"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)
People who consider themselves basically in league with Michael Moore’s politics but dislike his movies often feel compelled to defend him as a concept: “He’s a much-needed liberal voice,” goes one argument. “He raises issues that need to be raised, that no one else is raising,” goes another. And now, with the release of “Fahrenheit: 9/11,” Moore’s examination of the presidency of George W. Bush in the wake of Sept. 11, another cogent defense is born: “Republicans have tried to suppress this movie — it must be good!”
Those responses toward Moore have a robotic, “Manchurian Candidate” quality (“Michael Moore is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”). Moore’s supporters are quick to impugn the liberal credentials of anyone who criticizes his presentation of the information he digs up (or, in some cases, makes up). For them, Michael Moore is the issues he talks about, so his detractors must be enemies of democratic principles. It’s an old trick, akin to the way Pauline Kael was accused of being insensitive about the Holocaust when she didn’t like “Shoah.”
In the Moore universe, noisy tub-thumping is deemed more valuable than stringent logic; presenting crucial information in a manner that’s irrefutable (by naysayers of any political bent) is much less important than drawing a comfortable little circle in which we’re encouraged to congratulate ourselves for being on the “correct” side, for having the good sense to recognize that our president is “bad” and the Iraq war is “wrong.”
“Fahrenheit 9/11″ is a blend of news footage and filmed commentary that’s occasionally effective, particularly when Moore lets the gathered footage speak for itself. But that doesn’t happen nearly enough: “Fahrenheit 9/11″ has Moore’s sloppy fingerprints all over it — he’s like the mugging moppet who insists on doing a tap-dancing routine during the Thanksgiving pageant, lest the Indians, our forefathers or even the bird itself steal the show from him.
Although he has stated that his aim is to force the election’s outcome by calling attention to the Bush administration’s web of duplicity and deceit, Moore, ever the self-promoter, is the real star of “Fahrenheit 9/11.” I agree with probably 95 percent of Moore’s politics. At the very least, I’m convinced that George W. Bush is the most dangerous president of my lifetime — he long ago superseded even the spurious, deceitful Nixon. But even though I’m part of the choir Moore is preaching to, I can’t help blanching at his approach: In this increasingly treacherous political climate — particularly as we approach an election whose impact may resound more thunderously than any other in recent history — preaching to the choir just isn’t good enough. “Fahrenheit 9/11″ shows evidence of being better researched than any of Moore’s previous films. An article in last Sunday’s New York Times made much of Moore’s hiring former New Yorker fact checkers to vet it. But Moore’s case is undermined by his jokey, faux-populist self-righteousness (a quality the left seems to despise only when it’s exhibited by those on the right) and by the slapdash connections he makes between various facts and events. The issues at stake are too serious for a spotlight-hungry manipulator like Moore to be mucking around with.
If you boiled “Fahrenheit 9/11″ down to a few basic assertions, you’d have to say Moore is on the right track: He states that Bush was never elected in the first place and that, at least partly because of Bush family ties with Saudi oil interests (connections that have been explored by Craig Unger and a few others, but not by most of the press), Saudi Arabia has gotten a free ride in terms of post-9/11 scrutiny. Before the attacks, Bush and his cabinet ignored warnings about the terrorist threat to this country; afterward, he attempted to squelch any independent investigation of the attacks. Furthermore, the Bush administration has exploited the tragedy of Sept. 11 to foster a culture of fear in the United States; our so-called president then roused us fearful Americans into support for, or at least a numb acceptance of, a war that he has justified only with false allegations.
Moore isn’t wrong in considering Bush’s actions grave sins against the American people. The problem is that instead of marshaling his strength to drive home his genuinely good zingers, he bunny-hops across the landscape of his movie, scoring cheap points wherever he can. He uses his smirky, aw-shucks filmmaking techniques to encourage complacency in his audience even when he thinks he’s doing the opposite: To hammer home the point that Bush is a marauding cowboy, Moore gives us a mock-up of the opening credits to “Bonanza,” with Bush’s face superimposed where Lorne Greene’s should be. (The faces of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair round out the fearsome foursome.) The screening audience I saw the movie with giggled appreciatively, delighted to see George W. made to look like a buffoon. Elsewhere, hokey hoedown music plays in the background against images of Bush, who’s fond of stomping around in a cowboy hat on his endless Crawford retreats. (Bill Clinton’s enemies often used similar “hick” music to paint him as a dumb rube from the South — but then, the use of country music is the universal signal for “Looky here — a stupid person!”) Moore doesn’t realize that in falling back on the cliché of painting the president as a cowboy, he’s missing the real phoniness: Bush is a New Haven-born blueblood who affected a Texas demeanor.
Moore uses these and other yuk-yuk tactics to poke impish little holes in the Bush persona. But these minor deflations don’t do much to emasculate George W. If anything, they suggest that Moore underestimates him, carelessly characterizing Bush’s smug and reckless disregard for the American people as just a slightly rejiggered version of avuncular, Ronald Reagan-style cluelessness.
“Fahrenheit 9/11″ opens with wordless, slow-motion, off-the-air footage of Bush preparing to go on-camera for his pre-Iraq War address to the American people. His piggy little eyes shift left and right; he looks creepy and untrustworthy — not the type of person you’d want leading your country into war. But Moore rarely trusts in the power of images; he has to talk all over them, figuratively if not literally. He also takes inordinate pleasure in presenting us with facile, simplistic conclusions without having connected the dots. For instance, he stresses the strong connection between George H.W. Bush and the Saudi royal family: The senior Bush is an advisor to the Carlyle Group, a large Washington private equity firm with significant holdings in the defense sector, and with members of the bin Laden family among its investors.
At the very least, that’s the conflict of interest Moore claims it is. But Moore never fits the info nibblets he comes up with on the Bush-Saudi connection into a coherent whole. Moore says that, in the days immediately following 9/11, when not even celebrities like Ricky Martin were allowed to fly, prominent Saudis, including members of the bin Laden family, were secretly hustled out of the United States. He interviews an FBI agent who says that they should have been questioned before they were offered special protection. Here’s the problem: As the New York Times reported last Sunday — ironically, in the piece on the fact checking that Moore claims has gone into the movie — the FBI did interview and clear members of the bin Laden family and, as the 9/11 commission has reported, the flights did not leave before U.S. airspace was reopened. In “Fahrenheit 9/11″ Moore may have been more careful than usual with the facts, but you still can’t help wondering how much he tinkered with them to suit his arguments.
Furthermore, by fixating on the Bush family’s financial interests, Moore fails to take into account some of the subtler and perhaps more sinister reasons George W. pushed for the invasion of Iraq — most significantly, his sense of quasi-religious righteousness (as well as Saddam Hussein’s attempt to assassinate his father). How many times have you heard someone say that the Iraq War is “all about oil”? It would almost be a relief if oil — that is to say, simple greed — were all that the war was about. Whatever is really going on in George W.’s head, and in those of his advisors, is probably infinitely scarier. Not to discount the enormous profits that Cheney’s buddies at Halliburton are reaping, but Bush is surrounded by the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle, people who have long been ideologically fixated on Iraq.
When Moore isn’t pounding away at Bush, he’s busy playing the friend of the common man. But as he did in both “Roger & Me” and “Bowling for Columbine,” Moore can’t help acting superior to his on-camera subjects. We meet Lila Lipscomb, a hardworking American of modest means who encouraged her children to go into the military, knowing that it could provide educational opportunities that she wouldn’t have been able to give them herself. Lipscomb is proud of her country and proud of the young men and women who fight for it. At one point, she shows Moore the cross she wears around her neck — it’s a multicolored cross that, she explains, stands for her multicultural beliefs. “I’m multicultural,” she states plainly.
At this moment, the audience I saw “Fahrenheit 9/11″ with snickered over what they must have perceived as Lipscomb’s simplicity. But not long after, we see that Lipscomb’s husband is African-American, and her large, extended family is multiracial. Yet Moore’s audience has already been primed to laugh at the “simple folk” who make up the bulk of this great land o’ ours. Moore’s approach leaves Lipscomb open to ridicule (the same way he used the Rabbit Lady in “Roger & Me” — the woman who sold live rabbits and their byproducts to bolster her meager government income checks — to get laughs).
And then, we learn that Lipscomb’s son has been killed in Iraq — it’s the clincher Moore has been saving. Lipscomb reads her son’s last letter home aloud, and you’d have to be made of stone not to be moved by it. But there’s still a sense that this woman’s deep, raw grief is valuable to Moore primarily because it feeds his purpose: Look at how innocent, regular people suffer during wartime, he seems to be saying, as if the revelation had just occurred to him.
Elsewhere, Moore shows us footage of grievously injured Iraqi children or, more arresting yet, their corpses. Many of these images are graphic, and I don’t believe audiences should necessarily be sheltered from such pictures. But there’s something wily and disingenuously wide-eyed about the way Moore uses these images to make his points about the horrors of war. Similarly, he expresses surprise and dismay that the military recruits heavily among African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities, as opposed to trying to attract rich kids. Stop the presses! Innocent civilians are killed during wartime; our armed services are made up largely of young men and women to whom our society has offered limited opportunities. Moore unveils these revelations with a flourish, relishing his role as the great teller of truths. What planet, exactly, has he been living on?
There’s plenty in “Fahrenheit 9/11″ to provoke true outrage, including some shameless Halliburton promotional materials touting the service and support that company is providing our armed forces overseas. Most powerful of all is the footage of Bush on the morning of 9/11: After learning that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and that the nation was under attack, he sat for nearly seven minutes reading “My Pet Goat” to a group of Florida schoolchildren. We scan his face as those endless minutes pass, searching for clues: What is he thinking? What does he suppose he should do? Even here, Moore can’t help indulging in cheap psychological analysis, instead of letting the pictures speak for themselves. Still, there’s no getting around the cloudy befuddlement in Bush’s eyes. The sequence captures the shamefulness of Bush’s ineffectuality.
“Fahrenheit 9/11″ has been surrounded by a handy halo of buzz: First, Miramax’s parent company, Disney, announced it wouldn’t release the film, although it was embarrassed into handing it over to Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who subsequently found distributors for it (Lion’s Gate and IFC Films). The movie’s woes didn’t stop there: Right-winger Howard Kaloogian, a former California state legislator who claims credit for squelching the CBS Ronald Reagan biopic, has spearheaded a campaign to harass and intimidate theaters into refusing to show the film. (MoveOn.org has countered by urging audiences to see “Fahrenheit 9/11″ on its opening day to spur a groundswell of support.)
It’s all terrifically lucky for Moore — you can’t buy publicity like that. But I’d also urge moviegoers to see “Control Room,” Jehane Noujaim’s documentary about Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq War, a piece of filmmaking that, like Moore’s movie, is antiwar in the broadest sense. But it’s also one that, unlike Moore’s, is well aware of the dangers of self-certainty and easy answers.
I’ve heard even die-hard Moore detractors defend “Fahrenheit 9/11,” claiming that its flaws don’t matter because it speaks to a higher truth. The thinking goes, I suppose, that we need every anti-Bush voice we can get, and Moore, who won an Academy Award for “Bowling for Columbine” and has several bestselling books under his belt, is likely to wield more influence than most other voices coming from the left. What’s more, even though “Fahrenheit 9/11″ isn’t journalism, Moore presents his findings with an air of authority. Moore believes the press has let us down in calling Bush on his fraudulence and falseheartedness, and he’s right. Still, the tradition, craft and standards of journalism have to count for something: Should we really be holding up cheap shots, inference and sloppy reporting as gateways to the truth?
Moore is a very specific and slippery kind of bully: He glides along on his underdog status as if it were a parade float. He professes to feel great compassion for the common man. Yet over and over again, in movie after movie, he invites the audience to chuckle over ordinary people. Why? In “Fahrenheit 9/11″ he lists the countries that stepped forward as members of Bush’s Coalition of the Willing (Palau, Costa Rica, Iceland, Romania, Morocco, and the Netherlands among them), accompanied by funny stock footage of people in costumes of many lands. If Moore is the left’s great spokesman by default, shouldn’t he be using his influence (not to mention his money) to raise the level of political discourse in this country instead of lowering it? Instead we have a filmmaker who manages the feat of getting liberal audiences to laugh at how funny those foreigners are.
Just after 9/11, Moore wrote a publicly circulated letter musing about the meaning and possible causes of the attacks. In the letter, Moore talked out of all 16 of sides of his mouth, first expressing sorrow over the tragedy, then attributing the attacks to Americans’ desire for cheap sneakers, and later intoning wisely, “It’s much easier to get us to hate when the object of our hatred doesn’t look like us.”
But somewhere in there, he also wrote, “Am I being asked to believe that this guy who sleeps in a tent in a desert has been training pilots to fly our most modern, sophisticated jumbo jets with such pinpoint accuracy that they are able to hit these three targets without anyone wondering why these planes were so far off path?”
Well, gosh, Michael — yeah. The lesson learned? Third-world tent dwellers do the darnedest things. It’s a shocking and unpredictable world that we little people live in. At least we have Michael Moore to explain it all for us.
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)