"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)
It’s easier to say what the Tribeca Film Festival isn’t than to explain exactly what it is. It isn’t the most important festival for independent cinema in the world (that would be Cannes) or in the United States (that’s clearly Sundance, even as it is today). It doesn’t show more films than any other fest (the Berlinale is significantly larger), although in terms of sheer quantity, it’s up there. It isn’t primarily an industry-insider trade show, the way Sundance, Cannes and Toronto are. Even in New York, the capital of all things self-referential, you don’t sell 250,000 tickets (a number Tribeca may hit this year) without doing what film festivals are supposed to do, meaning appeal to some more-or-less regular folks who want to see good movies they might never catch otherwise.
The standard story line put forward about Tribeca goes like this: It started in 2002 when Robert De Niro and his longtime producing pal Jane Rosenthal decided to “do something” to boost lower Manhattan, which was economically struggling in the wake of the 9/11 attack. It was a plucky venture with some star power, but pretty much held together with Scotch tape and coat hangers. Venues were miscellaneous and marketing was haphazard, but they booked a few splashy premieres and a lot of interesting-looking small movies, and did pretty well. No one was quite sure what the future held, but — hey! Cut to four years later, and the damn thing has eaten Manhattan.
Like a lot of things journalists tell you, this is true without quite being the whole story. It’s clear, when you go back and read the initial media coverage of the ’02 festival, that Rosenthal and De Niro had been cooking this idea a long time. I’m not disputing their benevolent motives, but the aftermath of 9/11, to put it bluntly, was a business opportunity. Tribeca (the triangular slice of Manhattan below Canal Street) was already the center of their empire, and was rapidly becoming independent film’s industry HQ as well. It was the logical place to stage an East Coast answer to Sundance, where many people in the business (and most of the entertainment media) could sleep in their own beds and eat in familiar overpriced restaurants.
Furthermore — although I don’t think anyone has said this on the record — De Niro and Rosenthal may have felt that the New York Film Festival, held at Lincoln Center in the fall, was vulnerable to a challenge. While the NYFF remains a marquee event, reliably showcasing a lot of the winter season’s big-name films, there is something a little sober and institutional about it, something a little skinny-tie, early-’60s scholar-ish. It conveys an aura of earnestness and seriousness, of caring about Great Film. For all the star power and corporate sponsorship it represents, Tribeca cashes in on downtown’s hedonistic reputation: It somehow seems hipper, funkier, less professorial.
As far as I can tell, Tribeca now aspires to be all the things I said it wasn’t in the first paragraph. It might already be the most important film event in New York’s year. With 174 feature films this year (that’s according to David Carr of the New York Times; I ain’t counting), it’s among the world’s biggest festivals. If it’s unlikely to replace Sundance as Indiewood’s biggest auction block, it’s becoming a plausible alternative. Duncan Tucker’s “Transamerica” was acquired at Tribeca last year (by the Weinstein Co.) and went on to become one of the year’s surprise hits — and that has everybody in the biz combing over this year’s roster with predatory lust.
There’s no automatic breakout candidate among this year’s Tribeca films (which, despite the festival’s neighborhoody name, will be screened as far north as 68th Street), but festivals are supposed to surprise us, and this one surely will. I’ve already seen two terrific foreign films: Emmanuelle Bercot’s “Backstage,” a lurid, absorbing drama starring Emmanuelle Seignier as a Madonna-esque French pop star and Isild Le Besco as the fan who gets too close; and Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ “Brasília 18%,” an enigmatic political-erotic thriller set in the tropical yet artificial surroundings of Brazil’s capital. (I have no idea what the title means.)
Beyond that, of course, it’s anybody’s guess and all the usual caveats apply. But as I file special reports from Tribeca for Salon over the next few days, here are some of the films I’m most excited to see. Ambitious narrative features are a beleaguered genre these days — so many get made, and so very, very few get seen — but that’s still what we old-fashioned folk mean when we say “movie,” so let’s start there.
There are high expectations for “Civic Duty,” which stars Peter Krause (of “Six Feet Under” fame) as an Islamophobic accountant afflicted with TV paranoia and an Arab neighbor. Ditto for “Walker Payne,” a 1950s period piece with Jason Patric and Drea de Matteo as a divorced couple wrestling with Appalachian poverty and fending off a sleazy dogfight promoter played by Sam Shepard. I’m curiously intrigued by “Choking Man,” from music-video director Steve Barron, which tells the story of a shy immigrant dishwasher in a Queens diner (with fancy visual effects). Another plausible hit is Eric Nicholas’ creepazoid thriller “Alone With Her,” shot entirely using surveillance equipment.
German director Matthias Glasner’s three-hour psychological thriller “Free Will” follows a released rapist trying to adjust to life on the outside; it sounds like an intense cineaste event without much public appeal. (In other words, I’m so there.) Also three hours, Marwan Hamed’s epic melodrama “The Yacoubian Building” is supposed to be the most expensive film ever made in Egypt, and tackles such taboo topics as homosexuality, government corruption and Islamic fundamentalism. From Iran, a nation in the news, comes Hamid Rahmanian’s “Day Break,” a much-lauded thriller in which a convicted murderer waits to learn whether the victim’s family will order his execution (apparently it’s up to them).
Later in the festival, one irresistible offering is “Color Me Kubrick,” with John Malkovich as Alan Conway, a real-life con man who frequently posed as Stanley Kubrick in the last decade of the great director’s life. Jake Kasdan’s television satire “The TV Set,” starring David Duchovny and Sigourney Weaver, also seems likely to attract attention. “The Architect” pits Anthony LaPaglia and Isabella Rossellini against each other in a dramatic collision of politics and class issues, while “Lonely Hearts” offers Jared Leto and Salma Hayek as infamous ’40s murderers, with James Gandolfini and John Travolta as the detectives on their trail.
We’re likely to see many of Tribeca’s documentaries in the months ahead, and the mood is dark indeed. I’m not quite sure how much I want to see Eric Steel’s “The Bridge,” which captures nearly two dozen Golden Gate Bridge suicides and tries to tell their stories, or Stanley Nelson’s “Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple,” which recounts the history leading up to the horrific 1978 mass suicide in Guyana. Then there’s the HBO-produced “The Journalist and the Jihadi,” about Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and his ill-fated relationship with Islamic militant Omar Sheikh (we can only hope that the gruesome Internet video of Pearl’s murder is not included in its entirety).
There appears to be an entire grim subgenre of Iraq war documentaries, despite little evidence that a popular audience has the slightest desire to see them. In this festival alone, we’ve got “The War Tapes” (National Guard troops make their own movies), “The Blood of My Brother” (Iraqi family mourns a son mistakenly killed by U.S. troops), “When I Came Home” (Iraq vets battling trauma disorders, mental illness and homelessness) and “Home Front” (gung-ho soldier comes home blind and disabled).
After all that, we could all use a dose of something like Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha’s “Encounter Point,” about grass-roots contacts between Israelis and Palestinians, or Fernando E. Solanas’ “The Dignity of the Nobodies,” on the tiny, ordinary triumphs along Argentina’s road back from economic disaster. “Jesus Camp,” a self-explanatory docu from the makers of last year’s fine “Boys of Baraka,” may be less reassuring to some. But most of all, we need some sunshine, bikini babes and Colombia’s finest powdered products, all of which are supplied in my personal pick (sight unseen) as this festival’s smash hit: Billy Corben’s “Cocaine Cowboys,” which explores how a showy, ruthless and incredibly successful generation of South American crime lords transformed Miami into the marvelously debauched place it is today. More soon.
“Art School Confidential”: The ribald college comedy that turns into “Taxi Driver”
Screenwriter Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff agree: Their new movie, “Art School Confidential,” is pretty strange. “It’s certainly an odd film,” says Clowes. Half an hour later, in a different New York hotel room, Zwigoff describes his first reaction to Clowes’ screenplay: “Gosh, it’s a very odd script.”
This isn’t what you would call breaking news. Clowes made his name as one of the leading underground cartoonists of the ’90s; his long-running “Eightball” comic and its various spinoffs, including “David Boring” and “The Manly World of Lloyd Llewellyn,” are classic examples of the genre’s combination of self-mocking angst and deadpan cultural satire.
Meanwhile, with the documentary “Crumb” and the narrative features “Ghost World” (also written by Clowes) and “Bad Santa,” Zwigoff has established himself as one of American film’s strangest success stories, a professed throwback, nostalgia buff and borderline misanthrope who has somehow become a hot director. He told me that he recently “took a meeting” with Johnny Depp, and, yes, he used that phrase.
So odd is expected, maybe even required. What isn’t expected, after the duo’s pitch-perfect indie hit with “Ghost World,” is a film that lacks confidence and clarity, that isn’t sure whether it wants to be an earnest coming-of-age story or a vicious takedown and ends up as a misshapen hybrid of those genres and others besides. “Art School Confidential” (tenuously based on one of Clowes’ “Eightball” comics) begins as a hipster take on the college comedy, with Max Minghella as Jerome, an innocent would-be Picasso surrounded by the various hustlers, phonies and slimeballs of art school. Then it becomes a half-jokey serial-killer yarn, an unconsummated romance and finally a fable of success with an ironic, “Taxi Driver” sting in its tail.
I like and respect Clowes and Zwigoff, both as people and as artists, and it’s clear that they deliberately set out to defy audience expectations and create something dark-hearted and subversive. I just don’t think it works. I would love to tell you that “Art School Confidential” is a misunderstood masterpiece, the “Cable Guy” of this decade. Instead, I think it’s an intriguing misfire, an intermittently lively work of self-defeat.
Mind you, there are still plenty of reasons to see it, especially if you fit the Clowes-Zwigoff aging hipster demographic. John Malkovich, who helped produce the film, has an enjoyable turn as one of Jerome’s instructors, a washed-up predatory poseur who has spent 20 years perfecting his painting style (near-identical triangles, over and over again). Jim Broadbent is even better as Jimmy, an embittered ex-prodigy rapidly drinking himself to death in a squalid apartment near the art school campus. Jimmy’s an uncanny example of the kind of aging boho whose antisocial attitudes have festered into something genuinely disturbing, and in many ways he’s the real heart of the film.
Then there’s the mysterious Jonah (Matt Keeslar), a jocklike dude who seems like a fish out of water in art school but becomes the class sensation with his naive, subversive-by-accident paintings of sports cars and tanks. Jerome, a sensitive and dedicated young craftsman with a gift for figure drawing, seems positively old-fashioned in comparison. Blond model Audrey (Sophia Myles), the subject of his best work, seems drawn toward both him and Jonah, which sets the film’s erratic plot in motion.
“I think of the movie as very emotionally autobiographical,” says Clowes. “It’s very much about the dilemma that I go through as somebody who’s trying to be a working artist and trying to navigate questions of, do I do my own thing that nobody likes? Or do I move towards this other thing that people do like? Or do I just forget about everything that I’m interested in and do only what people want from me? You try to remain pure at all times, of course, and nobody does. It’s very difficult to know how to feel about yourself. That’s what it’s about.”
The movie’s original impetus, Clowes says, came less from his own comics than from the infamous 1958 exploitation picture “High School Confidential!” which this film’s plot imitates in ways I won’t reveal. “I really wanted to have the elements of an exploitation film, and yet have it lead to something else. It was a little more thought-out than a Roger Corman film, but it has gratuitous nudity and murder and college high jinks, all that stuff. Then I wanted it to shift; all of a sudden it takes things seriously, and follows that through to the end.”
Zwigoff seems to realize, perhaps more than Clowes, that the public reception for “Art School Confidential” is not likely to be what they hoped. A diminutive man of ageless aspect (he’s 57) who resembles a crossbreed between Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein, Zwigoff seems eager to talk about many other subjects — “Ghost World,” his forthcoming director’s cut of “Bad Santa,” his possible Johnny Depp project — before working his way back to the subject at hand.
“This film really seems to divide people, and a lot of people have had a really hostile reaction to it,” he admits ruefully. “I’ve been talking about that with my producer, Lianne Halfon: Why do people that hate this film really hate it? I wonder what they’re reacting to? They’re reacting to something, but I don’t know what it is.”
As Zwigoff keeps talking, first describing the making of “Art School Confidential” as “an ambitious undertaking” and then as “a weird process,” it appears that in fact he has a pretty good idea what people are reacting to. “You know, this film gets darker and darker, in general, as it goes along. Maybe people don’t like that. In comedies, people like light and silly. The sillier and lighter, the more energetic, the better. My films don’t do that, and I just don’t like that myself. I tend to watch films that are darker, a lot of films from the ’40s and ’50s.”
If the film doesn’t work, Zwigoff seems to argue, at least it’s a failure born out of integrity rather than compromise. “Dan is withholding from the audience on every level,” he says. “Like, the thriller isn’t quite a thriller, in the mystery we’re not planting any red herrings, the ending is not quite satisfying romantically. It was interesting; I liked it. At first it seemed wrong, yet I could appreciate what he was doing. I’d definitely never seen anything like it. It’s all very conscious and very intentional on his part, and I went with it.”
“Art School Confidential” opens May 5 at theaters in most major cities.
“Lady Vengeance”: Korea’s young genre-master grows up? Maybe
I can’t check out without a word on Park Chanwook’s “Lady Vengeance,” the final entry in the explosive “Vengeance trilogy” that began with “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and continued with the international cult smash “Oldboy.” There can be no question about Park’s genius for thrilling pop cinema; my question after the first two films in the series was whether he could ever transcend genre conventions, and that immense kinetic talent, to make something with emotional heft.
Question answered, mostly. “Lady Vengeance” follows the beautiful Lee Geum-ja (Korean starlet Lee Young-ae), who is released from prison after serving 13 years for the shocking murder of a small boy. She must, of course, wreak vengeance on the man who ruined her life and put her there. Fans of ultraviolence may be slightly disappointed; “Lady Vengeance” certainly has a body count, but it’s restrained by Park’s standards, and more of a character study than his previous films. Visually, it’s every bit as stunning, but in Lee the director has found a profoundly sympathetic central character who is haunted both by her vision of revenge and by her own ineradicable guilt. (If she was not quite guilty as charged, she wasn’t innocent either.)
A fine young film critic of my acquaintance left the screening murmuring, “I don’t trust that guy,” and I know what he means. It’s hard to say whether the autumnal mood and the female-coded moral seriousness of “Lady Vengeance” are anything more than another genre for Park to inhabit; he’s a master manipulator in the Hitchcock vein, whose true intentions are difficult to divine. In a movie this powerful and this lovingly crafted, I may not care whether I’m being had. Dense with pathos, poetry and humor, this is Park’s finest work to date. His stomach-churning climax — which depicts gruesome bloodshed without directly showing it — simultaneously gratifies and indicts our most primitive instincts.
“Lady Vengeance” opens April 28 at the Angelika Film Center in New York, May 5 in Detroit, May 12 in Los Angeles, May 19 in Boston and Washington, May 26 in Chicago, June 2 in Philadelphia, June 9 in Tucson, Ariz., June 16 in Atlanta, June 23 in Portland, Ore., and June 30 in Austin, Dallas, Houston, Nashville and Salt Lake City, 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.