"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)
Gidi Dar says the opening of his film in New York came with a sign from God. OK, he didn’t say that exactly — Dar is a secular Israeli, and although he directed “Ushpizin,” the first feature film made within the closed world of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, he doesn’t share his characters’ (and actors’) intimate, personal relationship with the deity.
What Dar actually said was, “It’s like something from above.” He was talking about the fact that his film was opening in the same New York theater, at virtually the same time, as “Paradise Now,” the film by Palestinian-born Hany Abu-Assad that explores the world of two would-be suicide bombers from the West Bank. On the most obvious level, these movies are set in very different realms, even diametrically opposed ones. But they’re a lot more similar than you might think. First of all, they’re movies, not lectures or political tracts. They invite you to set aside all your confident and wildly uninformed prejudice and identify with someone else’s perspective — which turns out, of course, not to be alien or deranged but recognizably human.
Both movies are taking incoming fire for exactly the wrong reasons, which only makes me want to root for them more. “Ushpizin” is a comedy with no explicit political content, and a lot of critics are seeing it as a squishy “ethnic” film for Jewish audiences, basically “My Big Fat Hasidic Wedding” (except that the couple is already married and never even touch each other on-screen). Meanwhile, “Paradise Now” has been understood in some quarters as sympathetic to Palestinian terrorism, when in fact it offers no justification — and no real explanation — for its characters’ apocalyptic course of action. Both movies will melt the borders of certainty and make you understand, as Dar puts it, how little we really understand the world. Not everybody welcomes that experience.
Fall is busy-bee season for indie distributors, as for the rest of the world, and as usual we’ve got more worthwhile flicks kicking around than I can sit through, even less write about. Rounding out Ambiguity Week, we’ve got a strange and dazzling film by a first-time French director, and the re-release of Michelangelo Antonioni’s greatest work. The first one might be the surprise of my moviegoing year to date (in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that it’s probably illegal in several states). And while the master of Euro-angst cinema has never totally been my glass of absinthe, who can resist a wide-screen travelogue featuring the Gaudí architecture of Barcelona and a young Jack Nicholson lost in the Sahara?
“Ushpizin”: Uninvited guests in a temporary home
Generally speaking, movies have to stand or fall on their own; understanding context can be helpful, but it should never be essential. “Ushpizin” is an exception to this rule, or something close to it. It’s a charming comedy with a philosophical undercurrent that provides a fascinating glimpse of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, who live in a realm almost literally sealed off from outsiders. But the most remarkable thing about the film is that it exists at all.
Gidi Dar made “Ushpizin” with his old friend, the Israeli stage and film actor Shuli Rand, who some years ago joined a fundamentalist sect known as the Breslover Hasidim and withdrew from show business. They agreed that making a feature film inside the Hasidic world would create an opportunity for dialogue between the secular and religious communities in Israel. While for understandable reasons the world remains focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Dar insists that the mutual mistrust between left-leaning, nonreligious Jews and their Orthodox countrymen in Israel is “much worse” than between Jews and Arabs.
Dar agreed to work entirely inside the Hasidic worldview: There would be no filming on Saturdays, and the movie, in fact, is not even shown on Saturdays (ordinarily that’s a big moviegoing night in Israel, like everywhere else). Male and female actors would never touch each other. If Rand was to play the husband in the film, the wife would have to be portrayed by his actual wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, who had never acted before. (She turns out to be a forceful, if almost cylindrical, screen presence, and almost predictably steals the show.) Rand wrote the script and got approval from his rabbi before he let Dar begin shooting it.
Even so, Dar had a kind of stealth agenda. If the two friends agreed on how to make the film, they didn’t agree on what it was really about. Rand and his wife play a Hasidic couple, Moshe and Malli, who are childless and nearly broke. They’ve been pleading with God for a financial break, and by the way for a son. As the holiday of Sukkot draws near — which requires observant Jews to spend several days living outside their homes, in a temporary shelter — Moshe has no money to build one, or even to buy the ceremonial citron (a lemonlike fruit) demanded by ritual.
For Rand, this is a comedy based in God’s word, in which prayers are answered and faith is tested. Money appears to Moshe and Malli, as if from heaven (to be specific, $1,000 in cold, hard American cash). So does a sukkah, or plywood shelter, although its origins are mysterious. And so do a couple of dubious and decidedly nonreligious characters from Moshe’s past — and it’s every good Jew’s duty to welcome guests during Sukkot, no matter who they may be. (“Ushpizin” is the Aramaic term for such holiday guests.)
Dar is a lean, handsome, balding fellow, and when I meet him in his Manhattan hotel room, he’s eating a cheeseburger and chocolate shake dropped off by a publicist. I observe that he’s apparently not keeping kosher, and he just stares at me.
For him, “Ushpizin” is less a religious film than a psychological one. It’s about how the mind of the believer — and let’s face it, we all believe in something — constructs meaning out of what may just be random circumstance. “Shuli saw the movie as taking place in the world of God,” he says. “A world where God exists, God guides everything, God sees everything, and God sends you all the signs. My perception is that it’s a psychological world, and that’s what interested me — following the way a person chooses to see these signs and ignore others, and form his reality by that.
“You pray for 10 years and get nothing,” he goes on. “One day you get something: That’s immediately proof of the existence of God. The next day, two guests appear, and this is a world where nothing is coincidental. Therefore this must be another sign. The fact that you know these people, and you know what kind of trouble they’re going to bring you, that’s not a sign. The sign is that these guys must be a test.
“We’re all like that, we’re all psychological creatures. We all build our realities out of imaginative worlds. None of us really see reality. Some of us think we do. Some of us think God is reality; some of us think science is reality. I don’t think anything is reality; I don’t know where reality lies. I like it; I prefer to be like that.”
It’s pretty clear that Dar personally belongs to the left-leaning, secular segment of Israeli society, but he didn’t want to talk about the larger questions of Middle East politics (at least not on the record). But the absence of political debate in “Ushpizin” doesn’t mean it’s an apolitical film. Making the movie itself was “a political act,” he says. “It’s being politics, not talking about them.”
While the core audience for “Ushpizin” in America will probably be Jewish, Dar specifically hopes that Christians and others will see it. The questions of faith it raises are not “Jewish property,” he points out, and as an exercise in boundary-crossing it has a contemporary significance that transcends Israel or Judaism.
“What am I doing here?” he asks rhetorically. “I go into this inaccessible world, this fundamentalist world. I mean, these people go all the way: They are the most radical fundamentalists in the world. Nobody can be more fundamentalist than they are. As much as them, maybe. But not more. They are the most you can imagine. To eternity and beyond, like Buzz Lightyear.
“So I go into this fundamentalist world, and we know nothing about it. All the movies done about it are made from the outside. What I try to do is set all the problems and all the conflict aside for an hour and a half, and just accept their point of view. That’s a big trip, I think. It’s much more interesting artistically, first of all. And politically and culturally it has a much stronger effect. Because here’s something you don’t know, something you’ve never seen before. If you identify with these people and remind yourself that they’re actually human beings — and that besides certain differences in the clothes they are very much like you — well, that’s a better starting point for dialogue than you had before.”
This exercise is meant to remind us that whomever we demonize — whether it’s Islamic fundamentalists or born-again Southern Baptists — are more like us, and therefore more comprehensible, than we generally choose to admit. Without such a perspective, Dar says, “We’re heading toward World War III. Actually, we’re in it already. And it’s only going to get worse.”
When I ask if he personally believes in God, I think I’m going to get another of those you’re-not-funny stares. Instead, he thinks about it intently for several chews of burger. “I believe in a world that has no answers,” he says at last. “There’s something interesting in Judaism, and that’s the First Commandment, which says, ‘I am your God, do not make any pictures of me.’ That’s exactly the most Jewish thing in the world: Do not make any kind of figuration of God. This addresses the human desire to get an answer to this abyss we stand in front of. It’s darkness. We know nothing about it. So in a way, I’m very, very Jewish, because I refuse to give any kind of answer. I am facing nothingness, but in the deepest sense, not in a flat sense.”
“Ushpizin” is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and Washington. It opens Oct. 28 in Chicago; Nov. 2 in Philadelphia; Nov. 4 in Hartford, Conn., New Haven, Conn., and Providence, R.I.; and Nov. 9 in Baltimore, Boston, Portland, Ore., San Diego and Seattle, with many other cities to follow.
“Paradise Now”: Dodging potholes on the highway to hell
If “Ushpizin” takes us within the alien world of Hasidic Judaism and ultimately makes it seem completely normal, the journey of Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now” moves in an opposite direction. The lives of Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), a couple of low-end auto mechanics in the West Bank town of Nablus, couldn’t seem more ordinary. They’re not desperately poor, and they don’t seem to have been personally brutalized by the Israeli occupation. They sit around listening to Arab pop music, smoking a hookah and talking about girls. Then they get chosen for a “mission,” meaning it is their great privilege to be wrapped in explosives and sent onto the streets of Tel Aviv, assigned to blow themselves up and take along as many strangers as possible.
“Paradise Now” isn’t a comfortable viewing experience, but it isn’t meant to be. Inevitably, people’s reactions to this subject matter — and this filmmaker’s handling of it — are all over the map. All I can say is that I found it a tremendously compelling existential thriller that kept me up late the night I saw it, and it has resonated in my brain ever since. It’s an unstable combination of love story, almost farcical comedy and profound tragedy, but I feel pretty sure those ingredients are all deliberate. Abu-Assad has said in interviews that the film reflects his understanding that there is no single explanation or uniting narrative behind the epidemic of suicide bombings, that it is in some sense an inexplicable social phenomenon whose every instance is unique.
We catch glimpses of why Saïd and Khaled are willing (at least at first) to go along with this brilliant plan, but really only glimpses. The sinister ideologues who recruit them are important men in the Palestinian world, and repeatedly assure the duo how famous and glorious they will become. At the local video store, you can rent or buy tapes of the scripted statements movement martyrs read for the cameras before they fulfill their missions, along with battered copies of Hollywood and Bollywood movies. Neither of these guys seems especially religious, so that stuff seems almost like a footnote: Oh yeah, by the way? After you blow yourself into unrecognizable chunks of flesh? You’ll be whisked straight to paradise!
More than anything else, life in the West Bank looks boring. Constrained and nearly always irritating and sometimes dangerous, yes, but mostly boring. By fulfilling a mission they apparently signed up for a long time ago, Saïd and Khaled are more than a couple of clowns working at the junkyard; they have an appointment with history. In his spooky portrayal of the overnight purification ritual prospective bombers undergo, Abu-Assad makes you feel something of the elation, even ascension, these two experience.
At the same time, there’s no mythology in this portrayal of the Palestinian underworld. The leader of the unnamed group that assigns Saïd and Khaled their mission is a vainglorious blowhard; the filming of the video testimonial is hopelessly slipshod; the first attempt to smuggle the two through the fence into Israel is badly bungled. When the two men get separated, each has an opportunity to reflect on his past and his possible future: Khaled has a wife and child back in Nablus, Saïd a budding romance with Suha (Lubna Azabal), a Westernized intellectual who’s recently returned from France. When one of them finally faces a busload of Jewish civilians, including several young children, what will he do?
If the will-they-or-won’t-they question fuels much of the suspense in “Paradise Now,” so does the general atmosphere of fear and irrationality. Abu-Assad and his crew shot on actual locations in Israel and the West Bank, working the military authorities with one hand and paramilitary guerrillas with the other. The clammy, chilly, fatal realism of this film is something you could never reproduce in another setting — Saïd and Khaled’s video testimonials were shot in a building where real bombers have documented themselves for posterity. These two guys and their handlers, like the soldiers trying to stop them, like the warring politicians on either side, are just cogs in a machine. They can do their part or break down, as the case may be, but the machine keeps on grinding.
“Paradise Now” opens Oct. 28 in New York and Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.
“Innocence”: There’s no escape from the planet of little girls!
If a semi-sympathetic portrayal of suicide bombers isn’t enough button pushing for one week, try this one: a Gothic fantasy set in a mysterious walled complex, deep in the forest, where dozens of prepubescent girls are being raised for an unspecified future purpose in an unseen outside world. But despite a nudge-nudge, wink-wink attitude adopted by certain critics, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Innocence” is a lovely, tender and, yes, innocent film about childhood, which captures both its light, idyllic moments and its undeniably dark undercurrents with extraordinary rigor.
This is the weirdest film I’ve seen all year, or at least the weirdest good film. It’s also among the most powerful. French cinema can offer several exciting young female directors (including Anne Fontaine, Delphine Gleize and Siegrid Alnoy), but Hadzihalilovic jumps to the head of the line with her first feature. “Innocence” is a virtuoso performance, unsettling and beautiful and technically accomplished all at a stroke. If it distills and in fact thrives upon our intense discomfort with children and sexuality, especially when it comes to little girls, it does so (to my thinking) without a hint of exploitative intent.
Just to be clear, nothing we see or hear in this film would justify more than, say, a PG-13 rating. But in showing us, say, a group of young girls swimming in a river in their underwear, Hadzihalilovic is indeed throwing down a sort of challenge: These are children, and whatever ambivalence or anxiety we feel watching them lies in us, not in them, and in fact results from the difference between our world and theirs. While the alternate universe of “Innocence” is specific in detail, the movie is also an allegorical view of the distant realm before puberty, an isolated world which, once left, can never be recaptured.
Little girls come to “the park” in coffins decorated with seven-point stars, carried through underground passages by bearers we never see clearly. They arrive when they’re about 6 years old, apparently plucked from ordinary family life and deposited here, where they are adopted by one of several small platoons, each headed by a 12-year-old who wears a violet ribbon in her hair. (The various colors of ribbon denote a specific hierarchy, both of age and authority.) They live in rambling dormitories, are fed and served by nearly silent older women, and spend most of their time studying biology or ballet.
But as Iris (Zoé Auclair), a wide-eyed Asian girl who is the newest arrival, quickly comes to understand, life in the park has some more troubling elements. Escape is strictly forbidden, and indeed seems to be impossible. Rebellion and rule breaking are dealt with harshly (even if we never learn exactly what that means). Furthermore, the older girls — violet ribbons like Bianca (Bérangère Haubruge) — go somewhere together at nine o’clock every night, and aren’t allowed to talk about it. Whatever it is they’re doing, they seem to be preparing to leave. Eventually the violet-beribboned girls disappear, everyone else moves up a color, and a new 6-year-old arrives in another coffin to take the newcomer’s red ribbon from Iris.
Overseeing all this are the severely attired but fair-minded Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard) and Mademoiselle Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles), perfectly cast as a small girl’s faintly sexualized fantasy projection of female authority. (Translation: They’re really hot.) Telling you much more wouldn’t be fair; by this point you’re either dying to see this or determined to stay away. I’ll add only that Hadzihalilovic pulls off the remarkable feat of keeping both the fantasy and allegorical plot streams valid and vibrant. When Bianca and her fellow violets surrender their ribbons and take a late-night train voyage to discover what lies outside the park, what happens next is both wonderful and terrifying. And as we now know, there’s no train going back.
“Innocence” is now playing at Cinema Village in New York, with more cities to follow.
“The Passenger”: The dude! The shades! The chick! The scenery!
Taken as a whole, Michelangelo Antonioni’s films outline a rather bleak, quasi-existentialist theory of everything: We’re all just atoms, hopelessly disconnected from one another or any sense of purpose, bumping around in the void. I can’t say I care for this sophomoric version of modern philosophy, but Antonioni’s films at their peak had a distinctive stylishness that almost, sort of, made up for their lack of content or emotional depth.
In the case of “L’Avventura” (1960) or “Red Desert” (1964) stylishness really is all there is, and those movies left an impact, first and foremost, on the world of fashion photography. “The Passenger” (1975) Antonioni’s masterpiece, is something else again. (It’s been unavailable for some years, and Sony Classics is now re-releasing it, undoubtedly to prepare the way for a DVD version.) In casting Jack Nicholson as the jaded Anglo-American journalist who abandons his previous life during a trip to Africa and adopts a dangerous new identity, Antonioni was working with a more powerful and charismatic actor than he has before or since. The result is something like a glamorous thriller or a disaster film in slow motion, and Nicholson’s self-destructive character belongs on a continuum with his other great dead-end guy roles of the ’70s, from Jake in “Chinatown” to Billy “Bad Ass” in “The Last Detail” and the failed pianist Robert of “Five Easy Pieces.”
Nicholson’s Locke — in his new identity as an arms dealer named Robertson — careens from central Africa to Munich to Barcelona to the increasingly decrepit resort towns of the Costa del Sol. (Among other things, “The Passenger” offers an unlikely travelogue of the not-yet-prosperous Europe of 1975.) Pursued by his wife, his boss, and unidentifiable would-be assassins, he picks up a nameless woman (Maria Schneider of “Last Tango in Paris” fame) he keeps seeing in the fantastical Gaudí buildings of Barcelona.
It’s still all just cosmic anomie, the gloss of a Hollywood film without any of the alleged sense of purpose. But I don’t mind a bit. Nicholson is as simultaneously sleek, dirty and sexy as a snake, and the screenplay (by Antonioni, Mark Peploe and Peter Wollen) is full of amusing non sequitur wordplay. The wide-screen cinematography of Luciano Tovoli is magnificent, and of course there’s that climactic shot, many minutes long, as Nicholson lies motionless on the bed, literally waiting to die, while the camera creeps out the window of a fleabag Spanish hotel. Nothingness has never looked so good.
“The Passenger” opens Oct. 28 in New York and Nov. 4 in Los Angeles, with other cities to follow.
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.