woman because they just didn’t much trust women around newspapers except to write human interest stories. [Pause] Do you know what a human interest story is?
Pauline: It’s some little curious event that took place, something that will make readers sob a little bit or feel joyous but that has no real value as news.
Maggie: What was your favorite movie in your entire life?
Pauline: In my entire life? Well, there’s a French movie that probably you’ve never heard of that I like best. But let me tell you an American movie that was made by D.W. Griffith and was called “Intolerance.” It wasn’t a successful movie commercially, but it was very successful with me.
Maggie: And what was the French movie?
Pauline: “Menilmontant,” a silent movie made in 1924 by Dmitri Kirsanov starring his beautiful Russian-born wife, Nadia Sibirskaya.
Maggie: What other movies do you love?
Pauline: I love “The Earrings of Madame De …” and “Shoeshine,” an Italian film. I like the crazy American comedies — “The Lady Eve,” “Unfaithfully Yours,” “His Girl Friday.”
Maggie: I love “Bringing Up Baby” and “Duck Soup.”
Pauline: “Bringing Up Baby” is a wonderful movie. It was made by the same director as “His Girl Friday.” And “Duck Soup” is terrific; it’s my favorite of the Marx Brothers movies.
Maggie: Thank you for letting me interview you!
Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.More Allen Barra.
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)