"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)
The Kevin Bacon of Iceland and a Creepy Russian Dad
So I have this theory, pretty much untested, that all arty, indie-type films made in the last 15 years or so in America and Western Europe fall into one of two categories: Jim Jarmusch or David Lynch. Wes Anderson is a Jarmusch filmmaker; P.T. Anderson is more Lynch. Quentin Tarantino? Lynch on really high-grade coke. Some movies can be a little of both, like Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation” or everything the Coen brothers have ever made, but even there it’s possible to categorize. “The Big Lebowski” is more David Lynch, in that its dominant strain is sweet-tempered wackiness; “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (aka “The Movie You Didn’t See”) is more Jarmusch, in that its dominant strain is impenetrable ennui.
Let’s move on, before you point out that a lot of earnest, semi-arty flicks veer more toward the John Cassavetes and/or John Sayles category (“In the Bedroom,” “You Can Count on Me”), or that the most important grandfather figure in all of Western art cinema might be the late Luis Buñuel, or that the Dogme movement is best described as a system for making imitation Ingmar Bergman films. It’s all true, but you’re distracting me.
My point is that at a lower level of production (and fame) than most of the examples I have mentioned so far, at the genuine grassroots of filmmaking where ambitious young artists try to find a foothold in the biz, the influence of Jarmusch and Lynch — with their quirky, disaffected responses to modernity, their individual versions of early-’80s bohemian angst — is tremendous. Unfortunately, in perhaps four out of five cases (again, my methods are ruthlessly unscientific), this influence pans out as nothing more than atmosphere and mood, as a film that’s vague and rootless (Jarmusch) or recklessly goofy (Lynch) to no clear purpose.
Consider two of this season’s best-regarded imports, Dagur Kári’s “Nói” and Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “The Return.” The former (which just opened in New York and will gradually make its way elsewhere) is a tale of an unhappy teenager in goofy clothes trapped in a remote Icelandic town nestled under a huge glacier. It features an overweight bookseller in one of those “NEW YORK FUCKING CITY” T-shirts, a cute girl who rarely speaks and a karaoke version of Elvis Presley’s embarrassing yet irresistible late hit “In the Ghetto.” It’s winsome. It’s dark. It’s Jarmusch all the way.
The title character is played by a French-Icelandic actor named Tómas Lemarquis, who happens to be an albino. He skulks around his ice-bound village in a sky-blue Members Only jacket and a knit cap, wearing a half-vulnerable sneer that makes him look like a starved, hairless version of the younger Kevin Bacon. Even through the cryptic fragments of Kári’s script, Lemarquis makes Nói seem like a likable, bright and hopelessly unmotivated kid. He knows how to jimmy the slot machine at the gas station for pocket money, he cuts school virtually every day, and he gets along with his hapless, drunken, cab-driving father about as well as could be expected.
“Nói” has a lot going for it. The empty, eerie scenery of this tiny village, with its permafrost streets and dowdy mobile homes, is distinctively rendered; you’ll leave the theater feeling snowblind. The acting is very good, in that noncommittal art-movie way. It’s pretty funny in a grim, Björk-ish Icelandic manner; the sequence in which Nói tries to rob the town bank and then escape in a stolen American car is a dry, slow-motion parody of crime-movie conventions. It has a drifty, spacey, cool soundtrack of exactly the kind you’d expect. (Like seemingly all other young Icelanders, Kári is a musician as well as a filmmaker. I’m sure he’s opening a gallery soon, or marrying an ex-lesbian pop singer or something.)
So this is exactly the kind of movie that winds up playing every film festival in the known world. (It won a major award at the Transylvanian Film Festival in Romania, and no, I couldn’t make that up.) It moseys through your consciousness in its depressed, can-kicking way, always verging on irony but mostly feeling sad instead, before exiting at the other end with a big allegorical flourish that leaves nothing resolved and few traces behind. I liked it OK, but it’s more like a painting or a piece of ambient music — or, pardon the expression, a “head space” — than a movie.
“The Return” (which has been open in New York and California for a few weeks and should be reaching wider release) is also pretty head-spacey, but in a quite different and — to me, anyway — more effective way. This would be a Jarmusch film too, except that it’s Russian, and that changes the equation significantly. Russian movies are always symbolic in character until proven otherwise, and they can almost never be proven otherwise. Zvyagintsev’s first scene features a boy who goes swimming at a beach (on the ocean or a lake, we can’t tell) with a bunch of friends, but becomes too frightened to jump off the wooden diving platform and sits up there shivering in the evening wind until his mother comes to fetch him.
It’s a completely naturalistic scene, or nearly so, like the rest of the film. But it’s also like a dream, in that it’s virtually overrun with primal symbolism — and that’s like the rest of the film, too. The boy is Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), around 12, who lives with his older brother Andrei (Vladimir Garin), one of the boys who abandoned him on the platform, and their laconic blond mother (Natalya Vdovina) in a decrepit, half-abandoned housing project. We don’t know where in Russia we are, or what year it is. (Probably Siberia and probably now, but it doesn’t really matter.) Neither the mother nor the father (Konstantin Lavronenko) — who abruptly appears after a long absence — are named. Although other people are occasionally seen, the towns and countryside alike seem largely depopulated, as if by war or disaster.
Where has Dad been since Andrei and Ivan were small children? They ask but are not told. (We may be in a better position to guess.) He’s a father of a familiar flesh-and-blood type — the masculine, outdoorsy, quick-to-anger version. His behavior is recognizably Dad-like, given as he is to running unexplained errands involving unexplained packages and checking out the asses of overly made-up women in tight skirts. But when Andrei and Ivan first see him, asleep in Mom’s bed, with the sheet hugging his masculine endowment and his arms thrown out to the side, looking for all the world like a medieval Christ in agony, you may start to wonder things, things like: What the hell is really going on in this movie?
I’m not telling, except to say that the long and eventful fishing trip Dad drags the boys on is simultaneously a very real voyage through the Russian wilderness and also, like, a Jungian trip, man. What’s so miraculous about “The Return” is that the story completely works on both levels. The dampness, loneliness, fear and boredom of the journey are tangible, as is the volatile mixture of love and hate the boys feel for this stranger who abandoned them and now expects their respect and obedience. When Ivan once again finds himself atop a wooden tower, weeping and terrified, the event has all the devastating force of a dream that has ripped its way into the waking world. Where “Nói” drifts listlessly through your consciousness, too cool to say anything or actually make an impression, “The Return” will leave indelible marks.
A girl named Osama
You might say that Siddiq Barmak was flavor of the month in international film circles — if it hadn’t taken him seven years and an escape from the Taliban to get there. Barmak’s film “Osama” got a kind of affirmative-action boost from being the only movie from Afghanistan anybody in the West has ever seen (it’s just the 43rd Afghan feature ever), but it’s been playing in the United States for six weeks and keeps spreading to more cities. It’s now apparent this is one of those little foreign films that won’t quit, and if you’ve seen it you understand why. If you haven’t seen it because it sounded too much like spinach cinema, I’m here to tell you not to miss out.
Most American critics haven’t known what to make of “Osama,” largely because it doesn’t fit any predigested categories. Its story, about a little girl whose mother forces her to masquerade as a boy so she can work in the nightmare world of the Taliban regime, is strongly pro-feminist and harshly critical of Islamic fundamentalism. But it’s not pro-Western propaganda or an American-style tearjerker. I found it both devastating and beautiful, but it’s an elliptical, atmospheric work that spins out its tale of terror with mythological intensity. It’s no surprise that Barmak says his favorite directors are people most American filmgoers have never heard of, from Andrei Tarkovsky and Abbas Kiarostami to Mohsen Makhmalbaf and the late Georgian genius Tengiz Abuladze.
In between television interviews during a brief New York stopover, the gracious, soft-spoken Barmak talked to me, in melodious, half-fractured English, about his film’s title, which might be its most controversial but also most misleading element. (What did he tell U.S. Customs upon arrival at Newark airport? “I’m from Afghanistan and I made an award-winning film called ‘Osama’”?) The little girl who serves as his central character (played by the amazing Marina Golbahari) is christened Osama only in desperation, and the name is mentioned only once. “The previous title was ‘Rainbow,’” Barmak says with a wince. “There was a special scene that I wrote — I never put it in the film because I found it very stupid. This little girl, and some other girls, escape by crossing through a very beautiful landscape and passing under a rainbow. It was a big lie.
“We have to follow the reality — maybe a strong reality. I tried to find another title, and I found it from the film. When the little boys are following the little girl, they are calling out, ‘She’s a girl, she’s a girl!’ And the little boy who wants to protect her says, ‘He’s a boy and his name is Osama!’ He thought at the time that this name would create a scare and a fear. So I thought, this is the title. Because my film is about horror. Who was behind all this horror? Osama bin Laden. I’m not on the side of commercializing this name. But I’m thinking there are a lot of symbolic links between my story and this name.”
Barmak’s own connections to the Russian and Iranian intellectual elite (he was trained at the famous film school of Moscow University, during the latter days of the Soviet Union) might raise questions about his own political leanings, which he does not seem eager to discuss with an American journalist. His film is an unrelentingly bleak experience, but Barmak says he finds hope in Hamid Karzai’s struggling Afghan government and its fledgling constitution.
Despite his harrowing depiction of the Taliban and its medieval ideology, he thinks that persecuting its followers — the poorest and most desperate people in Afghanistan — is counterproductive. “In my belief, we have to make a compromise, and in some cases we have to forgive each other,” Barmak says. “At some point we have to say, all our fathers and grandfathers and their grandfathers were criminals, because they were involved in all these political mistakes. It’s not the time to say who is a criminal. It’s the time to say, ‘OK, let’s go and build our country.’ For myself, I did not create a tragedy for the sake of tragedy. I wanted to create a tragedy for a new beginning, and new hope.”
Flesh-Eating Zombies: Worse Than the Taliban, or About the Same?
Why do I get to write about the No. 1 film in the country in this column? Oh, you know why. Partly because nobody else who writes about movies for Salon wanted to touch Zack Snyder’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead” with a 10-foot zombie-killing stick, and partly because, well, we know exactly what you art-geek types like to watch when you’re taking a break from those bootleg all-region Tengiz Abuladze DVDs.
Well, anyway. The good news about the new “Dawn of the Dead” is that it’s not a devastating parable about nuclear war or terrorism or sexually transmitted disease or the decay of the suburban dream. Don’t get me wrong; we went through all that in the ’80s with Wes Craven and David Cronenberg and John Carpenter and Clive Barker and zombie-meister George A. Romero himself, and it was great. Every movie where somebody got their face eaten off or grew a new sex organ or wound up as a piece of pepperoni on Freddy Krueger’s hellish slice of pizza was an allegory for whatever it was we currently hated about Reagan’s America, man.
But with Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” and last year’s equally enjoyable (and equally pointless) remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” horror movies seem to be experiencing a badly needed back-to-basics movement. Even Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” — although I didn’t think it was as great as the entire rest of the world did — exhibited a low-budget pretentiousness that belonged to the depresso British ’70s rather than the espresso American ’80s.
No, this is a movie without deeper meanings, and I want you to feel OK about that. (Profound significance will return to the horror genre; we just needed a break from all that.) This is an old-fashioned gross-out movie, in which Sarah Polley wakes up at dawn to discover that her beloved daughter has become a ravening, flesh-eating zombie. Her husband soon follows suit, and our heroine goes out the bathroom window without a single look back. She and a handful of other still-human survivors (hardass cop Ving Rhames, troubled playa Mekhi Phifer, lovable loser Jake Weber, sinister redneck Michael Kelley, etc.) end up in a shopping mall encircled by the undead, just as in Romero’s deathless (ha!) 1978 original. But back then that was a grand joke: zombies at the mall. Today, where the hell else would you go? The mall is pretty much all there is.
So there they are, growing ever more paranoid as they suck down the leftover mochaccino slush at Starbucks and watch each other for signs of impending zombiehood. How did this happen? Is the world at an end? Can they bust out successfully with a couple of “Road Warrior”-style souped-up mall shuttles? Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn know better than to take any of these questions seriously; in Romero’s grand tradition, nothing is ever explained. No, I take that back. It’s just that they understand what questions are really important and dare to broach medical-slash-metaphysical puzzles never considered before. What happens when a pregnant woman who has become a zombie gives birth? See this and, at last, you will know.
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)
For the latest movie coverage from Andrew O'Hehir, see his author page.