"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)
Sundance 2007 finally has a bomb. Every festival needs one. In recent days Deborah Kampmeier’s film “Hounddog” has become the object of national curiosity based on reports that it featured a rape scene involving actress Dakota Fanning, who is 12 years old. The Catholic League even called for a federal investigation to determine if any child pornography laws were broken during the making of the film. No one there or anywhere had seen the film, of course. But it’s every American’s God-given right to hold a firmly fixed opinion about a cultural work he knows nothing about.
Naturally this attack on free expression aroused the interest (and prurient interest) of the media, which is why a passel of folks, yours truly included, packed into an overheated screening room here on Tuesday afternoon to watch that rape scene, and the other 97 and a half minutes of “Hounddog,” for ourselves. The rape lasts 30 seconds or so, possibly less. If you nod off (a realistic possibility with this picture), you’ll miss it. But it turns out the defenders of my ancestral faith are correct, if only by accident: “Hounddog” should be boycotted. Not because it depicts the sexual exploitation of children but because it’s a turgid, overripe mess.
Fanning gives a brave performance under the circumstances, but she can’t escape this hilariously bad late-’50s Southern Gothic, which vomits up huge chunks of undigested Tennessee Williams preserved in swamp gas. Every hackneyed symbol of Suthin’ living is dredged up one more time: We’ve got magnolias and kudzu, we’ve got cicadas squeaking so loudly you can barely hear the dialogue. (Turn ‘em up!) We’ve got oh-so-wise black folks singin’ the blues and dispensin’ folk wisdom. We’ve got Piper Laurie, dressed like a walking sofa, as the horror-show grandma with electrified hair, Bible in one hand and whiskey bottle in the other. We’ve got Robin Wright Penn (an actress I admire) drifting through the movie in her sexy-battered-vulnerable mode, wearing just a slip, a grimace and a shiner.
Then there are the snakes. My land, does this movie have snakes. Snakes in the river, snakes in the garden, snakes in the grass. We get it! Snakes coming through the windows. Snakes writhing all over the bed, at least in the dreams of Lewellen, the precocious young Elvis fan and would-be singer played by Fanning. We get it, already! Uncle! Snakes bite the wicked and the good alike; some survive and some do not. As Charles (Afemo Omilami), Lewellen’s Wise Negro Protector, assures her, she’s possessed of snake magic, which is the rarest and most difficult kind.
Lewellen’s drunken and abusive dad (David Morse) is struck by lightning and rendered an idiot. (OK, he was an idiot before, but of a different kind.) She lives part of the time with him, part of the time with the aforementioned sofa-esque grandmother and occasionally with Ellen (played by Penn), whose relationship to her is obscure. Aunt? Mother? Stepmother? Adult sister? Some picturesque Southern combination of all four? I suppose Kempmeier thinks all this heavy-handed symbolism and bayou atmospherics is Faulknerian, even biblical. I can think of other words beginning with “F” and “B” that would be more fitting.
In fairness, Fanning comes through reasonably unscathed. She has an odd but appealing tomboyish luminescence about her that can carry some of the less ludicrous scenes. Even a sophisticated 12-year-old cannot be expected to understand how caricatured the film’s presentation of place and time is. Despite spending much of the film in her underwear, she is never presented in a remotely sexualized manner. The rape scene is entirely nonexplicit; you see her face, her hands, her feet. Her teenage assailant is little more than a shadow in the darkness.
My real sympathy is reserved for Omilami. However benignly presented, Charles is just another in a long, dreary litany of singin’, dancin’, happy-go-lucky African-Americans with mysterious midnight juju, whose only agenda in life seems to be tending to the spiritual welfare of white folks. Even beyond that issue, the lines he must deliver are so execrable, the whole thing inches toward becoming a “Second City TV” sketch. He’s constantly telling Lewellen that she must fill the hole inside herself. I kid you not. “Little missy, you got to fill that emptiness inside you with something besides Elvis!”
Which is just silly. I mean, isn’t Elvis sufficient to fill the void inside all of us?
Seriously, I’m astonished that anybody would try to pass this movie off as artistically or socially meaningful in 2007. Did Sundance programmers actually watch it, or were they just swept up in a moonshine-sippin’, guitar-pickin’, cicada-chirpin’, snake-slitherin’ miasma?
After the hissing, cackling and general incredulity of the “Hounddog” press screening had died down, many of us stumbled across the street for a late-night preview of “Chapter 27,” another much-discussed title. This is the film in which Jared Leto plays Mark David Chapman, and it’s focused entirely on the three days Chapman spent in New York in December 1980 before the murder of John Lennon. I can’t say that the reception for this film was a whole lot warmer than for “Hounddog,” but that might have been hangover and accumulated Sundance fatigue at work.
There’s virtually no context provided here, about Lennon or the Beatles or New York or Chapman himself. To put it another way, the film’s entire context is Chapman, a tormented consciousness obsessed by Lennon and the Beatles, and most of all by Holden Caulfield and “Catcher in the Rye.” (No, he wasn’t interested in Jodie Foster; that was the guy who shot Reagan.) Leto narrates much of the picture in a sort of enraged mutter, and sometimes in competing streams of enraged mutter. It’s easy to crack jokes about actors who undergo “Raging Bull”-style physical metamorphosis — Leto packed on more than 60 pounds to play the paunchy Chapman — but this is a highly compelling performance on many levels.
Leto has to carry the picture by himself, and pretty much does so. The only major supporting part belongs to Lindsay Lohan, as a girl Chapman briefly befriends on the sidewalk outside the Dakota, and she’s pretty good — a ray of light in the rapidly darkening gloom of his world. Of course we know what’s going to happen, so the drama and pathos of “Chapter 27″ concern how Chapman is going to get there, and whether things might have been different.
Writer-director J.P. Schaefer’s script is based on the interviews with Chapman in crime reporter Jack Jones’ 1992 book, “Let Me Take You Down.” That book enraged some Lennon fans, and there’s already a tepid Internet boycott of the film. But I don’t see how acknowledging Chapman’s humanity, or presenting his psychological struggle in a compassionate manner, equates to excusing his actions or dishonoring the memory of his victim.
Leto’s portrayal of this hunched, pudgy, unhappy man is both merciless and sympathetic. His Chapman seems almost like a garden-variety suburban fanboy, with his own autodidact theories about the world — and one area of total derangement. There’s no way to explain why Chapman’s intense identification with the hero of J.D. Salinger’s novel led him to believe he had to kill Lennon, because it’s a pathway paved by a profoundly disordered mind. But as Chapman veers from paranoid arrogance to painful flashes of reality, channeling bits of Salinger into his own internal monologue — and nearly convincing himself, after meeting Lennon briefly, to take his autographed copy of “Double Fantasy” and go home — Leto almost makes you feel how it happened.
Some viewers may well find “Chapter 27″ sleazy or distasteful, and I won’t argue the point. But Schaefer’s movie creates its own highly compelling world, which is pretty much the prime directive in filmmaking. On Tuesday I also caught up with James C. Strouse’s “Grace Is Gone,” one of the most celebrated films at Sundance this year (and the festival’s highest-priced acquisition to date, I believe). Its subject is far nobler — an uncommunicative American dad has to figure out how to tell his daughters that their mom isn’t coming home from Iraq — and its emotional appeal is pretty universal. What it lacks is precisely the cinematic vitality, propulsive force and even darkness that drive “Chapter 27.”
I understand that “Grace Is Gone” is a movie about grief, but I wish it didn’t fall so thoroughly into the pathetic fallacy. John Cusack plays Stan, the home-supply-store manager and military vet who abruptly takes his daughters, ages 12 and 8, on a mysterious Florida road trip. It’s another physical-transformation role; Stan’s a bulky, limping, ex-jock who greets his sales team in football-style huddles and treads pretty heavily in the world as in his family life. His young female costars are nearly as strong, and the forced hilarity of their road trip is often acutely painful. But all three sometimes just disappear into the affectless, low-energy drift of “Grace Is Gone.” They stare at carpets, curl up on motel room beds, sit on sidewalks, gaze at the featureless American landscape.
Out in the audience, we have to rely on our own snuffles — our own identification, as a nation and as individuals, with Stan’s grief and loss — to carry us through. I won’t claim I didn’t shed some tears, but I longed for some window-smashing, lamp-throwing, fuck-all-you-bastards catharsis. There’s no question about the film’s integrity and good intentions, and Harvey Weinstein has now bet millions of dollars that its grave, understated approach will appeal to a mass audience. He understands these things better than I do.
After the screening I attended, Cusack got up and spoke forcefully for a few minutes in response to questions from the audience. “There’s almost a feeling of impotence or powerlessness” in the country right now, he said. “We’re just being lied to about this war repeatedly, and it’s so frustrating. There’s not much we can do about it sometimes, so making a film about grief felt like something tangible. I’m outspoken in my views, but I’m not a politician or an expert or an activist. Maybe I can give people 90 minutes of something — of silence, of grief — and then we can find a way to really talk about it. That’s what I can do.”
This story has been corrected since it was originally posted.
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.