"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)
Lincoln Center, the sprawling and sinister LBJ-era arts complex on the West Side of Manhattan, houses several of the nation’s most august cultural institutions: the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, New York City Ballet, the Juilliard School. That high-culture pedigree also infuses the New York Film Festival, a defiantly old-school event that stands like a grand gateway to the fall movie season. Last among the year’s major festivals — after hardcore film-biz insiders have already racked up the frequent-flier miles traveling to Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Cannes, Venice, Toronto and elsewhere — the NYFF, more than any of those, still evokes a world where Great Films are made by Great Directors and everyone who is anyone must see them.
NYFF programmers are notoriously selective — there are 25 new features on this year’s slate, a typical number — which is a significant part of the festival’s identity. (“We’re a festival that says ‘no’ a lot,” says program director Richard Peña, with evident pride.) They strongly favor narrative features over documentaries, in an independent-film market that now tilts sharply in the other direction. Other major festivals insist on exclusivity, and guard world premieres jealously, but the NYFF (partly because of its calendar position) doesn’t seem to care. This year’s big titles have all played elsewhere, and most have already opened to ordinary paying audiences in other countries.
Clearly, the ideal NYFF film is one that combines artistic ambition, social relevance and some degree of sexy marketplace sizzle (last year’s centerpiece, George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” being a perfect example). So this year’s festival opens with Stephen Frears’ dishy “The Queen,” which stars Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, coping with the royal family’s turmoil in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death. It continues with such surefire art-house hits as David Lynch’s reportedly indescribable three-hour opus “Inland Empire,” Sofia Coppola’s lavish biopic “Marie Antoinette,” Pedro Almodóvar’s all-female Cannes smash “Volver” and Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish Civil War-era fantasy “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the closing-night film. (Salon will review these NYFF films, and more, as they premiere.)
But as well as showcasing those pictures most likely to seduce upscale audiences during the cold-weather months, the NYFF also has a nobler, and more old-fashioned, mission. It programs several films each year with near-zero commercial appeal, hoping to focus the attention of New York’s perennially distracted culture vultures, if only for an instant, on unexpected and unpredictable works with no bold-type names attached. It’s a charming and paradoxical notion, but I’m delighted to play along.
So for the next couple of weeks you’ll read here about some movies that may never play anywhere near you, and may take their sweet time to show up on Netflix. (One of the sensations of the 2005 NYFF, Argentine director Pablo Trapero’s road comedy “Rolling Family,” has finally made it to DVD a full year later.) Consider the example of West African director Abderrahmane Sissako’s confrontational docudrama “Bamako.” I think it’s one of the most exciting films I’ve seen all year, but it bears little relationship to the recognizable conventions of dramatic cinema. How would you try to market a movie whose central action involves a Brechtian show trial, staged in the courtyard of an ordinary African house, in which the opposing parties are African civil society and the international financial institutions? The NYFF is this film’s one and only chance to get noticed by Americans.
Along the same lines, the ’06 festival brings us Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang’s meticulous biopic “The Go Master”; Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s wry, Fellini-style romantic comedy “Woman on the Beach”; “Belle Toujours,” a semi-sequel to Luis Buñuel’s risqué 1969 classic “Belle de Jour,” made by 97-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira; “Climates,” a mournful exposition on love’s decay from Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan; and “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen,” another blinding-white, wide-screen exploration of Inuit life from the makers of “The Fast Runner.”
There’s plenty to see outside the prison-like facade of Lincoln Center as well. Agitprop provocateur Robert Greenwald (“Wal-Mart,” “Outfoxed,” etc.) is back with “Iraq for Sale,” an exposé of the remarkable levels of greed and corruption that accompany our partly privatized overseas war. Memoirist-turned-filmmaker Dito Montiel captures an engaging slice of Scorsese-style New York adolescence, circa 1986, in “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” And for political junkies, “So Goes the Nation,” a dissection of the 2004 presidential campaign in Ohio, is a must-see. (Stolen-election conspiracy buffs should skip it, unless you enjoy howling with rage.)
“Iraq for Sale”: Death on the cost-plus plan
Even if you already know, or think you know, what a massive bonanza the Iraq war has been for private contractors like Halliburton and Blackwater, Robert Greenwald’s latest guerrilla-distribution muckraking effort, “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers,” will disturb you profoundly. Historians may never agree on precisely why the United States went to war in Iraq (the Marxist term “overdetermined” comes to mind), but Greenwald’s film suggests that a small cadre of private contractors and consultants with close ties to the Republican Party and the national-security apparatus may have been the war’s biggest beneficiaries. (I should acknowledge that “Iraq for Sale” uses images of Abu Ghraib abuses drawn from Salon’s published archive of photos, and that Salon reporter Mark Benjamin appears as an interviewee. Salon was not involved in making the film.)
Like most of Greenwald’s work, “Iraq for Sale” results from dogged and impressive investigative reporting, and its compassionate presentation of the ordinary American stories at its heart is highly effective. It also feels hastily and cheesily assembled, making its central argument murkier than it wants to be. While I applaud Greenwald’s self-devised distribution system — like his previous documentaries, this will be shown at private parties in homes, schools and churches around the country, and is immediately for sale on DVD — there’s no way around the fact that his audience will be 99 percent composed of people who already agree with him.
Greenwald isn’t capable of the magisterial, mournful manner of, say, Eugene Jarecki’s “Why We Fight,” but the two films would make a natural double bill. Essentially, “Iraq for Sale” depicts a war effort in which virtually everything except the actual killing has been outsourced to private companies whose snuggly relationship to the Bush White House is profoundly anti-competitive and probably corrupt. Security firms like Blackwater and mega-contractors like Halliburton (actually, there is no “like”; Dick Cheney’s former company is the only one of its ilk), instead of providing cost savings, have bilked the taxpayers out of billions, provided slipshod service to the troops, and consistently placed their own poorly trained employees in mortal danger.
We meet the grief-stricken families of the Blackwater security contractors who were so infamously killed, desecrated and hung from that bridge in Fallujah in March of 2004; we see a former Halliburton engineer reduced to tears as he says that the company’s faulty treatment plants are delivering bathwater loaded with deadly pathogens to U.S. Marines. We learn that many of the Abu Ghraib interrogators were civilian employees of CACI, a private consulting firm, and were not accountable to the military chain of command. Titan, a company contracted to deliver linguists to the military, supposedly hired anybody off the street who could speak either Arabic or Farsi along with a little English. (Some of these “linguists” reportedly could not read or write; hardly any had formal training.)
Halliburton’s Iraq contracts operate on a “cost-plus” basis, meaning that whatever the company spends in expenses it gets back, plus a profit margin. This allegedly leads to profligate spending: When an $80,000 truck blows out a tire, the company torches the truck and leaves the burned-out hulk beside the road; it’s more profitable to buy a new truck than a new tire. Employees say they were paid to luxuriate at expensive oceanfront resorts in Kuwait and Qatar; again, the profit margins would be higher there than for rooms at Holiday Inn. The current Congress has repeatedly declined to exercise any meaningful oversight over the Pentagon’s contracts with these companies, despite the fact that, as one military observer comments in the film, true free-market conservatives should be outraged by the monopoly and cartel behavior on display.
Greenwald offers an amusing comeback to those critics (myself included) who have complained that he never gets responses from the object of his attacks. Over the closing credits, we watch him and his assistants leaving repeated voice-mail messages for executives at Halliburton, Blackwater, CACI and other companies. Greenwald claims his production company made 38 phone calls and sent 31 e-mails requesting interviews or comments from representatives of the companies involved. All declined to participate.
Taken as a whole, “Iraq for Sale” is such a pileup of grim news that viewers may be tempted to throw up their hands in total despair. As “Why We Fight” makes clear, Democratic administrations have been just as involved with militarizing the U.S. economy as Republicans. Still the audience that most needs to see this film is the one least likely to: patriotic working-class and middle-class Americans who trust the president and his party on matters of national security. If Greenwald can sneak this onto the air in place of this week’s “Desperate Housewives,” we might start to see some changes around here.
“Iraq for Sale” is now available on DVD. Screening parties begin the weekend of Oct. 7-8 in many cities. See the film’s Web site for details.
“A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”: If “Mean Streets” went to the big-hair years
Writer-director Dito Montiel’s debut feature, “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” won a special award for its ensemble of actors at this year’s Sundance festival, and it’s easy to see why. Shia LaBeouf gives the performance of his young career as (ahem) Dito, a sensitive, damaged kid growing up on the beat-down streets of Astoria, an old-school Queens, N.Y., ethnic nay-buh-hood, in the mid-’80s. Chazz Palminteri and Dianne Wiest are terrific as Dito’s parents, Melonie Diaz is charming as his girlfriend, and Channing Tatum all but steals the movie as Antonio, his violent, doomed best friend.
Yeah, they’re all terrific, and when Montiel sticks to the colorful, funny and violent story of Dito’s troubled youth in those years of big hair and yowling guitars, the movie’s a winner too. Yes, it’s one you’ve seen before, and not just once or twice. But if “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” is wearing its Noo-Yawk-native roots on its sleeve — mainly Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” but also “Summer of Sam” and “Kids” and “The Basketball Diaries,” among others — its verve, passion and honesty are completely unfaked.
Unfortunately, Montiel is adapting his own memoir-cum-novel of the same title, so he wraps the engaging tale of Dito’s adolescence in a dreary present-tense fable about adult Dito (played morosely by Robert Downey Jr., who was originally going to direct) returning to Astoria after a long absence to make peace with his dying father and lost friends. This slows down the picture and gums it up, making the already-evident nostalgia of the ’80s plot seem increasingly sludgy and mawkish.
As if to make up for this entirely unnecessary level of narrative (complete with deadly voice-over narration), Montiel begins to add pseudo-artistic flourishes that are even less necessary: We see scenes more than once from various vantage points, shot from odd angles, with distorted visual effects added. I suspect this guy can make a good movie if he learns the right lessons; he’s made about half of one here. But the praise heaped upon “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” is way too much, way too soon.
“A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” opens Sept. 29 in New York and Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow.
“So Goes the Nation”: What’s the matter with Ohio?
Sorry, Ken Blackwell fans, but Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern’s mole’s-eye view of the 2004 presidential race in Ohio, “So Goes the Nation,” is not about how the Republicans gamed the system and stole the White House. (You can certainly find that perspective elsewhere.) This is a conventional political documentary with a conventional view of what happened in the Buckeye State and why, but it’s no less fascinating for all that.
Del Deo and Stern are scrupulously evenhanded as they follow a handful of Kerry-Edwards and Bush-Cheney volunteers (idealistic and devoted, on both sides) through the final stages of the “ground game” in Ohio. Even more fascinating for political junkies, they got the people in their film, and the major strategists from both parties, to reflect on winning and losing after all the chips had been cashed. So you get to hear former Clinton strategist Paul Begala decry the toothless incompetence of the Kerry campaign, when faced with the disciplined, on-message attack machine of the GOP. (“They had 15 ways to win and only one way to lose,” Begala says of the Democrats. “And they picked the way to lose.”)
Republican honchos Ed Gillespie, Ken Mehlman and Mark McKinnon discuss Karl Rove’s central insight into 21st century American politics: The swing voter is dead, and the way to win now is to energize and motivate your base. By their own admission, the Bush-Cheney campaign got 3 million fewer votes from independents in 2004 than in 2000 — but something like 11 million more Republican votes. (Rove himself, as is his wont, does not appear in the film.)
McKinnon observes that Kerry, a middle-ground liberal with a long record of legislative compromise and triangulation, made a perfect opponent for the incumbent’s campaign, which sought to avoid concrete issues and send one message: Bush is strong and Kerry’s weak. Bush is decisive and Kerry’s flabby. In trying to reshape himself as a heartland he-man instead of a lifelong Northeast Corridor insider, Kerry constantly made minor gaffes and evasive statements that played into the Bushies’ hands. (McKinnon thinks Howard Dean would have been more difficult to defeat, at least on the ground of forceful opinions.)
Both campaigns, as we observe them working door-to-door in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, are impressive organizing efforts. Conspiracy theories aside, the real problem with Del Deo and Stern’s film is that they, and almost everybody else, missed the big stories in Ohio. As we clearly see on Election Day, African-American voters turned out in huge numbers in urban neighborhoods, and had to stand in two- or three-hour lines to vote on a few overloaded machines. Turnout among rural and suburban white conservatives was also huge, but those people generally just showed up, cast their ballots and drove home; lines were rarely more than a few minutes in duration.
How much was the 2004 presidential race decided by this rudimentary inequality (for which, as the film points out, Democratic officials at the county level are at least partly responsible)? And will the Democratic Party ever be willing to gamble on energizing its base with a forceful candidate and an aggressive message, or is it now the permanent lukewarm coalition of 49 percent? “So Goes the Nation” has no answers to these questions, but in dispassionately presenting American politics, even at its sleaziest, as an honorable craft, it may offer hope to small-d democrats of all flavors.
“So Goes the Nation” opens Oct. 4 at the IFC Center in New York, 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.