"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)
When I was in the second grade, I had a particularly high-strung teacher who liked to post pithy sayings above the chalkboard in the classroom. These weren’t the laid-back messages you saw on posters during the ’70s, with sheepish-looking orangutans sitting in trash cans or kittens dangling from branches over the words “Hang in there!” Mrs. Stemkowski didn’t cop to that “Do what you can to get by!” mentality. No, she favored prudent, sensible quotations, carefully selected and neatly printed on brightly colored construction paper, messages that usually boiled down to Stop screwing around and get to work!
Although Mrs. Stemkowski was the sort of teacher who seemed to despise about half of the kids in the class for their lazy, unruly ways, I was almost as tightly wound as she was, so she was always nice to me. Still, I found one of those cards above the chalkboard extremely unnerving. It said something like:
Time, that’s it! When it’s gone, it’s gone!
Each time I looked up at those words, I’d get a feeling of vertigo. I’d imagine that time was disappearing behind us every second like pavement on a superhighway, and the future was rushing toward us at breakneck speed. The phrase really spoke to my anxieties at the time, since I’d recently figured out that I’d never be 7 years old again, a fact that seemed unspeakably sad, particularly since most adults I knew seemed to wish they were still little kids. Also, it reminded me of some lyrics on the radio that year: Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future! The song didn’t make sense, since time was clearly not slipping into the future but rushing into the past, but either way, like Steve Miller, it made me want to fly like an eagle, to the sea instead of sitting in the classroom, having a silent panic attack.
Time after time
And yet, when I didn’t look up and read that quote, I usually felt that time was unbearably slow and plodding, particularly when we were forced to write in cursive or memorize our multiplication tables.
This discovery that the experience of time is highly subjective and malleable occurs to me whenever we meet up with Jack Bauer of “24″ again. Before we can even get a handle on what Jack’s been up to since we last saw him (crouching in some watery Chinese dungeon, being whipped and beaten and injected with truth serum and getting particularly merciless Brazilian waxes), the clock starts counting down all over again.
Time is Jack’s worst enemy, worse than those unforgiving Chinese who’ve been torturing the poor man for two years now (and he never spoke a word to them!), worse than the steady parade of Yusufs and Bierkos and Fayeds that clamor relentlessly to bring our great country to its knees. Jack has no time to tell anyone what he’s been through, no time for a few counseling sessions or even a brief consult with a psychiatrist who might prescribe something for his post-traumatic stress disorder, no time to thank Chloe for helping to fake his death or for risking her job and sometimes her life to get him out of a million and one bad situations. When Chloe starts to say to Jack, “Oh my god, I thought you were still in some dank, smelly torture chamber in China…” Jack doesn’t just cut her off, he actually scolds her the way Mrs. Stemkowski might’ve scolded a kid who was scribbling on her desk or talking in class: “Chloe, we don’t have time right now!” he says, which is the same thing he tells everyone he meets, over and over again, whether it’s the president or some guy on the street whose car he wants to borrow and then wreck.
Actually, have you noticed how Jack doesn’t have time to ask anyone for anything anymore? In the old days, he would explain to complete strangers that he was a CTU agent and he needed their car to prevent a major disaster. “This is a matter of national security,” he’d hiss at them while reaching for their keys. These days, Jack just shoves them out of the way. During last week’s premiere, Jack made like the protagonist in a game of Grand Theft Auto and blithely walked up to a random car, opened the driver-side door, pulled out the driver, threw him onto the ground and drove away, no explanation.
Like Mrs. Stemkowski, Jack has a lot to teach us about time management. We all say to each other, “Sorry I haven’t called until now, I’ve been so busy.” “I’d love to do that if I had the time, I just have no time these days.” The irony is that we usually say these sorts of things when we’re in the middle of a two-hour phone call. If we were Jack Bauer, we’d answer the phone and say, in a scoldy voice, “Martha? I don’t have time for this right now!” and then we’d hang up and do our taxes.
In addition to possessing such admirable curtness, Jack is able to make lightning-fast decisions, and he’s always right. When Jack is handcuffed to a chair and Fayed leaves the room? Jack secretly removes his pulse monitor so it looks like he just died. Fayed’s stooge comes over to check on him, and chomp! Jack bites him in the jugular vein and kills him instantly without even using his hands. There may be more violence on other shows, but nowhere else is the violence quite this efficient.
Yes, you know it’s going to be a great season of “24″ (9 p.m. Mondays on Fox) when Jack (Keifer Sutherland) bites a man to death in the first few minutes of the season. On top of that, Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) has a feisty love interest in her semi-shifty ex-husband Morris (Carlo Rota), and the guy who played Claire’s first creepy boyfriend on “Six Feet Under,” Eric Balfour, appears as a possibly traitorous CTU agent named Milo who hates Morris’ guts. Throw in the fact that Wayne Palmer (D.B. Woodside) is president with Karen Hayes as his national security advisor and Peter MacNicol as his deliciously pesky chief of staff, and you’ve got a group of people likely to spend the next 24 hours panicking, bickering and undermining each other’s authority in rapid succession. Best of all, instead of having to wait until the middle of the season for the terrorists to bring death and destruction upon the land, a mushroom cloud rises over L.A. within the first four hours of Jack’s ticking clock. When the president and the agents at CTU turned pale and got very quiet, the audience at home high-fived and settled in for some good old-fashioned morbidity.
And how great was it that Jack was forced to shoot Curtis (Roger R. Cross) when Curtis was about to take out Assad? This ranks at the top of the list of morally ambiguous moves Jack has had to make in order to save untold millions of lives, right above Jack’s indirect murder of Audrey’s ex-husband when he insisted on disconnecting the man’s life support in order to keep a key informant alive instead, and below his point-blank assassination of CTU director Ryan Chappelle (Paul Schulze). You also had to love current CTU director Bill Buchanan’s (James Morrison) call to Jack, in which he casually mentioned Jack’s coldblooded murder, saying essentially, Hey, bummer about Curtis, but you did the right thing, man. Hang in there!
Naturally Jack belongs in the “Stop screwing around!” camp rather than the “Do what you can to get by!” camp, so Bill’s words hold no comfort. Yes, it’s a little odd that, right after Jack expresses a distaste for torture, having endured it for two years straight, he turns around and quickly blows Curtis away instead of letting the standoff unfold for, say, a few more seconds. While we’re at it, it’s also strange that the president would even consider loading a bunch of known terrorists onto a plane and turning them over to another known terrorist, or that Palmer would grant Assad amnesty, or that young terrorist Ahmed (Kal Penn) would get some jittery suburban dad to deliver his package to Fayed for him.
But that’s what makes “24″ so damn good. You don’t suspend your disbelief when watching this show so much as savor the total implausibility of the entire charade. That, along with Jack’s excellent time-management skills, is what brings me back every season, and this season looks like it’s going to be more idiotically rushed and implausible than any season that came before. Plus, don’t you get the feeling that Jack is going to be horribly, horribly wrong for the first time in his life very soon, and that Wayne Palmer is going to trust him and live to regret it? As long as it makes Jack miserable and gives me that old feeling of vertigo, I’m all for it.
Food, glorious food!
Time is also running out on the second excellent season of “Top Chef” (10 p.m. Wednesdays on Bravo). With only the most capable and creative aspiring chefs left, the competition is more interesting than ever. Last week, Sam, Ilan, Elia, Marcel and Cliff had to make a five-course dinner for a bunch of couples on a romantic night out, and the dishes they created seemed to be their best yet. The judges loved Sam’s scallops and Ilan’s fideos with clams and saffron the most, with Elia’s dessert and Marcel and Cliff’s dishes coming in at the bottom of the heap.
But after the five-course challenge, the aspiring chefs went back to their digs, got drunk and went a little crazy. First, Elia and Ilan shaved their heads. Ilan already had short hair, but you really had to admire Elia’s audacity, to shave off a head full of pretty, long, dark, shiny curls. (Sam claimed that he would shave his head, but then backed out, apparently deciding that it was too hard to part with his pretty curls.)
Next, the group decided that it would be hilarious to shave off precious Marcel’s Heat Miser hair while he slept. After all, pretentious Marcel had been pissing everyone off all season with his snotty comments and his haughty schooling in molecular gastronomy and his self-serving babyish attitude. What would be better than to take a swipe at his big, stupid head of hair?
Cliff was the clear man for the job, being big enough to hold Marcel down while someone else shaved him. But instead of taking the clippers to the smarmy little wiener’s head, the white folks stood around giggling while Cliff strong-armed Marcel. Cliff dutifully waited for someone to approach with clippers… OK, maybe he ground Marcel’s snotty face into the carpet a little bit, but nothing more than you’d expect from a domineering big brother. Having had my own snotty face ground into a carpet on more than one occasion, I can tell you that, while it’s certainly a humbling experience, you never arise from the situation with more than a few rug burns and a slightly broken spirit. Besides, wasn’t this the humbling experience that Marcel was unconsciously crying out for these long weeks?
Here’s where things got annoying: Judge Tom Colicchio solemnly informed Cliff that the rules clearly state that contestants can’t lay hands on each other, and then told him that he was ejected from the competition. Cliff accepted this decision humbly (as far as we know), and though we saw the other competitors quietly accepting that Cliff was out, it was pretty clear that intelligent, independent thinkers like Elia and the others wouldn’t have taken such news sitting down.
Isn’t it more than a little creepy how often black people are kicked off reality shows? Obviously the culture of these shows is pretty white — black reality-show stars mention this all the time — plus the other contestants are white and often don’t remotely understand the black contestant, and the black contestant rarely has other black people to confide in, and, after weeks of alienation, the black person gets pissed off, and all the white producers freak the hell out. Get rid of that angry black man before he hurts someone!
Rules are rules, sure, and of course it’s not acceptable to overpower a fellow teammate under any circumstances. All I’m saying is that, if it were a skinny white boy and not a big black man who wrestled Marcel to the ground, I can’t see that guy getting kicked out of the competition. The judges kept saying that Cliff would’ve gone home anyway, since his steak was too rare and too dull, but if that’s the case, why not just send him home for his food? The trumped-up drama of dismissing the guy for breaking the rules felt more than a little sanctimonious, not to mention unfair. To encourage conflict to a ruthless extent and then balk over a little hazing seems out of place on a show that has managed to remain entertaining by relentlessly focusing on the food above all else.
The nose knows
Speaking of a little hazing, after receiving some delectable examples of truly terrible dialogue that could not, however, be described as “on-the-nose,” it’s clear that I need to explain what on-the-nose dialogue is in the first place. When characters deliver lines that are hopelessly on-the-nose, that means that they come out and say something directly instead of letting the other characters in the scene and the audience figure out what they mean. Most of the dialogue in “24,” for example, is on-the-nose: “We don’t have time!” “Why are you doing that? Get back to work!” “We have to stop Fayed before he kills again!” This kind of talk works just fine on “24″ (or it does most of the time), but on other dramas, on-the-nose dialogue sounds hopelessly obvious and clumsy, since normal people don’t speak that way about emotionally charged issues (and if they do, well, it’s artless and boring).
When a man and a woman are in a fight, for example, they rarely say exactly what they mean to each other. The wife doesn’t say, “I love you but I feel that your inability to have an intimate conversation may mean that you’re having an affair.” To which the husband never responds, “Well, I feel crowded by your suspicions in a way that makes me tempted to go out and have an affair!” Instead, the worried wife mumbles that the wallpaper in the kitchen is peeling off, and the husband snaps that she should stop occupying her head with such petty matters. Good dialogue hints at what the characters are feeling without coming out and saying it, so that the audience’s thoughts and feelings are provoked, and they have to sort through what’s going on the way they might have to interpret the words and actions of someone in their own lives.
At any rate, we may have to include a second-place prize for general-purpose crappy dialogue, because some of the examples you’ve sent so far are just too bad not to share. Ach, but there’s no room for that now! I wasted time and now doth time waste me!
Next week: A slew of midseason comedies bring the pain.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
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)