"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)
In a Fourth of July message on his Web site, Michael Moore recapped “Fahrenheit 9/11′s” phenomenal debut. He cited record-breaking ticket sales, claiming the film “beat the opening weekend of Return of the Jedi.” (True, if you’re talking about Jedi’s 1997 rerelease and not its 1983 premiere.) Moore ended his holiday message with a note of thanks to the men and women of the U.S. armed forces. “Theaters in military towns across the country reported packed houses,” he wrote. “Our troops know the truth. They have seen it first-hand.”
As those who have seen the film know, “Fahrenheit 9/11″ subjects audiences to graphic, stomach-churning images of screaming, maimed soldiers who really do know the truth about the war in Iraq. By Moore’s account, service members and military families wholeheartedly support his film. But numbers tell one story; soldiers another.
The Army and Air Force Exchange Service operates 159 movie theaters on U.S. military bases throughout the United States and the world. So far, AAFES hasn’t booked “Fahrenheit 9/11″ for any of its theaters — but that doesn’t mean it’s shunning the film. “All of our bookings are based on popularity and availability,” said Judd Anstey, a public affairs specialist for AAFES. “So far, no firm decision has been made on ‘Fahrenheit 9/11.’”
Fort Benning, home of the Army’s infantry since World War I, is spitting distance from Columbus, Ga., a city of 186,000 located just across the Chattahoochee River from Alabama. The state highway that cuts through Columbus is called Victory Drive, with American flags dotting its grassy median. There’s even a Veteran’s Square on Veteran’s Parkway. The city’s prosperity follows that of Fort Benning; this is a military town if ever there was one.
“Fahrenheit 9/11″ is showing at only one theater in Columbus, the Carmike 15, located 17 miles from the base. But finding out how the movie is doing there is like trying to get President Bush to invite Moore to a White House dinner. I called the corporate office of Carmike Cinemas, which owns four other theaters in town — including the Wynnsong 10, located on the base itself — several times with no answer. And no one in a management position at either the Carmike 15 or the Wynnsong 10 would speak to me about the film for fear of a sudden, drastic change in their employment status. Why “Fahrenheit 9/11″ is playing at the Carmike theater located the farthest from Fort Benning will have to remain a mystery.
I spent two days trying to sweet-talk Elsie Jackson of Fort Benning’s public affairs office into doing my dirty work — putting together a group of infantry volunteers who were willing to see Moore’s film with me. Not even my best lines could budge her: I told her I was an Air Force veteran myself and knew what it was like to be deployed. I told her that if she would only forward my request to the soldiers, they could contact me directly. Nothing. So in desperation I asked which of Fort Benning’s gates I should stand outside with a handmade sign begging for volunteers. Thankfully, Elsie had a better idea. She told me to check out Ranger Joe’s.
On Victory Drive, a couple of miles from the fort, Ranger Joe’s is a soldier’s general store/warrior emporium. Troops from private to general stop in for everything from haircuts and dry cleaning to knives and gunsmithing. When I arrived at about 4:30 on a blistering South Georgia summer afternoon, it was a Mecca for off-duty soldiers, who were trying to take care of errands before evening formation or the next day’s duty. Green soldiers still in training had town passes and milled about the store with their proud families in tow; regular troops stood in line to drop off dirty uniforms while those with a shadow of hair around the crown waited to be shorn at the barber shop.
With a manager’s approval, I made an announcement on the store’s intercom. “May I have your attention, please,” I said, loud enough over the store’s speakers that even I was a bit startled. Everyone in the store looked up and froze, probably anticipating some kind of grim message. I quickly introduced myself as a writer and offered free tickets to soldiers who were willing to attend that night’s showing of the film at the Carmike 15. I waited around but no one came. “Everybody heard me, right?” I asked the manager with the silver beard who had let me use the intercom. He grinned and raised his eyebrows. “Oh yeah,” he said with a nod, “they heard you, all right.”
I went outside and opted for the direct approach. Sweating in a thoroughly unprofessional manner, I wandered the parking lot and chased down anybody with Army camouflage or a high-and-tight haircut and asked if they were interested in a free movie.
One young soldier who wouldn’t give his name (“No way, I’m not getting in trouble for that again,” he said mysteriously of talking to the media) said that he’d go if he could remain anonymous because he thought Moore “is a genius.” His paranoia nixed the enthusiasm of his three Army buddies, who, if the first had only kept his mouth shut, seemed interested enough. A Bradley tank mechanic who was in a rush said he was slated to deploy to Iraq soon and would definitely see a free movie, even though he’d never heard of “Fahrenheit 9/11.” I asked if he knew anything about the director. “Well, if he says anything negative about the military, he’s a shitbag, because I love my job,” he replied. A sandy-haired, older gentleman who cuts hair at Ranger Joe’s said plainly during his smoke break, “I can’t stand Michael Moore. He sits back making movies while other people serve. Hell, he couldn’t fit in a uniform, the fat fuck.”
I passed out about 30 business cards to troops of both sexes and several races and by 6:30 I had at least 15 solid prospects. Employing the standard two-thirds rule of party attendance (my parties, anyway), I figured that about 10 U.S. soldiers would come and watch the movie with me.
If support is measured by interest, then Moore needs a reality check. Two soldiers showed up. Pvt. Alan Hoffman, 20, from Milwaukee, will have been in the U.S. Army for a year in September. David Marks, a 24-year-old Birmingham, Ala., troop who grew up in Israel and spent three years in the Israeli army, has been in for eight months. Calling them gung-ho is probably redundant, since they are both in the infantry. When I told Hoffman that I was a veteran, he asked, “What was your MOS?” Army jargon for, “What did you do in the Army?” When I replied that I had been a video maintenance technician in the Air Force, he sneered.
Both soldiers are certain that they will deploy to Iraq in the near future, though they could not say when. They admitted that neither of them would likely have seen the movie on their own but were intrigued by the controversy surrounding the film. “The diversity of opinion makes life so much better than having just one opinion,” Marks said in defense of Moore’s film as we were in line to buy tickets.
“You know what’s really ironic?” Hoffman asked, interrupting his friend. “We’re fighting for people to be able to overthrow us.” He followed with a convoluted but strangely logical explanation that, since Moore was attempting to overthrow Bush, and if soldiers fought for democracy and freedom of speech, then by extension soldiers were fighting for Moore to be able to revolt against the government. “It’s kind of weird when you think about it that way,” he said.
Based on Moore’s infamous “Shame on you, Mr. Bush” speech at the 2003 Academy Awards, Marks was fairly certain that he wasn’t about to see an objective film. “A documentary is supposed to be a historic document,” Marks said. “Any newspaper, any reporter would go out into the field and see it from their own view because everybody has an opinion. Moore obviously came in with a very biased opinion to one side, so I’m not going to see a very well-balanced movie.”
At 8:20, while Hoffman and Marks chatted with the Carmike employees at the refreshment counter, I spotted two obviously military guys headed for the ticket booth. I ambushed them. “You guys in the Army?” I got a “no, duh” look from them. “What are you here to see?” “King Arthur,” they intoned warily in unison.
I quickly introduced myself and my purpose. “How would you like to see ‘Fahrenheit 9/11′ instead for free?” The soldiers looked at each other with a sudden interest. Spc. George Herrera, 22, and Spc. Juan Garcia, 24, had met when they were both deployed to Iraq from March 2003 until February this year as airborne infantry in the 173rd Brigade. They had heard about the film and, as both of them had served in Kirkuk, were hooked by my offer.
With four infantrymen — two of whom were Iraq combat veterans — in tow, we sat down to watch Moore’s indictment against President Bush, the bin Ladens and the war on terror.
The 131-seat theater was about three-quarters full. I planted myself between Herrera and Hoffman, with the other two on the outside of me. The opening sequence about the 2000 election elicited chuckles from the men, but a morose blanket of silence befell the entire theater as Moore’s introductory credits faded into the devastating images of New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Within the first half-hour, five people left the theater and did not return. Then suddenly, just as the Bush administration embarked on its “Bonanza”-esque invasion of Afghanistan, the film stopped. After a few minutes, the house lights rose slightly.
“It’s completely biased, but it’s fucking hilarious,” Hoffman commented as the projectionists awoke in the booth and tried to get the film running again. The other soldiers agreed. In the raised lighting, I could dimly make out three other military personnel in the audience.
As the minutes dragged, a gruff-voiced woman yelled, “Is Bush running the projector?” The soldiers joined in the laughter. I asked Spc. Herrera what he thought so far. “It’s pretty good,” he replied somewhat reluctantly. “It’s a lot of information.”
When the film started again, the Bush posse invaded Afghanistan and Americans shivered in fear. During a truly chilling vision of Attorney General John Ashcroft belting out the self-penned tune “Let the Eagle Soar,” Hoffman uttered a bewildered “What the fuck?” loud enough for most of the theater to hear. As the invasion of Iraq began, however, the hilarity of the film dissipated. The soldiers were engrossed in the action.
In a scene depicting a night-vision airborne jump during the opening phase of the war, Herrera and Garcia jerked upright and exchanged glances, pointing excitedly to the screen. (They said afterward that the unit in the footage was their own.) The most disturbing scenes followed: dead children, bodies piled in trucks, wounded U.S. soldiers screaming, U.S. soldiers laughing at an Iraqi troop under a blanket with an erection, an Iraqi woman cursing Americans and crying, “God, where are you?”
When Moore showed enraged Iraqis beating the charred torso of what is apparently a U.S. troop, Hoffman muttered in disbelief, as if explaining something to a child, “That’s a person.”
Herrera hissed and his body tensed when he saw an Iraqi fondling an American’s dog tags. When Lila Lipscomb shared the story of how she learned of her son Michael’s death in Iraq, all four soldiers shifted uncomfortably in their seats. When the film ended, no one applauded. There was no standing ovation, as a theater owner in Fayetteville, N.C., home of Fort Bragg, described in an article linked to Moore’s Web site. People filed out of the theater quietly, respectfully.
When we gathered outside to discuss the movie, one thing was immediately apparent: These four soldiers did not like Moore’s film.
Hoffman said he expected “an actual documentary, as opposed to [Moore] trying to make a joke out of it.” Herrera, who by my account was the most uncomfortable during the viewing, simply said, “It was too ‘pop.’” Garcia agreed. “It went from too funny to too serious.”
As for Moore’s depiction of U.S. forces, all agreed that Moore went too far in his depiction of soldiers as warmongering boobs. “He basically made the soldiers seem like homicidal psychopaths,” Marks said.
“He didn’t show [Iraqi soldiers] with an RPG shooting at us,” Garcia added.
“We’re just trying to go over there and do our jobs and keep ourselves alive,” Hoffman said. “Half the people don’t realize that kids are shooting at us too. Little kids with cellphones giving signals to other people to launch RPGs at us … kids will shoot a machine gun at you.”
“There’s some stuff that I really didn’t expect to see,” Herrera said. “They should have put more of a soldier’s perspective.”
Marks thought the movie was going to be all about Bush; instead, he thought Moore portrayed the Army negatively to illustrate a point. “Toward the end he was saying don’t let our soldiers die there while the richer people don’t send their kids to the military. At the end he wants you to think, ‘These are our kids.’ He started off with us as crazy killers … What are we? I didn’t understand what we are.”
Hoffman disagreed that the military was composed mainly of poor people. “My dad owns his own company. I joined anyways. It’s not all poor people.” Garcia said his father is wealthy and lives in Honduras. “But I joined the Army because I wanted to be in the Army.”
“Right,” Marks agreed. “He could have talked about that football player [Pat Tillman] who died. Instead, he made it seem like everyone who goes into the military is homeless.”
Above all, the soldiers agreed that showing suffering U.S. troops went too far. Marks felt that the images of screaming soldiers and charred bodies were too much, especially for families who may have troops overseas. “It wasn’t too much for my stomach but I don’t think that it should have been viewable for the general public,” he said. “With the war still going on and all, I think that’s way too harsh. The bodies are still warm. We’re still burying the people. That shouldn’t be seen. Period.”
“Those rough scenes really affected me,” Herrera said of the film’s carnage. “I had buddies that did get shot, members of my unit that did die. We had funerals for them.” They particularly disliked the scene of a U.S. patrol on Christmas Eve raiding an Iraqi house in search of a male suspect. Marks said, “They just showed the two women crying, ‘He’s a student.’ They don’t show you what those soldiers said before that. Maybe this Iraqi guy killed an American soldier, planted a bomb …”
“We don’t know why they’re looking at this guy,” Garcia complained. “We don’t know if maybe they found 10 RPG rounds or 200 pounds of C4. All we get is the family screaming.”
I asked the guys if they agreed with Moore’s statement, that military communities supported his film. All four heads shook from side to side. “Not from the guys who are going over there.” “Not at Fort Benning.” “Not in my unit.”
Spc. Herrera just said quietly, “Everybody has a different way of thinking. He doesn’t have my support.”
Bill Warhop is a copy editor for Atlanta Magazine and covers the magazine's military beat. He served in the Air Force from 1997 to 2001.More Bill Warhop.
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)