"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)
We’ve hit a tiny calm patch in the film release calendar this week, right before all hell breaks loose. The Tribeca Film Festival begins next week in New York; I’ll preview it in next week’s column and review some of the major premieres in the following days. If Tribeca began in 2002 as a local event for the devastated downtown neighborhoods of Manhattan, it has now become the independent-film industry’s biggest backyard barbecue, a hometown gathering of near-Sundance proportions just before many people in the biz decamp for the grand-père of all festivals in Cannes. It’s a tough life, I tell you; eating unripe Brie in random hotel suites and holding conversations with strangers about their latest Bluetooth gizmos just isn’t for everybody.
What’s that, you say? Right, right, the point of the whole enterprise is supposed to be the movies. How easily one forgets. This week we’ve got three outstanding films from last year’s festival circuit, finally getting their brief shot at attracting actual paying customers. “Three Times,” a languorous three-chapter love story from the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, is in some respects the most noteworthy of these. Although Hou might be the biggest critic’s-darling director of the past 15 years, he’s never before had a film released through normal distribution channels in the United States. (Stephanie Zacharek reviewed “Three Times” at last year’s New York Film Festival; it opens April 26 at the IFC Center in New York, with more cities likely to follow, and will be available through IFC’s pay-per-view service on some cable systems.)
Then there’s “Somersault,” the debut by Australian director Cate Shortland, a moody and visually prodigious set-piece about a young girl’s coming-of-age in which dialogue and plot are almost superfluous. “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” from Romania’s Cristi Puiu, on the other hand, is a harrowingly realistic medical odyssey driven mostly by the ambiguous, interlocking webs of human communication.
These three pictures could hardly be more different, yet they confirm my sense that we’re experiencing a mini-golden age of international filmmaking. Is there an audience for all these movies? Regular readers of this space know that I’m skeptical about that, but in fairness this season has been a promising one so far for the bean counters of Indiewood. Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” — which I’ll defend against all comers — is becoming a breakout hit ($1.5 million in two weeks, with a major rollout still to come). Mary Harron’s “Notorious Bettie Page” had a good opening week among what the marketing people call “urban core” audiences (but didn’t do well in suburbia). Michael Haneke’s creepy “Caché” has racked up a surprising $3.5 million and is still playing in many cities. Rian Johnson’s Hammett-goes-to-high-school opus “Brick” is the sleeper of the spring; at $636,000 and counting, it’s already earned back its production costs. Kevin Willmott’s acrid mockumentary “CSA” has quietly piled up more than $500,000.
Well below that level, I see other signs of hope. Even in an overcrowded week, Anne Fontaine’s terrific “Nathalie” opened decently in New York, and the challenging Russian film “4″ continues to cling implausibly to life at Manhattan’s Cinema Village. The Dardenne brothers’ wrenching drama “L’Enfant” just crept past $250,000, and Joseph Lovett’s ribald documentary “Gay Sex in the ’70s” should just about hit that. Let’s not discuss the commercial fate of other films I’ve championed, such as Fernando Eimbcke’s “Duck Season” (a bad title, I guess) or Carlos Reygadas’ “Battle in Heaven” (scary, real-life sex scenes). Overall, the picture is surprisingly bright. If you saw any of the films I’ve just mentioned, take a moment, sitting there in your cubicle, to feel proud: Evil corporate monoculture may have captured everybody and everything else, but it hasn’t captured you!
“Somersault”: Lost in the snowless ski resort of young adulthood
Cate Shortland’s debut feature is about a teenage girl who runs away from home, parties too hard, and goes home with the wrong guys, all while nurturing an unrealistic vision of true love. But then again it isn’t; at heart, “Somersault” is a contemplative piece, a study in beauty and loneliness that evades all the obvious traps of its apparent genre. In one scene, as we follow our lost girl-woman protagonist, Heidi (Abbie Cornish), around a half-empty, out-of-season Australian ski resort, she picks up an abandoned pair of goggles and puts them on. We see her point of view for a moment, literally seeing the world through smudged, warped, rose-colored glasses.
It’s a whimsical, wistful joke, repeated when the dark-haired, lantern-jawed hunk named Joe (Sam Worthington), who Heidi has decided is the great love of her life, picks up a liquor decanter at a friend’s house and looks through it. Most of “Somersault” is told this way, through images. There’s a normal amount of talking in this film, but almost none of it is essential, and anyway, when you’re dealing with screwed-up teenagers like Joe and Heidi, half the time they don’t quite know what they’re saying or why they’re saying it. Shortland doesn’t provide much exposition or back story, and when she does, that’s visual too: We know that Joe comes from an affluent ranching family because we see him at work on their big spread; we learn as much as we need to know about Heidi’s family by watching her mom flirt with guys at a strip-mall dive bar (while her boyfriend waits outside in the car).
Shortland also never feels the need to moralize or psychologize about Heidi’s behavior, and such is the power of Cornish’s performance that she never needs to. We’re not even five minutes into the movie when Heidi climbs into bed with her mom’s aforementioned boyfriend, but we can see that she’s more curious about herself than she is about him. She’s just beginning to understand the erotic power she holds, and is asking herself a lot of ordinary adolescent questions: Can I do this? Is this what being desired (and/or desiring someone) feels like? If her mom is two-timing him, or thinking about it, then why not? Isn’t it all just a game?
When her mom returns unexpectedly, the whole business doesn’t seem so playful, and Heidi hops a bus for Jindabyne, in the mountains of New South Wales. She has the number of some guy there, but he hangs up on her and she’s on her own. (In case it isn’t obvious, viewers who want such plot points clearly explained had better see some other movie.) She has no money, no job, no family, no boyfriend and no place to stay.
It would be easy — rather too easy, in fact — to describe Heidi as an innocent. Sometimes Cornish plays her that way, as a bedraggled, wandering creature, but that’s just one of her poses. (She’s constantly gazing at herself in the mirror, trying on different versions of feminine identity like Halloween masks.) On another level, Heidi is entirely too aware of what girls do to survive when they’re alone. She goes home with guys from Jindabyne’s crappy disco, just to have a place to crash. She considers turning tricks, but then is sheltered by a sympathetic older woman (Lynette Curran), who runs the local motel.
From the moment Heidi and Joe glimpse each other, across the crowded floor of that crappy disco, there’s something between them. But Joe doesn’t even approach her till the next day (after she’s slept with some other guy), and Shortland never allows their romance, if that’s what it is, to go in predictable directions. They have sex a few times, and a tender, tenuous connection is forged. On one level, their reactions are stereotypical: Heidi believes she’s falling in love; Joe runs away.
There are obvious barriers between them: Joe’s rich and Heidi is poor, Joe’s a local and Heidi’s a “tourist.” (As well as other, perhaps more important, issues I won’t reveal.) But none of that is what “Somersault” is about. This isn’t “Romeo and Juliet,” unless you strip the two lovers of all self-knowledge and drop them into a lovely, gloomy mountain landscape that seems both physical and emotional. I’m sure some people will be driven mad by the deliberate ambiguities of “Somersault,” and by its characters’ near-total inability to understand themselves or express themselves. But to me, that makes it uncannily true to life.
“Somersault” opens April 21 at the Sunshine Cinema in New York, with a national rollout to follow.
“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”: Like Dante’s “Inferno,” only set in Romania. And in hospitals
There’s been some kind of marketing push to sell Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s “Death of Mr. Lazarescu” as a comedy, which is imaginative to say the least. It’s not like there isn’t some funny material here, but let’s be honest: This is a two-and-a-half-hour film about a sick and lonely alcoholic in late middle age, who gets rapidly sicker as he winds his way through the embittered, bickering medics and bureaucrats of the Bucharest hospital system in the course of one long night. Does that sound, as they used to say in the old Spy magazine, like it’s going to bust your laff meter?
That said, I can imagine an audience of human beings laughing at the lengthy voyage of Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) — note the first name! –through medical hell. It would be a laughter born from some mixture of horror, compassion and amazement, both at what Mr. Lazarescu must endure on his route toward a highly uncertain future (although, as the title reminds us, we can all be certain about our future in the long run) and at how strangely compelling it is to watch.
Puiu is an avowed disciple of French director Eric Rohmer (“Claire’s Knee,” “Pauline at the Beach,” etc.), and while “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” never feels like a Rohmer film, you can discern the influence. He shoots in long, uninterrupted takes, and his conversations have the digressive quality of overheard dialogue, full of miscommunication, inattention and unrelated tangents. Mr. Lazarescu’s odyssey doesn’t occur in real time, but it sure feels that way. In one hospital where he’s been stashed on a gurney in the hallway awaiting tests, we hear a lengthy conversation between two nurses: One’s sister is getting married, the dress isn’t ready yet, her sex life is unexpectedly good; the other doesn’t like her son’s girlfriend and never gets to see her grandkid.
It probably requires a certain level of art-film masochism to get into “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” in the first place; the first 15 minutes are a difficult adjustment process. There is no music, hardly any editing, and in general no evidence of a story. Lazarescu putters around his nondescript apartment, feeds his cats, begins to feel crummy, and calls for an ambulance. Then he has a long and contentious phone conversation with his sister — we don’t understand what they’re fighting about, although we’ll learn later — and then he calls the paramedics again. And again. Then he goes across the hall and interrupts his neighbors, a middle-aged couple who are arguing about something (quince jelly, as it happens). They stand around in the hallway talking about his predicament, and every couple of minutes the timer turns the light off.
That’s the universe we’re in, one definitively devoid of glamour, hot chicks, Hugo Boss clothing, plot momentum or any of the other normal movie accoutrements. You’re either going to ride all the way with it or get the hell out. The film’s primary relationship is between Lazarescu himself (at least until he becomes too ill to speak clearly) and Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), the 50ish paramedic nurse who eventually shows up. They’ve never met before, and she’s just there doing her job. But as she leads him deep into the night, from one sarcastic and abusive medical professional to the next, she comes to seem a beacon of warmth and humanity, a thin thread connecting Mr. Lazarescu to his life, his cats, his home and his past.
It might be correct to say that there’s a current of black comedy in this movie, but there’s no farce and hardly any cynicism. The stressed-out professionals along Mr. Lazarescu’s route — there has been a major bus accident, so it’s tough for a case like his to get anybody’s attention — are not evil or cruel or incompetent. His problem is diagnosed and he will, eventually, be treated. Of course they have hardened their hearts; they run a production line where some live and others die, hour after hour, all night long. Anyone would prefer to flirt, to talk about hairstyles or plan vacations or order coffee, than to pay attention to an old drunk whose odds are poor.
I won’t pretend there’s some uplifting vision or spiritual epiphany offered at the end of “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” — such things lie outside its range — but something about the film’s relentless clarity, its enormous cast of damaged but profoundly believable people, and its accidental panoply of human dreams and desires, is almost as exhilarating as it is depressing. Puiu’s filmmaking technique is remarkable, and all the more so because it’s almost invisible. This movie is the first in a series he calls “Six Stories From the Bucharest Suburbs,” which might be one of the most important film events out of Eastern Europe since Kieslowski’s “Decalogue.”
“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” opens April 26 at Film Forum in New York, with more cities to follow.
“Sir! No Sir!”: The almost-forgotten story of the GI antiwar movement
We haven’t got space to do justice to David Zeiger’s important historical documentary “Sir! No Sir!” but suffice it to say that it will change your understanding of the Vietnam era, even if you were alive then. In the conventional history of that conflict — or at least the one inflicted upon us recently — American servicemen fought for a noble cause, were undermined at home by treasonous radicals and pot smokers, and were spat upon and reviled by hippie chicks when they returned to their beloved homeland.
Among the things Zeiger’s fascinating film demonstrates is that the spitting episodes almost certainly never happened. Beyond that, he suggests that a great many soldiers, sailors and Marines in American uniform had turned against the war by 1969 or 1970, and that American disengagement in Vietnam largely occurred because American men were no longer willing to fight there. There were “GI coffeehouses” — gathering places for antiwar soldiers — near every major military base in the country, even in patriotic heartland towns like Killeen, Texas (outside Fort Hood). There were literally hundreds of underground antiwar newspapers, distributed in every branch of the service.
There were numerous uprisings, large and small, within the American military. Some took the form of units simply refusing to go into combat (during the short-lived Cambodia invasion, for example). Some were more profoundly frightening to the power structure: black soldiers talking of racial and revolutionary solidarity with the Viet Cong, covert attacks against hated senior officers with fragmentation grenades (a practice known as “fragging”). Left-wing celebrities like Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda (she is interviewed extensively, and her son, Troy Garity, narrates the film) staged USO-style infotainment tours for dissident servicemen all over the world.
If you weren’t alive in the early ’70s, there’s no way to explain the tremendous instability of America, when economic and social collapse seemed like an ever present danger. The apex of “the ’60s,” in many ways, arrived around 1974. When Presidents Nixon and Ford withdrew from Vietnam, Zeiger says, it was because they had no choice. American military morale had bottomed out, and the war was no longer fightable, let alone winnable.
Does this have ramifications for the present military, and the present war? Only time can answer that question. But it is useful to be reminded that the men who actually fought America’s last misguided imperial conflict turned against it in large numbers, while the men who had “other priorities” at the time — like our current president and vice president — have tried to sell us a fictitious history of why we went there in the first place, and why we left.
“Sir! No Sir!” is now playing at the IFC Center in New York. It opens April 28 in Denver; May 1 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; May 5 in Los Angeles and Madison, Wis.; May 12 in Atlanta, Nashville and Portland, Ore.; May 19 in Austin, Texas, and Washington; May 26 in Santa Fe, N.M.; June 2 in Charlotte; June 9 in Chicago; and June 16 in Boston and Hartford, Conn., with more 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.