"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 are some movies that awaken a sense of wonder, making you feel as if you’ve never seen a movie before. And there are others that make you feel as if you’ve seen way too many, with a 1,000-pound encyclopedia of visual references and verbal cues chained to your neck the whole time. These pictures are usually made by people who profess to love movies, but they throw off very little love at all — they’re too saturated with self-awareness to reflect any warmth or light. Such movies are usually made by directors who are hell-bent on telling us how much they know, without bothering to show us why it’s worth knowing in the first place. Under the pretense of spreading their movie love to the masses, they’re really just hogging it for themselves.
Quentin Tarantino has said that his latest movie, “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” is his grindhouse picture, an homage to the martial arts movies, spaghetti Westerns and Japanese animation that he devoured happily, first as a kid growing up in Southern California and later as an adult, when Hong Kong action cinema began to wow American audiences in the mid-’80s. Tarantino is clearly exhilarated by his sources, and there are places in “Kill Bill” when he forgets how wicked-awesome it is to be a movie director and actually makes something that looks like a movie — in other words, something that transports us instead of merely impressing us.
But enthusiastic as Tarantino is about samurai sword-fights and Chinese stage acrobatics and torsos that spurt candy-colored blood after they’ve been divested of their limbs and heads, “Kill Bill” feels flat and listless, even in the midst of its nonstop whirlwind of action and violence. Tarantino didn’t skimp on talent: He hired perhaps the best fight choreographer in the world, Yuen Woo-ping, who choreographed the “Matrix” movies and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and is a near-legendary filmmaker in his own right. (Tarantino presented his “Iron Monkey” in the United States.) Veteran Japanese film and TV star Sonny Chiba appears in the picture as a master sword craftsman; he also trained the film’s stars, Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu, in Japanese swordfighting technique. (Never mind that David Carradine, whose role in the ’70s TV series “Kung Fu” made him an icon, appears — at least momentarily — as the Bill of the movie’s title.)
But “Kill Bill: Vol. 1″ is movie as bingo card. Even at its swiftest, you get the sense that Tarantino filled it in square by square, challenging himself see how much he could pack into it, instead of forcing himself into the Zen discipline of impeccable pacing and movement. A lot happens in “Kill Bill”; in fact, a lot happens in the first 10 minutes, when Thurman and Vivica A. Fox, as mortal enemies who used to be members of the same elite hit squad, fling each other around a suburban living room, crashing into a glass coffee table and jabbing at one another with a fireplace poker.
Tarantino has gone to a great deal of trouble to make an aggressively fun movie, and every ounce of sweat shows. Thurman is “the Bride,” also known by her secret hit-woman code name, “Black Mamba.” She also has a real name, but we don’t know what it is — every time she utters it, it’s bleeped out. We’re obviously being set up for a big revelation in the second half of the roughly three-hour “Kill Bill” epic, which will be released in February. (“Kill Bill” was originally intended as one long film, but Tarantino and his studio, Miramax, decided to release it as two separate movies instead of chopping the original cut to shreds.)
In the movie’s opening sequence, we see the Bride, bruised and battered and bloody, filmed in velvety black-and-white. She’s lying on a wood floor dressed in white. She’s also pregnant. A man with a gun stands nearby to finish her off; this is Bill, who’s highly displeased with her for reasons we don’t yet know. Somehow the Bride survives the assault, and sets out to kill, one by one, the people who had done their best to off her.
The people on her to-kill list include the upscale suburban housewife and mom whose code name is “Copperhead” (Fox), the angular Amazon known as “California Mountain Snake” (Daryl Hannah, who makes a fantastic appearance in an eye patch and a surrealist white velvet coat printed with trompe-l’oeil belts and buckles) and, most significantly, O-Ren Ishii (Liu), aka “Cottonmouth,” the regal ruler of the Yakuza. O-Ren has the delicate beauty of an orange blossom, but thinks nothing of lopping a guy’s head off at a board meeting just because he’s said something that offends her. The Bride tracks down her nemeses one by one — she does some of her truckin’ in a ’70s pop-art relic, a van with “Pussy Wagon” painted in cartoon script on the back — dispatching each one in ever-messier ways.
With “Kill Bill,” Tarantino worships at the temple of style, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. He and his cinematographer Robert Richardson pay close attention to details, and their acuity can be deeply pleasurable: The Bride travels to Tokyo to find O-Ren, showing up at the latter’s favorite nightspot, the House of Blue Leaves (perhaps the first nightclub ever to take its name from a John Guare play, but it works). The house band there is a trio of petite surf punkettes — they’re played by the real-life Japanese outfit the 22.214.171.124′s — who wield their guitars like the Ramones, even though they’re wearing sheath dresses and bouffants and have bare feet. The Bride strides into this scene wearing a yellow motocross-style jacket and leggings, like the love child of Steve McQueen and Emma Peel (the latter of whom Thurman has already played, of course, in another movie).
The House of Blue Leaves sequence is the movie’s magnificent windup, and it’s beautifully orchestrated. The Bride fends off an army of black-suited baddies — their faces are hidden by sleek, molded Cato masks, a nod to Bruce Lee’s character on “The Green Hornet” — until they’re lying scattered around the club floor in a mini indoor re-creation of the famous train-station scene in “Gone With the Wind,” moaning and waving what’s left of their arms and legs. (Their ragged-edged, bloody spare parts are strewn around them like discarded toys.)
What follows is even more spectacular: O-Ren and the Bride find themselves face to face in the club’s snowy garden, a dream landscape of shadowy whites and blues and leafy greens. O-Ren wears a formal kimono, complete with sandals and tabi socks; the Bride, who’s wearing a much more practical outfit, seems to have the edge. But their Kenjutsu showdown isn’t an easy call, as the two women bob and weave and leap through the air, taunting one another with their flashing swords, accessories that are both practical and chic. They move in sweeping, overlapping, tensile arcs; their venomous hatred for each other, translated into movement, becomes a kind of love. The scene’s violence is balletic in the style of John Woo and Sam Peckinpah, but it’s more elegant, and more archly feminine, than anything those directors have typically given us. It’s what we might have gotten if the late, great style doyenne Diana Vreeland had tried her hand at directing an action movie.
If one terrific sequence — and this is an elaborate, extended one — could make a whole movie, “Kill Bill” would be a masterpiece. But by the time of the snow garden showdown, Tarantino has done his best to wear us down. With the exception of a lovely, muted section in which the Bride travels to Okinawa to beg the craftsman and swordmaster Hattori Hanzo (Chiba, who brings so much warmth and humanity to his role that you wish the movie gave us more of him) to make a spectacular weapon for her, “Kill Bill” feels much too taken with its own hip vision. If you’ve seen even just a smattering of Hong Kong action movies made anytime in the past 30 years, you’ll recognize all of Tarantino’s riffs, including characters who are obsessed with honor and duty, and brutality that’s so heightened and extreme it becomes a form of abstract art.
Tarantino loves the speed and glory and shivery thrill of violence, and he’s smart about staging it: Technically, his fight sequences are pretty much flawless. But while plenty of critics and moviegoers have praised him for his craftsmanlike approach to onscreen brutality, not many have spent much time probing his attitude toward that violence.
Miramax has allegedly voiced some concerns that “Kill Bill” will be a turnoff to women, who, in the company’s view, aren’t likely to flock to a picture that’s as graphic and barbarous as this one is. But if anyone, man or woman, shrinks from the bloodlust of “Kill Bill,” it’s misguided to automatically chalk their reservations up to squeamishness.
The final tally of blood-gushing torsos, bloody eyeballs and crushed heads means nothing; a filmmaker’s attitude toward those things means everything. There’s something sadistic about the way Tarantino approaches violence. It didn’t set right with me in “Pulp Fiction,” and it doesn’t set right with me here. (“Jackie Brown,” on the other hand, suggests to me that if Tarantino can kick his obsession with being a hotshot director, he may turn out to be a great one — in “Jackie Brown,” Tarantino’s love of genre movies melds inextricably with his love for his characters, and that makes all the difference.)
For part of “Kill Bill,” the Bride lies comatose in a hospital, and we learn that an orderly has been pimping her out, making money off her limp, unconscious body. When one of her “clients” arrives, the orderly lays down the rules: No biting and no hitting, although, he adds, because her “plumbing” doesn’t work anymore, “Feel free to come in her as much as you want.” As a kicker, he holds up a grimy, gritty jar of “Vaselube,” a necessity because the poor Bride is so dried up.
The Bride’s paramour, salivating and hairy and boorish, advances upon her, and there’s something crass and ugly about the fact that Tarantino is using a rape to get laughs. (This particular incident turns out to be an attempted rape, but we know that the Bride has already been violated repeatedly.) The subtext seems to be that because the Bride gets her revenge — and it’s suitably nasty — it’s OK to make elaborate misogynist jokes at her expense beforehand.
But I don’t think it is OK. The pre-rape preamble is graphic and lascivious, and Tarantino intends it to be titillating. The rapist is portrayed as a hillbilly-trucker type, which, I guess, is supposed to be a signal that he’s not like you and me and shouldn’t be taken seriously. If you quizzed Tarantino about this, he might say that the crime needs to be portrayed as over-the-top and unthinkable in order to make the woman’s need for revenge that much more palpable. But he’s obviously spent a lot of time working out the details of the rape, and he goes a long way in helping us to imagine what it might be like from the aggressor’s point of view.
And remember, this is the body of Uma Thurman we’re talking about: Sure, there are people out there who fantasize about having sex with a comatose beauty. But what does it mean to have Tarantino working overtime to dangle that fantasy in front of his audience, supposedly waggling a finger about how wrong it is, even as he’s practically cooing, “Come on, guys — wouldn’t you do it, given the chance?” I don’t think you need to be a woman to find that distasteful; if anything, I think it’s more insulting to men.
Purist fans of Asian action movies might say that rape-revenge fantasies are common in those pictures, and they’re right. But again, attitude means everything. “Kill Bill” is carefully wrought and worked out — it’s not as if Tarantino didn’t have the time or the means or the smarts to figure out a way to make the rape-revenge convention work, stylistically and thematically.
I have no doubt that Tarantino loves the genres that “Kill Bill” borrows from. Even so, the movie comes off too much like a fan’s scrapbook and not enough like its own fully rounded vision — as if Tarantino were holding us captive on a moldy postgraduate couch somewhere, subjecting us to 90 minutes worth of his favorite movie clips strung together, accompanied by an exhausting running commentary along the lines of “Isn’t this great? Isn’t this cool?”
He’s not totally wrong: Sometimes this stuff is cool. Sometimes it’s even great. But Tarantino’s zombielike devotion to style also puts him at an emotional remove, a barrier if he’s going to make the most of his gifts as a filmmaker. As visually arresting as “Kill Bill” often is, there’s a stultifying blankness about it. Despite Tarantino’s obvious enthusiasms, he comes off jaded and cynical: He’s seen plenty of movies, and this is his proof. “Kill Bill” is one long yakkety-yak about Tarantino’s passions. He’s the samurai who won’t shut 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)