"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)
Ho ho ho! Let’s pour some vegan eggnog, gather around the nonsectarian yule-type log in our poofy snowman sweaters, and talk about movies that rip the pulsing heart right out of our hypocritical bourgeois existence! Well, anyway, we’re going to talk about Michael Haneke’s “Caché (Hidden),” which is indeed a brilliantly constructed film and one of the year’s major Euro-imports, but it also qualifies as the oddest Christmas-week release I can remember. I mean, I write this column — I’m all in favor of films that bum people out, fill us with existential despair, and force us to challenge our overconfident conceptions of our lives — and “Caché” left me scared and unsettled for a whole day afterward. So, you know, happy holidays! What useless object are you buying your spouse for Christmas while the poor children of the world suffer in poverty, ignorance and filth?
On a cheerier note (if only because no other direction is possible), we’ve got an uneven, amoral and thoroughly inappropriate comedy, I guess, about the friendship between a dorky American businessman and a debauched professional assassin. I saw “The Matador” with someone who really hated it, and she’s probably right. It’s juvenile, sloppy and anchored by one of Pierce Brosnan’s now-patented profoundly insincere post-Bond performances. All of which is to say that if I see it again, it had better be in the company of a few selected male friends, where we can admit to kind of liking it. Finally, I have last-second gift ideas! I keep meaning to do a column of DVD news and reviews, and this isn’t it, but appended herein is a list of some of the year’s best new discs, especially the ones your film-geek friends don’t have yet or even know about.
“Caché (Hidden)”: Joseph Conrad meets David Lynch in a neighborhood not unlike yours and mine
Austrian director Michael Haneke, who’s been making movies in France since the late ’90s, remains relatively unknown in the United States. His only significant foray onto our shores came with the S/M sex drama “The Piano Teacher,” which also won the 2001 grand prize at Cannes. Across the pond, Haneke is a mightily controversial cultural figure, defended by some as a great and demanding artist, attacked by others as a sensationalist and a pornographer.
I’ve long been on the fence about Haneke, and I’ve cannily avoided writing about him until now. At first glance, his deliberately confrontational films, often about psychological and sexual violence, seem to belong to the current generation of French cinema, which has produced such memorable assaults of arty nihilism as Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible,” Claire Denis’ “Trouble Every Day” and Catherine Breillat’s “Romance.” (I’m not being judgmental; I mostly like arty nihilism.) But Haneke’s no brash experimentalist; he’s a 63-year-old professional filmmaker whose work is never show-offy, driven by visual gamesmanship or deliberately obscure. If he’s trying to push our buttons, he’s doing so firmly in the allegorical, narrative tradition of old-school European film. (His first film was made for Austrian television in 1976.)
That’s one way of saying that anyone who thinks that Haneke’s new “Caché,” a drama about an upper-middle-class Parisian family, is some kind of commercial sellout is just being an idiot. There’s no sex in the film, and only one, very brief, incident of violence (although that will certainly shock you). What’s so unsettling about “Caché” is the sense that its essential question is never quite asked and certainly not answered: At what cost to others do “we” — we in the middle-class West, in places like Paris and New York and San Francisco and London and Dallas — lead our normal lives and raise our children and read interesting books? How fragile are those safe and normal lives? Are they endangered by others, or is the danger found inside?
As Georges (Daniel Auteuil), the host of a brainy TV talk show, explains to his aging mother (Annie Girardot, a Haneke regular), there isn’t much to say about his life with wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) and their son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). They’re both too busy with work, Pierrot is doing OK at school and great on the swim team — not much else to report. Actually, there is. Georges doesn’t tell Mom that someone’s been leaving them videotapes, shot outside their house on a pleasant Paris street. Just an hour or so of their comings and goings, delivered to the door right after completion, wrapped in childlike drawings that get progressively more ominous: a boy with a crew cut bleeding from the mouth, a decapitated rooster, a man with his throat cut.
Haneke is one of those directors who try to bounce off the movies already in the viewers’ heads, and there’s no question that this setup echoes the creepy surveillance tapes shot by Robert Blake’s character in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” As in that film, the mystery of who is making these tapes and how is never exactly solved, and in some sense it’s the wrong question. (I have a private theory, which I’m keeping to myself for now.)
Unlike “Lost Highway,” “Caché” gives every appearance of being a normal, naturalistic movie, oriented to the very same space-time continuum as you and me. There are occasional little glitches and sputters in the film that gradually let you know things aren’t that simple: Georges has increasingly relevant dreams about his childhood; we see a few quick point-of-view shots of a mysterious little boy (not Pierrot) in the darkest corners of Georges and Anne’s apartment; there are moments when we can’t be sure whether we’re watching the main story or one of the doorstep videos. But this isn’t a dream world. Georges’ flat-screen TV constantly delivers news about violence in Iraq and the West Bank; Anne hosts publication parties where wine-soaked people argue about Heidegger and Francis Fukuyama.
Yes, you’re getting the picture — all these things are connected. Whoever is making and planting the videos knows something about Georges’ childhood relationship with a boy named Majid, the son of Algerian immigrants who worked for Georges’ parents. No one in the film ever says this out loud, but there’s no way to separate the question of whatever Georges did to Majid 40 years ago from some bigger questions: the scandalous treatment of Algerians by the French, the failure of the integrationist model of French citizenship and, most of all, the West’s global and increasingly irrational paranoia about Islam and terrorism.
Some of you are saying, right now, that of course you can separate these things. No individual French person, or American either, is responsible for the historic grievances of the Arab world. Terrorism is an evil and present danger, and you can’t justify it or apologize for it by referring to vague, general, global problems. That’s all true, but it isn’t the point either. I don’t think Haneke is launching some anti-Western guilt screed in “Caché.” Georges and Anne are not archetypes or lab rats; they’re real characters rendered with sensitivity by two of France’s finest actors. He’s simply asking us to observe how they feel and how they behave, and then asking whether we find the same feelings and see the same behavior in ourselves.
More than anything else, “Caché” is a tightly constructed drama that will keep you on the edge of your seat. With the aid of the mysterious videographer, Georges tracks down the adult Majid (Maurice Bénichou) and his unfailingly polite son (Walid Afkir), but the film follows the general outline of a thriller without ever surrendering to formula. Majid and his son claim to hold no grudge against Georges and to know nothing about the tapes. But this seems unlikely on the evidence, and when Pierrot fails to come home from school one day, Georges and Anne — as any parents would — fear the worst.
Whether you see “Caché” as a grand political parable or just a chronicle of one man haunted and corroded by a lifetime of guilt, I think it’s the most interesting and mature of Haneke’s films I’ve seen. (There are plenty I haven’t.) He doesn’t get enough credit as a dramatist, or a director of actors, and in the tormented, compulsively untruthful Georges he’s given the great Auteuil one of his finest roles. No, the story of “Caché,” and its potential implications, aren’t exactly pleasurable in the normal movieland sense. Haneke offers a different and perhaps more arduous journey, closer in many ways to the path hewed before him by Strindberg, Ibsen, Bergman and Bresson.
“Caché (Hidden)” opens Dec. 23 in New York and Los Angeles. More cities will follow in January.
“The Matador”: Embracing your inner slimeball hit man
We could argue about whether writer-director Richard Shepard’s “Matador” really belongs in this space. It’s notionally an independent film, but it’s really an effort to carve out a new buddy-film genre that’s a couple notches up the cultural ladder from “Old School” and a bit more informed by classic movies and a snarky, porn-informed sensibility. Sounds great, right?
“The Matador” is undeniably clever, and I’m not going to pretend I didn’t enjoy a lot of it. But it has no consistent view of its main characters, tries to dance around the delicious but disturbing fact that one of them kills other human beings for a living, and is basically (like most buddy movies) a quasi-gay love story wearing a not-so-convincing disguise. It also careens around the world from Mexico City to Budapest to suburban Denver, offering us an ever more decrepit Pierce Brosnan in a sequence of delightfully tasteless costumes and hairstyles. If I still haven’t driven you away, I’m guessing this is a movie for you!
Dead-end mack daddy Julian Noble (Brosnan) is just killing time in a Mexico City hotel bar — in between killing people — when he strikes up a relationship of sorts with nebbishy businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear). When Danny observes that margaritas always taste better in Mexico, Julian replies: “Yes. Margaritas and cock.” Relax those muscles, fanboys — Internet rumors to the contrary, Brosnan doesn’t go gay in this flick, or not exactly. Julian’s copious fornication is all with female companions, and indeed, later in the film he seems interested in having a go with Bean (Hope Davis), Danny’s adoring wife. (“We have a trained assassin in the house,” she hisses at Danny. “Do you think he’ll show me his gun?”)
Instead, Shepard keeps holding up the possibility that Julian and Danny are going to go all Brokeback with each other, and then retreating from it. In much the same way, he balances the film somewhere between a conventional crime caper and a Tarantino-informed off-kilter character study gone askew. Brosnan and Kinnear play these characters as straight as they can manage, which isn’t very, and watching them work together, as Julian gradually seduces Danny a little distance toward his thoroughly immoral worldview, is fun for about half the film.
Problems arise, I think, when Shepard tries to give “The Matador” some moral import, and even to redeem the thoroughly reprehensible Julian. Months after their Mexican romance, Julian shows up on Danny’s doorstep in Denver — the international corporate mobsters he works for (represented by Philip Baker Hall) have grown weary of his screw-ups and order him whacked. But the only reason we don’t want to see Julian killed is so we can watch him bonk more hookers, tell more lies, and spin more filthy stories, and that’s not quite enough investment in a character for this movie to suddenly turn into one of those commercials where men are really being serious with each other. I’m just nibbling at the edges of this movie, which is likely to become a culty hit among dudes (and some dudelike girls) of all ages. Sure, I’d admire “The Matador” more if the implicit homoeroticism between Julian and Danny came to the surface, or if Julian and the clearly smitten Bean began snorkling right in front of Danny on their tasteful suburban sofa, or if one of these guys actually wound up killing the other. In some ways, the movie would be truer to its own impulses if stuff like that happened. But Shepard (previously the director of the low-budget thrillers “Oxygen,” “Mexico City” and “Class Warfare”) has made a lively if ambiguous breakout film, and his career should be fun to watch.
“The Matador” opens Dec. 30 in New York and Los Angeles. Other cities will follow in January.
DVD box: Rarities from Tarr, Makhmalbaf, Godard, Becker and more
If you need a last-minute gift (or a New Year’s offering) for the hard-to-please film fan on your list, you’ve come to the right place. This year offered an onslaught of films I never thought I’d see on North American DVD. My favorite, in some ways, might be Facets Video’s package of early films by Hungarian director Béla Tarr, long one of international cinema’s hidden gems. Titles include “Family Nest,” “Friday’s Soldiers” and the near-masterpieces “The Outsider” and “The Prefab People.” I’d never seen any of these before, and you haven’t either.
For political relevance, look no further than New Yorker Video’s release of Peter Watkins’ 1970 “Punishment Park,” a quasi-legendary tale of American totalitarianism not seen since its release (and barely seen then). If Richard Nixon had declared martial law and sent antiwar protesters to concentration camps in the desert, we’d have seen — well, some stuff that looks unfortunately pretty familiar these days. It’s a riveting film.
Other great stuff from New Yorker includes, well, virtually their whole catalogue. But I’d suggest “Platform,” the film that made Chinese director Jia Zhangke an international cult fave, and, for a gentler ride, a passel of new releases from Mohsen Makhmalbaf (“Gabbeh, “The Silence,” “A Moment of Innocence”), consistently the loveliest craftsman of Iranian cinema. New Yorker also released two long-unavailable European classics this year: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend” and R.W. Fassbinder’s “The Stationmaster’s Wife.” While the Criterion Collection mainly focuses on big-name directors, this year it also released two films by Jacques Becker, the ’50s French gangster-film king, that I’d never heard of: “Touchez Pas au Grisbi,” with Jean Gabin, and “Casque d’Or,” starring Simone Signoret. Both are terrific. The genre-film fan is also going to want Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s awesome “Bad Guy” (from Life Size Entertainment) and the foundational work of contemporary Japanese horror, Norio Tsuruta’s “Scary True Stories” (from Dark Sky Films). That one will keep you and Santa up all night in a cold sweat, and what could be more in the holiday spirit? Merry Christmas, everybody.
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.