"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)
Mike Newell’s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the fourth film based on J.K. Rowling’s popular but not easily categorized series of novels, may be likely to inspire admiration rather than warm affection, at least while you’re watching it. There are stretches where Newell’s picture, even as it radiates thoughtfulness and integrity, feels more methodical than magical. He and screenwriter Steve Kloves (who also adapted the first three Harry Potter pictures) have taken great care in streamlining the complicated fbplot of Rowling’s novel, but even so, you can almost hear the gears turning from scene to scene.
But I now think “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” may be more like a drug that slips into your bloodstream and takes a few hours to get to work. I didn’t sleep well the night after I saw “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”: In my dreams, the picture reshaped itself into a somber, shuddering, gray mosaic, a solemn reassurance that, just as I’ve always feared, everything is not quite right with the world. “Goblet of Fire,” nobly faithful to its source material, is an end-of-childhood picture: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), now 14, has returned to Hogwarts for his fourth year. The school is to host the Triwizard Tournament, an international competition so dangerous it’s been put on hold for many years. Students from two other wizard schools — their fancifully descriptive faux-French and bogus-Bulgarian names are Beauxbatons Academy and the Durmstrang Institute — will visit Hogwarts for the year; one student from each school will be chosen, after putting his or her name into the mystical Goblet of Fire, to compete in the games. No student under 17 is allowed to even enter.
But somehow, when the goblet spits forth the names of the chosen contestants, Harry’s name is among them, inciting rancor and resentment among his classmates, especially Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), who, with Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger, is one of his two closest friends. Ron is convinced that Harry put his own name into the cup, and his jealousy is so great that he refuses to speak to Harry, at one point withholding crucial information that could keep Harry from harm. But before long it becomes clear that someone at the school — we don’t learn who until the very end — put Harry’s name into the goblet in the hope that he’ll be killed during the dangerous proceedings (which include outwitting a vicious dragon to procure a golden Faberge-type egg that contains the clue to the next task). And although we’re never told as much, it’s obvious that whoever dunked Harry’s name in the goblet is a servant of the venomous Lord Voldemort, who wants to see Harry killed.
“Goblet of Fire” is neither as garishly dumb as Christopher Columbus’ first two Harry Potter pictures, “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” nor as lyrical as Alfonso Cuarón’s beautifully tuned “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Cuarón’s picture was a great romantic fantasy grounded in naturalism, and the first Potter adaptation to show any real understanding of its source material. Newell’s movie is equally faithful to the fourth book’s tone, but its poetry has a completely different texture. This is a brooding, somber story, a metaphor for the painful segue from childhood to adolescence. It balances the exhilaration of independence — one of the great joys of growing up — with the sobering realization that being a grown-up means there’s no one around to protect you.
Newell begins building that sense of dread in the first scene: We see an old man climbing a shadowy flight of stairs and peering into a firelit room, where we get a glimpse of a small, pale, pinched embryo of evil — Lord Voldemort, in his current, weakened form — giving instructions to two of his henchmen, his voice a cross between a hiss and a purr. Later, Lord Voldemort’s mark — a skull with a swerving snake issuing from its lipless, leering mouth — appears in the night sky tattooed in bold plumes of smoke, a signal to his followers that he’s preparing for his reemergence into the world, stronger than he was before.
But none of this is adequate preparation for what happens at the end of “Goblet of Fire.” To describe the unsettling form Lord Voldemort ultimately assumes — a shape that Ralph Fiennes, with the cunning of a demon himself, has poured himself into — would be tantamount to giving away the end of a thriller. (And “Goblet of Fire” is, in essence, a thriller.) The last moments of “Goblet of Fire” also contain a mourning scene that’s operatic in scale. Its intensity is overwhelming, and it reaffirms the strengths of Rowling’s books: Like all great children’s literature, the Harry Potter novels are really explorations of the ghosts that haunt adults long after they’ve grown up and left home — feelings of longing and loss, of vulnerability and the desire for transcendence.
Shot in misty gray tones by Roger Pratt (also the D.P. on “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”), “Goblet of Fire” has the hushed glow of old silver, like a weird treasure that’s been locked away in a chest for decades. It’s not a particularly pretty movie, and leaving the screening, I heard one moviegoer grumbling about its being “in black-and-white.” But its look has the same grudging beauty that, once you get used to it, English weather does: It’s so defiant in its grayness that you come to appreciate its conviction. Newell is the first English director to make a Harry Potter movie, and if Cuarón’s vision of Potter’s world was a dream England, Newell’s is one that vibrates with realism — nostalgic realism, maybe, since so much of the picture’s imagery has a late ’60s vibe. Early in the movie we see a small city of tents set up by the sports fans who have come to see the Quidditch World Cup, a scene of pseudo-hippie resourcefulness and bonhomie lifted straight from the 1969 Isle of Wight rock festival. (And then there are the movie’s small, sly, rock ‘n’ roll touches, like the psychedelic-looking anti-Harry Potter badges worn by the more resentful students, and the Betsey Johnson-style fur-trimmed rock-star coats favored by the statuesque Beauxbatons’ headmistress, Madame Maxime, played by English stage actress Frances de la Tour. There’s also a fleeting cameo by Jarvis Cocker, the most English of English rock stars since Ray Davies.)
One of the pleasures of the “Harry Potter” series is reconnecting with familiar characters and seeing how new ones fit into the mix. “Goblet of Fire” brings us Cho, the Hogwarts classmate on whom Harry has a crush, played with great charm by young Scotswoman Katie Leung: She has only a few scenes, but they’re lovely. And Brendan Gleeson is Mad-Eye Moody, a roughed-up, curmudgeonly newcomer to the Hogwarts faculty, who’s fitted with a fake metal leg and a false eye that rolls around crazily in its artificial socket, like a cue ball with a mind of its own.
Another of the series’ pleasures has been watching the actors who play the three leads, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson, grow out of their childish mugging and develop a greater range of subtle emotions. Newell is especially sensitive, as Rowling is, to that strange, underwater period in which girls and boys begin to realize what they want out of life, coupled with the miserable recognition that other girls and boys — sexually elusive, maddening creatures that they are — hold the key. This adolescent bewilderment manifests itself differently in each character: Harry, like a doofus, dribbles water from his mouth when he catches Cho looking at him across the dinner hall; Ron’s jaw drops when he gets a gander at the twitching bottoms of the Beauxbatons’ girls (“Bloody hell!” he mutters, the only appropriate response); and Hermione, most heartbreaking of all, can barely contain her frustration that it never even occurs to Ron to ask her to the big Yule Ball. (She ends up going with Durmstrang’s star athlete, the sullen-sexy Viktor Krum, played by Stanislav Ianevski.)
The scenes leading up to the dance, as well as the event itself, may not be the most dramatic scenes in the picture, but they’re its emotional center. In spirit, they’re a twin to Alex Chilton’s great Big Star song “Thirteen,” which begins, “Won’t you let me walk you home from school?/ Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?” before winding its way to “Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?/ Would you be an outlaw for my love?” — as devastating an encapsulation as any of the way, in retrospect, our first youthful attachments only appear to have been weightless; at the time they’re happening, they mean the world.
Ron and Harry, both rejected by their first choices, ask girls they don’t really know (very pretty ones, at that), and then, in their cluelessness, ignore them the whole evening. Hermione, who makes an entrance in a jaw-dropping satiny evening dress — a triumph of Jany Temime’s costuming, the dress makes her look like neither a dumb ingenue nor a tarted-up performer in a dance recital — conducts herself far more gracefully, but at the end of the night, frustrated by Ron’s inattentiveness (and, probably, by the fact that she wants his attention at all), she plunks herself down on a set of stairs and removes her shoes, probably her first grown-up pair, which are clearly hurting her feet.
Ralph Fiennes’ Lord Voldemort may be the most deeply disturbing image from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” But the movie’s overall aura of impending change is unsettling in itself. At the end of the picture, as Ron, Hermione and Harry are about to part for the summer, Hermione — usually so brisk and matter-of-fact — seems unusually troubled by something. She looks at Harry and blurts out, “Everything’s going to change now, isn’t it?” Harry reaches out to her, and with a little laugh of resignation, says, “Yes.” Because everything is going to change. Voldemort is back, which is horrible enough by itself. But Hermione, earlier than the others have, has latched onto a disquieting truth. She’s just realized they’re all on the other side of childhood, looking back. There’s nowhere to go but forward.
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)