"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)
Truth, lies and “Control Room”
Last weekend, when it opened at New York’s Film Forum, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary “Control Room” sold out every seat at every screening, breaking the legendary Manhattan cinema venue’s single-screen box-office record. This might not directly reflect the film’s merits, although “Control Room” is a surprising, puzzling and in many ways brilliant work. Rather, these packed houses for a documentary about an Arab TV channel speak to the intense public hunger (at least in some quarters of our society) for alternate sources of information about what the hell happened in Iraq over the last year and a half, and for ways of thinking about it that don’t spring from prejudice or pure propaganda. (Cough-cough-New York Times-cough-cough-cough.)
Improbable as it seems, “Control Room” looks like the season’s smash documentary, at least until Michael Eisner and Harvey Weinstein get their act together and figure out who’s going to distribute Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Noujaim, an Arab-American woman who grew up shuttling between Egypt and the United States, spent the months surrounding the “major combat operations” in Doha, Qatar, traveling the 20 miles back and forth from the studios of Al-Jazeera, the semi-notorious Arabic-language news channel, to CentCom, the complex where the U.S. military dispensed approved information to the world press. What makes the movie so good is the fact that what she sees is never precisely what you expect. Sure, Noujaim is clearly more sympathetic to Al-Jazeera than, say, Donald Rumsfeld is (the defense secretary’s live-from-Mars press conferences serve here as a kind of dark comic relief), but you never get the feeling she’s pursuing some simplistic Arabs-good, Americans-bad story line.
In fact, if anything characterizes the protagonists who gradually emerge from the stew of names and faces in “Control Room,” it’s how complicated and conflicted they all are. Hassan Ibrahim, the cuddly-bear ex-BBC reporter who is Al-Jazeera’s main man at CentCom, speaks contemptuously of the cowardice and conspiratorial thinking of the Arab world, and says he believes the U.S. Constitution and the American people will ultimately restrain the Bush administration’s imperialist urges. Senior producer Samir Khader, a sad-sack middle-aged chain smoker with a bad Rudy Giuliani combover, seems like more of a pro-Arab ideologue — until he announces that if Fox News were to offer him a job, he’d take it. (Anything to get his kids into American universities and trade “the Arab nightmare for the American dream.”)
In Noujaim’s portrait, Al-Jazeera’s correspondents seem genuinely divided between their commitment to Arab nationalism (albeit an idealistic, democratically minded version of it) and the so-called objectivity demanded by news reporting. One young female Al-Jazeera producer finds herself close to tears at seeing American tanks in the streets of Baghdad. “Where is the Republican Guard? Where is the Iraqi army?” she exclaims in disbelief. “They must be somewhere.” Yet the CentCom correspondents from CNN, MSNBC and Fox are not much closer to the journalistic ideal of impartiality, Noujaim suggests. We watch as they stand around and cheer the semi-staged toppling of the Saddam statue, or obsequiously thank a military spokesman for providing details (subsequently discredited, of course) of the Jessica Lynch rescue.
If Noujaim does have an agenda, it may have to do with debunking the conventions of objectivity and absolute truth to which mainstream journalism still pays lip service. She comes from the cinéma-vérité tradition of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (she co-directed “Startup.com” with Hegedus). Although that documentary style is obsessively interested in depicting reality with as little directorial interference as possible, that’s quite different from offering some unitary version of the truth. The more you watch “Control Room” the less certain you feel that you know what really happened during the invasion of Iraq; the one thing you do feel sure of is that television viewers on different sides of the conflict saw different wars. When one Al-Jazeera producer — a woman who wears Western-style clothing and speaks English with a distinctly North American accent — tries to explain to an airhead U.S. TV reporter that journalistic objectivity is a kind of “mirage,” it’s a thoroughly confusing moment: Someone from the Arab world, so notorious for its despotism and intolerance, is lecturing an emissary of Thomas Jefferson’s homeland on the value of unfettered freedom of expression. (And is right to do so.)
Amid the chaos of “Control Room,” a story emerges that is at once tragic and hopeful. When an Al-Jazeera reporter is killed by U.S. forces in Baghdad, in an incident that has never been adequately explained, CentCom journalists from all parts of the world come together for a heartrending memorial service that makes you feel the profession may still have a mission. Unlikelier still is the friendship that gradually develops between the wisecracking, cynical Ibrahim and Lt. Josh Rushing, the boyish U.S. Army officer who ladles out official spin to the press corps. Gradually, the inherent mutual mistrust of their official capacities gives way to an unmistakable warmth, and the avuncular Arab begins to see the young lieutenant as a sweet, curious and gentle young man (who experiences a remarkable epiphany I won’t give away). By the end of the film, Ibrahim has invited Rushing to join him and his wife for dinner — in Jerusalem. Now that sounds like a movie.
Reeling around: “Twentynine Palms,” “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring,” “People Say I’m Crazy”
Beyond the Multiplex has been on hiatus for the last month or so (thanks to the two newborn art-film geeks currently slumbering on the couch at BTM world headquarters), so I never got a chance to weigh in on the two short-lived movie controversies of the season, Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” and Bruno Dumont’s “Twentynine Palms.” Oh, darn!
What’s striking is how quickly both of those movies disappeared, meaning that nobody cares what I think. For the record, “Twentynine Palms” represents a familiar pattern we’ll call the Zabriskie Point Complex, when some art-damaged Euro filmmaker comes to America, gets seduced by the grandeur of the Southwestern desert, and forgets that movies need something more than empty space. It does get credit for combining Wim Wenders’ “The State of Things” and Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes,” something that hadn’t been done before. I still haven’t seen “Dogville,” but trust me, I’m really excited about the DVD. (Guy Maddin fans, I promise to catch up with “The Saddest Music in the World” by next time, too.)
One of April’s movies that hasn’t disappeared, and for good reason, is Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring,” which sounds in the abstract like pure spinach-cinema, but turns out to be among the most wrenching, and most rewarding, films I’ve seen so far this year. It takes place entirely on and around a tiny Buddhist monastery on a raft floating in a remote rural lake, but the thing is, that makes it seem like it’s going to be slow and contemplative. It’s actually not. This story of a young monk’s journey into manhood encompasses grief, torment, lust (including some really hot sex), murder, death and spiritual redemption. It’s what “Crime and Punishment” would be like if Dostoevsky had been a Korean poet.
This is evidently Kim’s 10th feature and, no, I hadn’t heard of him either. What’s so startling about discovering this filmmaker is not that he constructs beautiful shots or has the patience and passion to capture the natural world on film. Let’s face it, those qualities kind of go with the turf in higher-end East Asian cinema. But out of the bare bones of this movie — basically a teacher, a student, their secluded realm and a girl who arrives from the outside world — Kim crafts a compelling narrative that feels both realistic and primal, like a folk tale that has partially migrated into the modern world. This one’s a real discovery — don’t miss it.
Lastly, amid all the exciting documentaries of the season, I’m afraid that John and Katie Cadigan’s memorable little film, “People Say I’m Crazy,” has gotten lost. That’s really too bad; I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and if it doesn’t make you cry two or three times, you need a heart transplant. John Cadigan, now in his early 30s (he looks much older), is an artist who has battled a severe psychotic illness since his undergraduate years. With the help of his sister Katie (an experienced filmmaker), he made this movie in an effort to capture mental illness from the inside.
There are no glamorous “Beautiful Mind”-style effects in “People Say I’m Crazy,” just a journey through the looking glass into the world of the borderline-functional mentally ill. Cadigan and most of his friends are those slightly funny-looking people we tolerate in coffee shops but generally don’t look at — people who struggle every day to quell voices, combat paranoid delusions and deal with the effects of mind-numbing medications that can lead to catatonia and obesity. While the Cadigans’ film is relatively artless, you’ll never forget it. John Cadigan’s heartbreaking baby steps back toward “normalcy,” and his attempt to communicate with us, epitomize those virtues Hollywood films are supposed to demonstrate but never do: honesty, courage, family love, the miraculous resilience of the human spirit.
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.