"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)
Eighteen years of solitude
One man’s traitor is another man’s Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Such is the story of Mordechai Vanunu, who was released last month after spending 18 years in an Israeli prison for exposing the country’s nuclear weapons program. As a nuclear technician in Dimona, Vanunu offered photographs and information to a reporter for Britain’s Sunday Times in 1986. Afterward, in a twist straight out of a Robert Ludlum novel, Vanunu was lured from London by a female secret agent who promised to put him up in Rome, then was promptly kidnapped by Israeli agents there. Vanunu spent nearly two decades in prison and did much of that time in solitary confinement.
“Israel’s Secret Weapon,” a BBC documentary about Vanunu and some of the activists who’ve struggled against his incarceration, airs Monday night (8 p.m.) on Link TV (check listings for other times). Although the film is a fairly straightforward summary of Vanunu’s story, it’s informative for those who know little about the whistle-blower or about Israel’s rarely discussed nuclear arsenal.
After his release on April 21, Vanunu said that he was mistreated by his captors, but they didn’t crush him. “I am a symbol of the will of freedom,” he said. “You cannot break the human spirit.”
Vanunu’s freedom, on the other hand, will be limited for at least the next year. He won’t be permitted to leave Israel, he’ll have to stay in one town, and his movements within the country will be restricted.
“Imagine for one moment that Mordechai Vanunu was not an Israeli, that the whole story had happened with a North Korean or an Iranian or a Pakistani technician,” one of the activists remarks in “Israel’s Secret Weapon.” “He would’ve had the Nobel Peace Prize, he would’ve been the second Sakharov. Instead he is a nonperson in the West.”
In Israel, Vanunu is “widely despised” as a traitor and is seen by some as a pro-Arab extremist. Like the varied reactions to the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Nick Berg’s death, each person’s focus is different depending on where they stand.
Sweetums get that cash, and smash!
Thankfully, though, we have an eminently trustworthy patriarch at the helm of this great land of ours, which frees up our time for much more important things, like finding out who won the second million-dollar prize on “Survivor: All-Stars.”
You’ll recall that last week, Jeff Probst announced that another million dollars would be awarded to the “Survivor: All Stars” contestant with the most viewer votes cast on CBS.com. On Thursday night, after Jerri and Lex were given a second chance to voice their bitterness over the awful scars that being outwitted has left on their fragile psyches, four finalists were announced: Big Tom, Colby, Rupert and Boston Rob.
Boston Rob and Big Tom were both a big surprise. Big Tom may have won the goofy country boy vote in a country filled with goofy country boys, but Boston Rob was harder to figure. After all, he already made it to the final two, got the girl (winner Amber) and will likely help to spend her winnings. Probst pointed out that Rob had been campaigning to win the prize on the Trista-and-Ryan-style appearances he and Amber have been making all week. But the most likely explanation for Rob’s inclusion in the finals has to be America’s unabashed adoration of winners.
You see, here in the U.S., we feel strongly that winners have special rights, including the right to win again and again, regardless of who else is losing. Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, the Yankees, the Lakers — the more they win, the more we feel they deserve to win.
Sidestepping the wider cultural implications of this perverse perspective, my personal feeling is that Boston Rob and Amber deserve another million, as long as they agree to spare us from having to watch them wed on national TV.
And then there’s Mr. All-American Colby, a guy whose dimples and white teeth scream “winner” so loud, most mortals can hardly stand to look directly at him. Colby’s bound to win plenty as it is, from his Gillette endorsements to untold speaking fees just for showing up and looking pretty. But did anyone else notice that, as he was explaining how important it is to believe in your decisions and stay true to who you are, Colby spoke in a bland radio voice, almost completely devoid of his former Texan accent?
Needless to say, then, when Probst announced that Sweetums (Rupert) won the million-dollar prize, a great cry of joy went up from the crowd, and for a moment, the scrappy styleless majority shared a rare victory. While toughies and early bloomers like Colby and Boston Rob strut and charm their way through countless wins in life, those of us who were ever plagued by zits or crappy perms or unsightly patches of body hair, or who were teased for being chubby or for wearing cheap shoes or for bringing a Holly Hobby notebook on the first day of junior high had to struggle mightily at a tender age to overcome the bad hair and oily skin that blocked our paths to greatness. Together, we let out a sigh of relief, to finally see a hairier-than-average human win a million-dollar popularity contest.
Somehow, this victory makes all of the other little disappointments of “Survivor” history — the premature dismissal of Greg from the first season, for example, or the untimely demise of Rob Cesternino in the Amazon — a little easier to take. Now if producer Mark Burnett would just agree to include an audience-dictated award every season, he could easily raise the stakes for audiences, who’d feel responsible for picking the most deserving winner, and he’d probably jack up the show’s ratings as well. The dynamics of the game would change, of course, but after all these years, why shouldn’t they?
The only thing “Survivor” was missing this season was a true-blue homewrecker. Every reality show needs one! In fact, it’s amazing that “The Bachelor” became a hit even before it had a gold-digging adultress like Trish around to get the fur flying. This season, when Trish wasn’t boasting that she’d had an affair with a married man or giddily admitting that she’d slept with more than 30 men, she was insulting the other girls freely, referring to one as a “bumbling idiot.”
But don’t misunderstand Trish! You see, she’s always had trouble with female friendships because women feel extremely threatened by her, and they express these feelings of envy and insecurity by lashing out and saying mean things about her behind her back! Poor Trish.
As unhinged as she appears to be, though, it disturbs me that sluts continue to get such a bad rap after all these years. In fact, “The Bachelor’s” cheerleaders and beauty pageant contestants gasped in horror when Trish merely admitted that she had slept with more than 10 men. Ten men? Come on, girls! That’s only one man a year from age 18 to age 28! Surely we should be permitted to sample one new man-flavor a year during our Hot Pants Era without being labeled hussies! And when Trish reported that her number was somewhere in the mid-30s, you’d think she announced that she’d been sodomizing small animals and licking the tile floors of bathhouses for the past decade.
So it saddens me that this year’s Slut Ambassador must also be a narcissistic sociopath missing half of her creme-filled crullers. Of course, Hollywood has long recognized that narcissistic sluts are perhaps the most entertaining demographic in the known universe, hence the wild popularity of “Gone With the Wind,” “All About Eve” and “Basic Instinct.” The truth is, though, that I always relate to these whoring windbags more than I’d like to admit, and Trish is no exception. After all, what girl doesn’t get drunk and tell all of her dirtiest secrets to a bunch of girls who hate her while national TV cameras roll, every once in a while?
What’s really a pisser is that “The Bachelor” himself, Jesse Palmer, admitted that he was a big whore, confessing to several of the girls that he was tired of waking up to a new face every morning. While this deeply offended a few women who seemed not to know that Jesse was a man, or that, as an NFL quarterback, he was probably knee-deep in red-hot sluts 24/7, the others took the information in stride. After all, Jesse probably had to wade through a sea of sluts everywhere he went. He probably had to scrape a thick crust of sluts off his windshield every morning.
This slut infestation might concern the girls, were they not so distracted by that big, outspoken slut in their midst, Trish. But do they really want to marry someone whose boredom with hot sluts may only be temporary? How can they bash Trish when their pretty football player is most likely even more of a skank than she is?
Yes, I know, it feels a little disingenuous when I pretend to have just stumbled on the madonna-whore complex for the first time. And granted, Trish didn’t help matters much by being unapologetic about her affair with a married man, and (reportedly) referring to the wife as a sucker or some such. You know, it’s really not nice to call someone a sucker, particularly when you’re surrounded by a roomful of aspiring suckers.
But what really bugs me isn’t Trish, or her 15 vestal virgin roommates. What I really don’t like is the way that Jesse talks when he’s leaning in for a kiss. Watch closely. He mumbles as he’s leaning in, sometimes actually delaying lip contact with his last few words. What is wrong with that guy?
Maybe we’ll find out this Wednesday when, in the usual unbearable two-hour finale, Jesse will face the toughest decision of his life. Should he choose the sweet, sensible blond Jessica or the sweet, sensible blond Tara?
The suspense is killing me!
Dream on, white rat
If choosing wives for second-string quarterbacks isn’t your cup of tea, you might want to tune in for “Three Sisters: Searching for a Cure,” a documentary about ALS victim Jenifer Estess. Faced with a devastating diagnosis and no treatment options in 1997, Jenifer and her two younger sisters researched, raised money and brought together scientists focused on ALS, the neuromuscular disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in the hopes that, by paying them to share information, they might find a cure faster than they would on their own. The three women started Project ALS and have raised more than $18 million for scientists to find ways to treat and cure the disease.
Fundraising is certainly crucial, but what’s really interesting about the Estess sisters is that they played such a big part in guiding and coordinating the efforts of the scientists they funded. “For stem-cell research in ALS, they [the Estess sisters] are the principal movers,” one doctor explains. “They started well before any other group considered doing it. They drove that, they pushed us, and I don’t think we’d be at the level of research we are today without their driving force.”
“Three Sisters” airs on HBO this Wednesday at 8 p.m.
“Television’s most celebrated sitcom” left the air this week with far less fanfare than “Friends,” but unlike the “Friends” finale, the final episode of “Frasier” not only featured the sort of dense storytelling that makes an hour-long comedy feel worthwhile, but it was both dramatically compelling and funny.
Sure, several big events occurred — Frasier’s dad got married, Daphne and Niles had a baby, and Frasier tracked down his true love — but they’re all handled organically and there are — gasp — actual jokes scattered throughout.
Take Frasier’s agent trying to convince him to take a higher-paying job in San Francisco: “Darling, it’s San Francisco!” she squeals. “Do you know what life is like there for a good-looking straight man? You’ll be like a Snickers bar at a fat camp!”
Unlike the “Friends” finale, which made many fans of that show squirm, “Frasier” left the air with an hour of comedy that did justice to one of the most consistently funny sitcoms on the air.
Much has been made of the death of the sitcom, and while I’m tempted to believe that there will always be good half-hour comedies on TV, the outlook for the form is, at the moment, fairly dire. After all, what decent sitcoms are left? “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which will end after next season, “That ’70s Show,” which will also most likely end next season, “Will & Grace,” which has about two seasons left at the most, and “Scrubs,” which, if lead Zach Braff’s charming directorial debut “Garden State” is successful, may not stick around for very long. Just think, if Fox doesn’t renew “Arrested Development,” there may not be a single funny sitcom on the air within two years.
Thank God we have “American Idol” to make us laugh.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
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)